Recently I’ve spent the greater part of my inworld time attending classes and completing lab activities for the Sloan Consortium workshop “Intermediate Second Life for Educators.” In it I acquired such pedagogical skills as how to teleport a class to a specific location (for a field trip, say), make gift boxes filled with supplies for new students, and create entire class-meeting spaces that can be rezzed with a single click. Pretty cool!
My other virtual experiences during this time took place in Palestine and Libya – not inworld but in two paperback books: Raja Shehadeh’s memoir Strangers in the House and Hisham Matar’s novel In the Country of Men. A colleague and I presented these to our students in a 6-credit learning community called “Imagining a Better World,” which integrates two courses, Studies in International Literature and Global Social Problems. Among other global issues, we’re looking at political “hot spots,” and Palestine and Libya certainly fit that description.
Blessed with the leisure of an uncrowded weekend, I decided to explore Second Life (SL) sites related to these books’ settings and have visited four Palestinian regions so far. In this post I focus on Strangers in the House and SL Palestine. My goal today is to introduce you to the book and to show you a few snapshots I took while visiting SL Palestinian sites. Sometime soon I hope to prepare a post on Matar’s In the Country of Men and SL Libya.
Raja Shehadeh’s Strangers in the House (2002) is “the first memoir of its kind of a Palestinian living in the Occupied Territories” (PressTV’s Epilogue on YouTube). Shehadeh chronicles other firsts. For example, the author’s father Aziz Shehadeh was the first to propose a two-state solution – immediately following the fall of Ramallah in June 1967. The author was the first Western-educated lawyer to return to the West Bank to practice law after the Nakba (the 1948 defeat and exile of the Palestinian Arabs). And the author, along with Charles Shammas and Jonathan Kuttab, founded the first Palestinian human rights organization, Al-Haq, an NGO “established in 1979 to protect and promote human rights and the rule of law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory” (Al Haq website; I highly recommend taking this site’s Virtual Field Visits, especially the one called “Impact of the Annexation Wall”).
Strangers in the House made a huge impact on me. For years I didn’t question the Israeli bias of American media; Palestine and suicide bombers were linked in my mind. Nor did I question the Zionist claim to Israel as the Jewish promised land. About ten years ago, though, like many others I began paying more attention to the Middle East. The possibility of war in Iraq horrified me; I knew it was wrong, partly because my main source of global news was NPR, which often provides in-depth background to and analyses of situations, as well as interviews with experts – academics and others who actually know something (imagine that :^). Again and again Middle East experts referred to the Palestine-Israel conflict as a major factor in the militant Arab hostility toward the West. I grew curious about the Palestinian side of the conflict and, along and along, have learned more.
Shehadeh’s compelling memoir provides a unique opportunity to see what it was like for a Christian Palestinian from a relatively privileged family to grow up in the West Bank. In part, it’s a coming-of-age story and includes detailed reflections on the effects family stories of life before exile to Ramallah had on him; on his educational and professional experiences, as well as on an interlude at an Indian ashram; and especially on his longing for and attempts to gain his father’s approval.
Given how sensational news coverage can be, daily life in Palestine, Shehadeh tells us, is far “less dramatic and more staid” than Americans might think. For example, while visiting Palestinian emigrants in America, he almost felt the need “to apologize for a deficiency of tragedy in my life” (144). Despite his family’s enormous losses and the nostalgia that can follow loss, their social network was strong; his father Aziz was a distinguished (and controversial) lawyer for whom both Jewish and Palestinian doors opened. Yet Raja, a human rights advocate and lawyer, was keenly aware of the daily humiliations and tragedies which many of his compatriots endured. Tragedy, however, did strike the family: Aziz was murdered in 1985, and Israeli police seemed uninterested in solving the crime.
What impressed me the most were Shehadeh’s and his father’s clear-sighted perspectives on the Palestinian situation. One of the memoir’s recurring themes was that the Palestinians were not doing enough to help themselves: “Instead of developing a vital life in whatever was left for us, we wandered throughout the world complaining, like the Ancient Mariner stopping every wedding guest to tell our story” (65). Nor did their Arab neighboring states seem to be doing enough; Aziz saw them as wanting “to keep the Palestinians in bondage and continue to have the threat of war as a justification for not making long-overdue political changes within their own countries” (51) – almost an Arab Spring prophecy. In fact, Aziz did prophesize that Palestine’s future would not be good if “the threatening talk against the Israeli state by those who couldn’t pose a real military threat” persisted; after all, “Israel could continue its harsh measures against the local population using security as a justification” (180), which remains the case today.
While Shehadeh admired aspects of Israel, particularly the efficient, “clean and well administered” courts with their “helpful, at ease, comfortable” officials (138), he was appalled at Israeli disregard for international law, a disregard that included torturing detainees imprisoned for minor infractions. He described the spread of Jewish settlements outside of Ramallah: bulldozers leveled the hills, prefabs popped up overnight, and bypasses for Jews-only were built: “an apartheid-type system of law was developing before my eyes” (170). “To bear witness and urge others to do likewise” became Shehadeh’s mission (172), which Al-Haq continues today.
The best I can tell from my virtual explorations today, Palestinians and their neighbors in other Arab countries have considerable presence in Second Life. By no means are all of those places as serious and solemn as those above; rather a number of Arab islands focus on entertainment — music, dancing, games, athletic activities, art, and/or shopping. In fact, the first island that I visited, Freedom Palestine, combines politics and fun.