When I was just a young, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, 1st year medical student, in the University of Newcastle, I got into a heated argument with another medical student regarding the issue of Palestine.
Jerusalem belongs to whom, was the matter of contention between the two of us in the Auchmuty Library that morning. It ended up with me feeling battered and stupid. In general, I hate losing a debate. I hate even more when I lose an argument on issues that matter a lot.
And on that day, I felt like I had lost this particular argument on Palestine. And Palestine matters. A lot!
You see, I was young and fiery. (ehem, I’m still relatively young but less fiery nowadays. Haha… I think). I had more sentiment than facts. And in the end, I lost because I didn’t have enough facts to back me up.
Every debater knows that excellent research is the most crucial aspect of your preparation before you engage your opponent in an argument. Not just any research… but excellent research. Your oratory skills, the inflection of your voice, your outward appearance…. they are merely the icing on the cake of your substantial facts! If you don’t have facts, you will most certainly lose regardless of how much charm you can ooze out of your pores!
However, in my own defense, I didn’t know that I was going to get into a debate of the issue on that day. (Or else I would have done my research like any good debater out there.)
It began as a normal day; me being in the library doing my studying and checking out the news from the internet in between. It began as a discussion on current issues and it so happened that the topic of Palestine cropped up between us. What began as a friendly discussion ended up in a heated snappy comebacks that I was totally unprepared for.
I wanted to educate him so that he could stop spewing biased, unlearned views regarding the Palestine-Israel conflict. I told him that historically, Palestine belonged to the Palestinians. I told him that Post-World War II, the British had given away Palestine to the Jews when the British had no rights to do so.
He came back at me vehemently and said “Come on! Who are you to say that Palestine belongs to the Palestinian? Just because your Quran says so? But according to the Bible and the Torah, that land belongs to the Jews. God gives the land to the Jews thousands of years ago. So which should we follow? The Quran or the Bible or the Torah?”
Okay, he had a point. Muslims cannot say Palestine belongs to them by making the Quran as their reference because then the Jews and the Christians will say Palestine belongs to them by making the Old and the New Testament as their point of reference. And we will then end up arguing in circles because neither party believes in the other’s holy book.
“No, I am not basing my argument based on anybody’s holy book. But historical facts show that the Palestinians had taken in the Jews who had escaped the Holocaust in Europe and welcomed them into Palestine in good faith. Before the Bristish Mandate, Palestine belonged to the Palestinians.”
He scoffed at me and said “And if you want to talk about history…. Sure, before World War I, Palestine was the land of the Palestinians. But thousands of years ago before it was the land of the Muslims, it was also the land of the Jews and the Christians. Before Umar won the war….Jerusalem did not belong to the Muslims, it was the land of the Christians! And then Umar won the war and Muslims then ruled Jerusalem for a time. And then during the Crusades…. the Christians got the land back from the Muslims. And after that, Salahuddin won the land back from the Christians! So historically speaking, should we establish who got the rights to the land based on who FIRST arrived on the land? Because it was not the Muslims who first arrived on the land! Muslims got it much later…because of Umar and Salahuddin!”
I knew I was losing the argument. He had more facts than I did.
He went on to ‘educate’ me in his patronizing tone, “In the case of the Palestine, the land is claimed by three major religions as theirs. Whoever conquers the land would own the land. Once upon a time, the Muslims had wrestled away Palestine from the Christians. And now, the Jews have wrestled away the land from the Muslims. So, whoever wins the land gets to keep the land. It so happens that at this time, the Jews are winning instead of the Muslims.”
In my mind, I hastily reviewed my knowledge on Palestine history. My brain was working in overdrive, trying to recall the historical chronology:
“Mula-mula Saidina Umar dapatkan Palestin, kemudian Palestin dirampas balik oleh Christians through the Crusades. Kemudian Salahuddin Al-Ayubi dapatkan kembali Palestin. Palestin kemudian memang dimiliki oleh orang Islam berkurun2 lamanya hingga Sultan Hamid II daripada Khalifah Uthmaniyah jatuh…World War I happened… Balfour Declaration 1917 happened ….after World War I, Kerajaan Uthmaniyah dipecah-pecahkan… Palestine jatuh ke tangan British and British Mandate in 1922…. Sistem Khalifah dibubarkan 1924….Then British bagi Palestine kepada Yahudi… Palestinian Exodus/ Nakba pada tahun 1948…. We lost the 6-day Arab-Israeli War 1967…” As I recited the chronology in my brain, I realized how patchy my historical knowledge really was. I didn’t know any real details in any real certainty… because I did not have the opportunity to do a proper and thorough research. And I am the sort of person who is very bad at bluffing or faking it when I don’t know something. I can only sound confident when I really am confident. And I can only be confident if I am convinced. And I can only be convinced if I have read the facts and done the proper research myself. (Other people telling me the facts do not convince me. I have to search and do it myself and read it with my own eyes. That’s my problem.) It is the process, you see! I need to go through the whole process of research before I can be convinced enough to be confident and to sound confident.That’s just how I am. (Yes, I am a control freak with trust issues! Hahah)
Unfortunately at that time, I did not have enough facts and I felt like a fool!
I broke a sweat and in my heart I knew “Aku tak boleh nak bagi argument bahawa Palestin tu milik orang Islam hanya kerana orang Islam lagi lama duduk di Palestin. Sebab sejarah Palestin ialah ia sentiasa direbut dan siapa yang menang, dia yang dapat. Aku tak boleh deny yang argument dia tu valid and logic. Damn, I am stuck!!”
At the end, I could only say to him “Fine, then don’t call the Muslims terrorist. They are trying to fight back for the land and when they win, the land will be theirs. Because according to your views, whoever wins the war for the land could claim the land. So, stop calling the Hamas terrorist while calling the Zionist as the victims. It is a war between them that is yet to end. It is the battle for the holy land.”
We went our separate ways after that. I packed my books, got out of the library and went back to my hostel at Edwards College, abandoning my plans to study in the library…because I knew I would not be able to focus on my studying anyway. On my long walk back to the college, I was fuming with suppressed anger. Mostly anger at myself! I replayed in my mind the scene of our heated altercation. I analyzed where had I gone wrong.
And after awhile, I realized that from the very beginning I was destined to lose because I had taken the wrong angle. I had said, “Palestine belongs to the Palestinians.” I said that in a way that people would say “Tanah Melayu milik orang Melayu.”
The truth is, no land belongs to any particular race. That’s why “Go back to where you come from” is a stupid thing to say to someone . Once your ancestors have migrated to another land and breed generation upon generation there, then you belong there! But the land is not yours for you to deny anyone! You belong there…. but the land is not yours! You cannot tell anyone else to go back wherever….because it is not yours!
Can the Native Red Indians say to the White American to go back to the UK because America was originally their land? After all these centuries? Can the aboriginals say to the White Australian to go back to the UK because Australia was originally their land? After all these centuries? Can the Malays say to the Indians/Chinese to go back to India/China? After all these centuries?
Can I say, “Palestine belongs to the Palestinians, so the Israelis should go back to wherever they came from before the World War I, before the Holocaust… back to Poland/German or wherever their ancestors had come from?”
It doesn’t matter how brutally unfair and cruel the method of land acquisition by your ancestors were (talk to the aboriginals in Australia regarding how the White Australians had murdered their native ancestors), but once decades have passed, and generation upon generation have existed in the land, then you belong there just as much as the generation of the original native.
If we were all to go back to where our ancestors came from… well, we all can trace our ancestors to Adam and Eve. And they had come from the heaven. And when you think about it, that’s where we all want to go back to…. we all want to go back to heaven. Right? In this world, we all come from the same ancestor, and therefore the same place… there is no particular place for anyone to go back to in this world. So no one should be able to tell us to go back to somewhere else! Once the migration process have fulfilled the legal requirements of the man-made law, you and your generation belong to the place you have migrated to. It is up to you and and your generation to make the best out of the migration…. to assimilate and integrate into the society as you see fit. (Many Muslims staying in the West have experienced numerous times being told to go back to the middle east. Haha. I myself had experienced such audacious rudeness when I was in Australia. So, next time some impudent rednecks shout at you “Go back to where you come from.” You can just say, “Yes, I am planning to go back to heaven where my ancestors come from. Thank you for your concern.”)
When I arrived at my room, I sat on my bed in silence while acknowledging to myself how stupid I was. I deserved to lose. Because my knowledge regarding Palestine was laughable! Spirit and passion alone would not win against cold, hard facts! I called myself as a Muslim… and yet my knowledge about Palestine was superficial at best, and paltry at worst! No wonder I had lost!
It was a wake-up call for me.
Maybe God wanted me to lose, I thought. So that I would learn. Just because I thought I was arguing for the right cause, it didn’t mean my lack of knowledge was forgivable. I had no business getting into an argument about something important like this without having enough substantial knowledge at the tip of my fingers and I knew it! (Oh yeah, how much I had learned on that day!)
It dawned on me that I should have taken the angle of justice. Not the angle of land belonging! Because no one can argue with justice! Whereas land belonging is something arbitrary and arguing on it will lead us nowhere.
I should have said, “Yes, throughout the history, whoever wins the war gets the land! But Saidina Umar had never stolen the homes of the Christians and gave them to the Muslims. Unlike what the Zionists are doing now… taking the home of the Palestinians by force and simply giving them to the Jews without any rights, violating multiple International Laws countless times! Salahuddin Al-Ayubi did not terrorize the civilians, and did not bomb hospitals and holy buildings. In fact, he had reformed military and war ethics in his days. The land of the Palestine could have been shared by all three Abrahamic religions, and before the British Mandate, that was exactly what had taken place. All three major religions had lived in Jerusalem in peace. The Muslims even helped the Jews escaped from the Holocaust in Europe, remember?! Saidina Umar and Salahuddin Al-Ayubi won Palestine by winning the war with honour! Not through cruel trickery, savage land hijacking and barbarous land occupation.”
I should have said, “If you knew history so well, you would be familiar with the Covenant of Umar which was also recognized by the West. It was the assurance of safety by Umar to the non-Muslims after he obtained Jerusalem! And the history of Salahuddin Al-Ayubi with Richard the Lion Heart are stuff of legends that is also recognised by the West….the history of Salahuddin has been made into numerous Hollywood films… showing that Muslims had dealt with the Jews and Christians with justice, integrity and honour! The issue of Palestine is not the issue of land belonging. It is the issue of justice!”
The Covenant of Umar
The text as reported by al-Tabari:
In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. This is the assurance of safety [aman] which the servant of God Umar, the Commander of the Faithful, has given to the people of Jerusalem. He has given them an assurance of safety for themselves, for their property, their churches, their crosses, the sick and healthy of the city and for all the rituals which belong to their religion. Their churches will not be inhabited by Muslims and will not be destroyed. Neither they, nor the land on which they stand, nor their cross, nor their property will be damaged. They will not be forcibly converted. No Jew will live with them in Jerusalem.
The people of Jerusalem must pay the taxes (jizya) like the people of other cities and must expel the Byzantines and the robbers. Those of the people of Jerusalem who want to leave with the Byzantines, take their property and abandon their churches and crosses will be safe until the reach their place of refuge. The villagers [ahl al-ard, who had taken refuge in the city at the time of the conquest] may remain in the city if they wish but must pay taxes like the citizens. Those who wish may go with the Byzantines and those who wish may return to their families. Nothing is to be taken from them before their harvest is reaped.
If they pay their taxes according to their obligations, then the conditions laid out in this letter are under the covenant of God, are the responsibility of His Prophet, of the caliphs and of the faithful.
I wanted to smack my head. So typical of me to start having so many ideas about what I should have said after the argument was already done and dusted! It is too late for brilliant ideas now, Afiza. You lost! Accept it! Move on!
And I moved on. But this time, I moved on with an action plan.
I studied the history of Palestine. I attended talks about Palestine given by my alim, knowledgeable seniors who were dedicated members of IKRAM/ISMA. Every year they would organize the same talks and the same seminars for the new first year juniors and I never failed to join. (At that time, I did not yet join their usrah groups. I could not commit to it… I was cautious about committing to any particular group. But I always joined their Palestine seminars which was opened to the general non-usrah Muslims. I only started joining usrah when I was in my 4th year of Med school… when most of my friends already joined in when they were only in the first year. It took my seniors 4 years to convince me to participate in their usrah and finally my heart cracked open. Hahah. Yup… I am stubborn and I like to observe and think for myself and come up with my own conclusion before I commit to anything. I was afraid that if I commit to a group, then I cannot be free to think for myself. In psychiatry, this is called group thinking, although at that time I did not yet know what label to give to my hesitation to join them, until I learned about group thinking and group dynamics for my Part A exam last year. I was afraid that I would lose my identity and my freedom. Silly me, yeah? It turned out that joining them was one of the most enlightening episode of my life.I should have joined sooner. As I mentioned before, this is my problem. I don’t want to listen to others. I need to go through the process and come to the conclusion myself. And as a result, I always end up taking a longer, circuitous route… but I believe, this is also a more satisfying route, because I can say that I do something based on my sincere, heartfelt conviction! I am not just going with the flow, following the herd.)
I was intrigued by my seniors’ enthusiasm regarding the movement for BDS (Boycott, Divestments and Sanction). I stopped drinking Coke or eating McD. I chose Gloria Jeans over Starbucks. (Sadly, when I returned to Malaysia, my resolve is occasionally weakened, I must admit. There are times when I couldn’t say no to Coke. Or Starbucks. But at least, my frequency of buying them were heaps less than it would have been if I did not support the BDS. I still need to work on strengthening the muscle of my will. Sometimes I lost the battle… and I bought myself the Java Chip drink. Oh well.)
During Islamic Awareness Week, I prepared myself by reading on many hot issues (Palestine Issues, The Rights of Muslim Women, Terrorism In Islam, Polygamy, etc etc) so that I wouldn’t stutter and stumble when I answered the questions of non-Muslims as they gathered at our booth. It was part of my duty as the treasurer of the Newcastle Islamic Society to man the booth with a couple of other Muslim students. We created a timetable that would not clash with our classes and we took turns being in the booth, promoting Islamic awareness. This is something I would never have done if I were studying in Malaysia. It was in Australia that I learned to interact rather than making holier-than-thou religious preach. (I believe, that preaching doesn’t work, especially with people like me. Interaction does! If you want to change, it must come from within, triggered by an interaction you experienced with someone. I was triggered to learn about Palestine because of my interaction with someone who had made me angry….in other words, I changed NOT because someone had preached to me. Something MUST happen inside myself first.)
When I was in my 4th year, one of the seniors asked me whether this time, I would like to be the presenter for one of the Palestinian talk for the juniors. I said yes, I would do it. In my talk, I went through the history of Palestine which I had taken special care to know and understand inside out (after that humiliating encounter when I was in my first year) and in my talk I took particular steps to highlight on how we should tackle the issue of Palestine when we talk to the non-Muslims.
See? There was a reason I lost the argument… so that I would be motivated to learn my stuff properly and pass on the knowledge.
It is true that we learn more through failures than successes.
I was in my 5th year when the Gaza Flotila Raid by Israel occurred in 2010. The Turkish ship Mavi Marmara, which was a civilian ship bringing aid to the Palestinians, were attacked by the Israel Navy in May 2010. The attack by the Israel Navy was bravely resisted by the civilians on the ship; nine activists died and many were wounded. Some of them on the ship were Malaysians.
I was about to face my final exam at that time, dealing with a lot of stress and pressure. But when I read on the tragedy in BBC news and Al-Jazeera, I realized that nothing about this world was worth feeling stressed about. “Other people in other parts of the world are fighting for their livelihood with courage and honour! And here I am, thinking that my life is so hard just because I have to face an exam! You should be ashamed of yourself, Afiza.” I had berated myself.
And today, after a few days of nursing my anger and resentment towards Trump,to quote Celine Dion, “it’s all coming back to me now”. How when I was a medical student, I had promised that I would not lose my interest in the Palestinian cause. How I had promised that I would do something worthy as a Muslim just like those activists in the Mavi Marmara had done. How I had promised I would try to persist with my boycott.
Well…. I did break those promises. Shamefully, I did.
I think, my spirit has lost its fiery enthusiasm since I returned to Malaysia. I am back to my pre-Australia selfish self who did not care about things other than myself and my career and my exam. I couldn’t remember the last time I clicked on the website ‘The Electronic Intifada’, which I used to visit every day when I was a medical student. And nowadays, I am not that strict with my boycott anymore.
My God….truthfully, I have lost my idealism after housemanship. I am no longer that wide-eyed, bushy-tailed eager youth so many years ago who had cared about the suffering of other Muslims.
What have happened to me? I wonder, sometimes.
I guess, housemanship happened.
Adulthood and responsibilities happened.
Life happened… we drifted apart.
I lost contact with good people of good hearts. Some of them are still in Australia, continuing to educate new juniors, building foundations for future leaders who, hopefully, would not forget to care.
Maybe Trump’s announcement to recognize Jerusalem as the new capital of Israel could jump start my idealism and enthusiasm all over again….
Maybe this anger and restlessness would fuel me to stop dreaming, start reading useful materials and stick to reality. (I still remember the soft voice of my senior when she said, “Cubalah Afiza baca buku pengisian juga. Muslim ni berjiwa besar… dan dia kena ambil berat benda-benda yang besar.” Maybe that was why I didn’t want to join usrah in the first place. I knew I was not ready to change. I knew that when I finally joined them, I would feel the pressure to change… but I didn’t want to.)
I know I should read again the history of Palestine that I had forgotten. Read the sirah! Read on jihad and struggle!
I know I should read real stuff…
So that perhaps, I would start caring again.
Because The Chronicles of Jerusalem is still ongoing; its journey is long and torturous, fraught with trials and troubles. But like all other great chronicles of the world, its ending is promised to be sweet and victorious.