Sat side by side, 7 internationals looked on into a dimly lit room. Four swedes, one Norwegian and two Brits huddled together on a worn out sofa that was creaking under the collective weight. Our host, Ahmed Jaber welcomed us into his house which was due for demolition any time in the coming days. He was anxious and he eyes darted between us. As is customary he started by asking his guests to introduce themselves:
Swede 1: “My name is Alex, I am from Sweden”
Ahmed: “You are welcome and thank you for everything you and your country is doing”
Swede 2: “My name is” etc etc
Ahmed: (laughing) “Your country does so much, they send many people”
The perceived comedy in this situation is amplified as a third and then fourth person introduce themselves as Swedish. Eventually though the introductions moved on:
Norwegian: “My name is Helene and I am from Norway”
Ahmed: “You are welcome and thank you for all that your country has done – apart from Oslo of course” (Cue a little bit more laughter)
Me: “My name is Steve and I am from Britain”
Ahmed: “Oh” (awkward silence) “You know this is all your fault, do you know about Balfour”
I smiled, nodded and let the proceeding silence, accompanied as it was with a wee bit of awkwardness fill the room.
This awkward “you know it is all the British fault” moment wasn’t a new experience for me. Believe or not, a couple of centuries of imperialistic foreign policy have left some less than positive impressions around the world. Almost a century later most Palestinians have not forgiven our then Foreign Secretary, Lord Balfour, for offering Zionists a homeland in what was then British Mandate Palestine.
What makes the Israel/Palestine conflict different though is that both sides seem to hate the British – our history does not lend itself to friendship with either side.
Things could be worse though, I could be German. A German colleague I worked closely with regularly had the uncomfortable situation of being told by Palestinians, “I love Germany, Hitler was great but he should have finished the job”. How do you respond to that? On occasion I responded saying, “please don’t joke about such things” knowing all too well that many were not joking.
These experiences left me with a minor identity crisis. Was I English, British, White, Christian, European or what? I tried a couple of times, “my name is Steve and I am from the people’s free republic of Gloucestershire” but this was invariably met with a look of confusion.
The problem is that I don’t feel very “British” – I have little or no connection with 50% of Britain (Wales and Northern Ireland). My father’s Scottish and I have a ginger beard as a result, but I don’t feel very Scottish. Yet, in many ways I have more in common with my Scottish family than I do with most people living in England. This is without starting on the sociological question of what makes someone “English/Scottish/British”.
I don’t have anything in common with Balfour other than the fact that we were born on the same Island. This connection, nearly a century later, is enough to define my relationship with a Palestinian man whose house was about to be knocked down by the “Israeli Defence Force”. Somewhere in this anecdote there is all the material you need for illustrating just how mad the concept of nationalism is.
Throughout the meeting with Ahmed I sensed hostility towards me. I might have been being over sensitive but I know from experience that the hatred of the role Britain played in Palestine’s history is part of the modern national psyche. Ahmed’s darting eyes spent the rest of the meeting occasionally fixing themselves on others in the room, but interestingly never me.
My name is Steve, I was born in Gloucester hospital, I like cups of tea and walks in the countryside. If this makes me English/British then so be it but I don’t feel it.