Saturday, October 09, 2010

This Columbus Day, Reconsider Our Nakba

This Monday is Columbus Day. I want to join the voices in the above video and ask you to reconsider how you think of Columbus and the history of the Western hemisphere. Even though our history books take great pains to cover it up, the arrival of Columbus in the so-called "New World" was certain the beginning of a catastrophe for the indigenous people. In Arabic the word for catastrophe is nakba and it is what Palestinian call the events that lead to the founding of the state of Israel.

During the nakba, approximately 725,000 Palestinians fled or were forcibly expelled from their homes. Many Palestinians were afraid of being attacked by Israelis. They left their homes, often clutching their keys and expecting to return home soon. Others were forced out of their homes at gun point. The result? The ethnic cleansing of most of Palestine. Today, many refugees still waiting in over-crowded, under-served camps outside of the land Israel claimed. This history, much like the history of Columbus' crimes, has been denied by Israelis.

Funny, it's often far easier for USAers to recognize the horror the Palestinian nakba than the admit to the history of our country. In his book A People's History of the United States, historian Howard Zinn quotes Columbus' own account of meeting the Arawak people, the first indigenous people he encountered.

They ... brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks' bells. They willingly traded everything they owned... . They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features.... They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane... . They would make fine servants.... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.

And subjugate the Arawaks he did. Columbus enslaved the people he met, exploited their land, and showed little regard for anything but gold and power. By 1650, no Arawaks remained. Through disease, mutilation, suicide, and murder, they all died. While Israelis committed ethnic cleaning against Palestinian, Columbus began a process of genocide.

I know Palestinians who survived the nabak. I've sat in refugee campus, ate with Palestinians who expect to die before they are able to see the homes they left, hung out with friends of mine who now live in the United States, but can still name the village their parents were driven from. The nabka, no matter how it is denied, is real for them. What happened in 1948 hasn't ended. The same is true for my Native friends. They are the decedents of the people who survive the process of colonization that Columbus started. This process hasn't ended. It impacts their lives today.

Both the nakba and the catastrophe that began with Columbus are denied by the people who benefit from them. I hope that by looking at the parallels between the situation in Palestine and the situation in US - and they are parallels only - I can chip away some of this denial. Still, I know that this blog post may not change anyone's mind. But I just have this to say - denial doesn't erase the past. What we refuse to acknowledge is no less real. Whatever history we will not face, the present is same: the indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere and of Palestine need justice and they need it now. We all do.

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