A Narrative of Resistance

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Turmoil

Sometimes I feel consumed by anger, perhaps I ought to say by RAGE, a rage of unfathomable limits! Witnessing what is happening in our world today, particularly in the Middle East, and how our societies are being completely dismantled by the hegemony of big powers according to decisions made in clandestine meetings for the purpose of unlawfully depleting the Middle East of all of its resources – whether those be economic, human, historical or other – challenges my basic belief in a just God!

My Background

I grew up as a Christian Palestinian Arab and was educated in a Christian British missionary school in Beirut, Lebanon. I completed my undergraduate degree in philosophy at Beirut University College. Years later, I obtained my master of arts and my PhD from McGill University in Montreal, Canada where I resided for seventeen years as a mother, researcher and activist. Western education and the English language played prominent roles in my life, not least of which was the dedication of my doctoral dissertation to the exploration of this very experience of having been educated in a post-colonial era in a language and intellectual climate that completely disregarded my ethnicity, national roots and heritage and taught me the history, culture and literature of colonial powers rather than my own. [1]

My parents were very nationalistic and liberal Arab Christian Palestinians who were (ironically) lucky enough to procure the Lebanese passport during an era when Lebanon wanted to increase its Christian population; they belonged to the Episcopalian Church that had become the Arab local alternative to the British Anglican Church. My parents’ religious and national Arab heritage, which was a mixture of an Arab Christian faith embedded in an Arab Islamic civilization, led me to grow up with a tenuous religiosity but a strong spirituality: a deep faith in Christ that dovetailed with a deep respect for the values of my Arab Islamic society, albeit a conflicted spirituality that sought to marry reason with intuition and emotion. I grew up appreciating Western culture, the English language and the democratic values in secular societies and a concomitant love for my Palestinian Arab culture and heritage, our Arabic language, and a great respect for Islam as a religion. Since I learnt from my parents and community that our area of the world had not experienced sectarianism until the advent of colonialism, I learnt to value Arab nationalism and Arab unity as legitimate aspirations that would facilitate constructive growth and great progress in our area of the world. The values I discuss were engrained in us as we were growing up and we shared them with many other Palestinian and Lebanese families, both Moslem and Christian.[2]

The Cradle of Civilization

Our community of likeminded people who shared our history believed that divisiveness was entrenched in the area through political manoeuvrings and culminated in the Sykes-Picot Agreement in May of 1916. The political maneuverings of the British and the French allowed for the inception of great instability in this area that has been described as the cradle of civilization by the West.[3] Bronze Age Mesopotamia (“land of rivers,” between the Tigris and the Euphrates, or what is modern-day Iraq with Kuwait, the north-eastern part of Syria, and to a lesser extent south-eastern Turkey and smaller parts of south-western Iran) historically included Sumer, the Akkadian, Babylonian, and Assyrian Empires, gave the world much since the beginning of written history. The Middle East which historically has spanned an area that included in addition to Mesopotamia, the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula, Asia Minor and the Iranian Plateau is an area that has spawned many cultures and undergone complex events, since it is at the crossroads of global civilizations. The inception of much of the rich heritage of the Middle East, South East Asia and the West spanning the areas of language and writing, science and technology – including mathematics, astronomy, and medicine – as well as philosophy, law and architecture took place in Mesopotamia. That land together with the larger Syria (which included Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan, and which was often called “Al Hilal al Khaseeb” or the Fertile Crescent) is considered the birthplace of all monotheistic religions in the world. Arab intellectuals generally view sectarianism and confessional thinking as aberrations that had been instituted and nurtured by colonial and imperial powers in the Middle East serving specific political and economic interests. Our Christian Arab communities had for centuries experienced the compassion and respect of the Moslem societies in which our ancestors had co-existed with Moslem and Jewish communities. We had also enjoyed the rich intellectual and cultural products of the merging of civilizations within that area of the world.

In the Niche of the Cradle

I have always considered myself to be a spiritual rather than a religious person. That is why as a mother I attempted to create balance for my children; I have always been keen on disseminating the important values of both Arab Christianity and Arab Islam to them, particularly since their late father was a Moslem Palestinian. They needed to be aware of the totality of their heritage and background. Growing up in the West, my children benefitted from living in a society where church and state enjoyed separate magisteria. They also experienced the importance and uniqueness of the Canadian multicultural philosophy that is entrenched in the Canadian Constitution and that is applied in government policies and practices through mandatory edicts of law. Today my sons know full well what it means ‘to put oneself in the shoes of the other,’ and I believe they deeply understand how humans are connected in this world in more ways than we can comprehend; they understand how anything that takes place anywhere within this globe will eventually have a ripple effect on all other areas.

Assaulted by Terror and Evil

Today we are swarmed and assaulted by all kinds of violent imagery from the internet, television, and the iphone. It is becoming increasingly difficult for me and millions like me to fend off these images and block them from our minds. The brutality of the imagery and language constantly attacking our sensibilities causes me great distress and anxiety. Today, any individual no matter what her race, religion, nationality or ethnicity cannot but shudder at the sight of merciless and brutal killings committed by groups in cold blood in the name of God (!!) and filmed on camera for all to see! Today, any person with an ounce of compassion cannot sit still while horrors like what is happening in Iraq, Syria and Gaza continue to cloud our awareness and inhabit our consciousness. How do we fend off all of this? What do we do as we face this tsunami of death, torture, starvation and humiliation of whole societies of innocent civilians, the demolition of churches, mosques, houses and homes and the eradication of whole cultures, icons, symbols as well as the literary, intellectual and spiritual heritage of communities that have been residing peacefully and thriving in this area of the world for more than two thousand years?

The Moral and Spiritual Challenge

This is a huge spiritual, intellectual and emotional challenge! Can one live with oneself if one shuts all of this out and lives in a cocoon pretending such evil resides in a remote place and does not impact one? Does one immerse oneself in activism and dedicate oneself to speaking out, writing, demonstrating, and creating awareness in whatever environment one finds oneself in? Is that how one achieves balance and spiritual atonement? Does one resign to the notion that the perpetration of violence has been consistent throughout history and that – as Professor Steven Pinker argued in one TED Talk filmed in March of 2007 – violence has not increased but rather decreased in the world?? Can one resign oneself to this notion that violence has always been a part of human nature and that we are simply becoming more aware of it today via virtual information networks? I find that very hard to do. I find myself unable to not put myself in the shoes of the other, the other who suffers so greatly and deeply.

The questions multiply and expand. I believe that at the core of living a moral life if not a spiritual life is asking such questions and actively seeking answers. How do we educate our young to reject violence? How do we teach our young that there are better ways to resolve differences when our societies have failed to set examples of that during our own lifetimes? Are we deluding our descendants and the inheritors of our heritage when we speak about celebrating difference rather than merely tolerating difference?[4] What kinds of values do we expect will shape our students and future generations as they continue to live in a world whose economy is based on the sale of arms, the creation of wars, engagement in ethnic cleansing, sexual slavery, and the wiping out and marginalization of minorities, a world that does not shy away from the creation of hundreds if not thousands of United Nations resolutions that are rarely adhered to or implemented (a case in point being Palestine) since, in the game of nations, the powerful and the rich forbid accountability and transparency when it does not suit their own specific interests?

A plethora of questions haunt me as I am sure they haunt many readers and citizens within this global village.

Is there Hope in Education?

Sometimes I think the answer may lie in a new kind of education – as Sam Keen suggested more than forty years ago and whose book To a dancing god (1970)[5] I continue to find timely. Should we not teach wisdom besides knowledge in our schools and universities and is wisdom something we can teach? Is an education in compassion the answer, as Keen and other writers and theologians have maintained? Can we as educators seek to be living models of what it means to lead a balanced life? Is the answer actually in the notion of balance or moderation, as Aristotle affirmed more than two thousand years ago? Or is the answer in adhering to categorical imperatives such as those laid out by Immanuel Kant that establish minimum ethical standards by which we can abide as a universal community rather than plunging into egoism and trespassing on the freedom of others? Are we really a universal community or is the coined nomenclature “globalization” a farce that merely allows the powerful nations to dictate to the poorer ones and to rob them of their resources?

Should an education in plurality, multiculturalism, and compassion be our priority and ought it be mandatorily instituted in all elementary and high-schools instead of math, science, reading and writing? Is an education in the arts a guarantee against dogmatism and didactic thinking, religious fanaticism, on the one hand, and rigid positivism on the other? Has not the second half of the twentieth century been dedicated to experimentation with educational methodology? Have schools really created generations in democratic countries who are more sensitive and compassionate and who have more awareness of the trials and tribulations of others? Why are thousands of disenchanted youth in the West not shying away from joining the most fanatic religious movements in the Middle East and immersing themselves in horrific and immoral practices that defy all religious and moral tenets? What is all of this a symptom of? Is that not a symptom of defeatism, nihilism, the total loss of a moral compass and a great spiritual vacuum?

Is the key to compassion an expansion of what we mean by theology to include liberation theology that seeks equality, true freedom for all, and democracy rather than literal adherence to religious texts? Can one agree with Joseph Campbell that literal adherence to religious texts causes religious and sectarian conflicts and that we need to explore religion as metaphor as I did when I explored the spiritual aspects of Campbell’s hermeneutics in mythology?[6] Does the key lie in the search for authenticity rather than the accumulation of knowledge? How can we create an educational system that contains enough space for true freedom of thought and expression, individual creativity and innovation and which responds concomitantly to economic and pragmatic societal needs? Are societies that do not value artistic and literary expression short-changing their young?


An Education in Resistance?

What is the meaning of resistance? Is resistance a physical, psychological, emotional, intellectual, or spiritual concept or, is it a combination of all of these? How do we resist while guarding our sanity and our spirituality? Is not resistance comprised of daily effort and endeavour?

In a keynote speech I gave at the Society of Philosophy and History of Education Conference in St. Louis, Missouri in September of 2011(Drake Lecture, 2012), I put the onus on educators; I reiterated Edward Said’s question in Representations of the Intellectual[7] “[H]ow does one speak the truth? What truth? For whom and where?” (1994, p. 88) I do believe in the capacity of educators to coin what is of priority for the societies they live in but I think their voices need to be heard; perhaps educators need to believe in themselves more and become really loud and outspoken, they need to take the reign of leadership wherever they are located. I believe that educators need to be more implicated in the creation of citizenship, and that they can plant those seeds of compassion and create the needed awareness of what it means to be democratic, how to seek equality and freedom from oppression, how to resist and eradicate fanaticism and apartheid, and, how to live a balanced life. I may sound too optimistic and idealistic but educators can teach resistance since they have at their disposal young lives and young minds that they are able to mould and shape like clay through their daily contact with students.

The educator’s role today has become triple fold: she/he is the old shaman and seer, the disseminator of knowledge, and the perpetuator of values. Instead of merely teaching math and physics, talk about the constructive use of those sciences – reaching the moon, exploring the beginnings of the universe[8] fending off debris that could hit and destroy earth and exploring other planets…Teach The Tao of physics as has the great physicist and educator Fritjof Capra[9] and facilitate for your students the discovery of connections between Far Eastern spirituality and physics! Do not merely teach biology, chemistry, and neurology, but discuss with students brain chemistry and how many within their own families or among their friends may be afflicted with any kind of brain chemistry imbalance (depression, anxiety, bi-polar disease), how important and pressing the need is to detect those; discuss with them how research is allowing us to move into genetic engineering and the eradication of many diseases…Do not merely teach psychology but help students discover their own ailments, articulate their own anxieties, and seek medical help when they need it…Teach the commonalities among human experiences and the ubiquitous phenomena of worry, fear of failure, fear of death, the feeling of alienation, and the search for identity. Discuss with your students the existential malaise that permeates many young lives and the disappointments that they may encounter and how to handle them…Discuss with your students in psychology and sociology how interconnected we are as humans all over the globe…how human concerns, legitimate worries and deep fears are shared by millions of people…Teach ecology and environment, teach the love of nature and indulge in how humans can learn so much from the organized and systematic operations within nature whether among animals or plants, the systems view of life[10] that allows for balance to be maintained in it…Explain to your students how we humans assault nature and destroy it and seek to control it and end up creating huge upheavals in ecological systems the consequences of which we are witnessing every day in climactic changes, tsunamis, tornadoes, and meltdowns from the Arctic…Do not teach your students to memorize religious texts but rather teach them the metaphors embedded in these texts and the lessons one can learn from them; allow them to articulate those stories in modern day language…

Resisting is Living the Spiritual Life

Last but not least, teach your students to tell their own stories for in the telling there may be liberation and healing, in the telling may reside the insights, in the telling there may be a comprehension of a novel world-view, in the telling there may be the discovery of a paradigm shift…In the telling there may be a recognition that the human being who is assaulted, bombed, exterminated, or being slaughtered like sheep on camera today may be someone you know or, it may be you in the near future….We are connected in more ways than we can understand and that is what spirituality is about, the discovery that the other and I are one. Living the spiritual life is living fully and resisting!

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[1] Costandi, S. (2013). A Palestinian Canadian Educator’s Narrative Inquiry. LAP LAMBERT Academic Publishing: Sarbrucken, Germany.

[2] My classmates and I – from the Lebanese Evangelical School for Girls – continue to meet on a yearly basis in Lebanon. This Christian missionary school hosted hundreds of Moslem girls. We feel no difference between us; we share a common educational culture, as well as a commonalty in world-views and values.

[3] As is acknowledged by great historians like the late Philip Hitti and Albert Hourani and the current Eugene Rogan.

[4] Professor Ratna Ghosh who holds the Order of Quebec and the Order of Canada and the McDonald Chair in Education at McGill emphasizes celebrating rather than tolerating difference.

[5] Keen, S. (1970). To a dancing god. New York: Harper & Row.

[6] Costandi, S. The spiritual aspects of Joseph Campbell’s hermeneutics in mythology. Unpublished Master’s Thesis. McGill Faculty of Education, 1994.

[7] Said, E. (1994). Representations of the intellectual. New York: Pantheon.

[8] As in the European Organization for Nuclear Research known as CERN.

[9] Capra, F. (1975, 1983, 1991, 1999). The Tao of physics: An exploration of the parallels between modern physics and Eastern mysticism. Boston, Massachusetts:Shambhala Publications.

[10] Capra, F. (1982). The turning point: Science, society and the rising culture. New York: Bantam Books.

Gaza Die-in in front of Montreal NDP office. Photo by Rana Bose.
Gaza Die-in in front of Montreal NDP office. Photo by Rana Bose.