Friday, April 3, 2009

The Great Debate

I absolutely love The Angry Arab, aka As'ad AbuKhalil*, and his Angry Arab News Service. The man's intelligence and spirit should be bottled and consumed by all on a daily basis. Failing that, you can do no better than start your day with his news service ( His inimitable account of his April 1 debate at the University of San Francisco with the Israeli Consul General is simply irresistable. So here it is with a little tweaking of that trademark Angry Arab stream of consciousness...

[*Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at California State University, Stanislaus]

"I had a long day yesterday. I woke up late after a deep sleep. During the day, I had to preserve my voice by taking these Halls' drops and avoiding phone conversations. The few times I did speak, I had to say I was preserving my voice for the debate. At one point, Amer asked me about preparation. I told him that this was a job I'd been preparing for all my life.

Two days ago, I jotted down some notes in bed, but I had to throw the notebook away after a few minutes because I got so mad. Usually, when I have to deal with a debate of this kind, I remind myself of the massacres that Israel has committed against our people, one after the other. I know the facts and the sources, so I only jot down an outline of what I'm going to say.

When I arrived there, they pissed me off right away - which is a good thing for my debate performance. There was a heavy security and police presence. Then I met the professor who was going to moderate the debate. We went to a hall and I noticed that there were 2 chairs and 2 signs with names on them - mine and his (the representative of The Usurping Entity). I didn't like the arrangement so I said to her, 'I don't want to sit next to him. I'd like you, as moderator, to sit between us.' She asked me whether I was kidding. I said, 'Do you see me in a joking mode? Do you see me kidding with you? You think this is a joking matter for me?' She finally realised, shall we say, that the Angry Arab was not kidding around. She said that she'd been planning to make her introductory remarks and then sit in the audience. I said, 'That's easy. Instead of sitting here, we can put your chair between me and him and you can sit between us.

I was also told that that she (or the university) had been planning to host a reception for her 2 guests until someone who knew about me told them, 'I can assure you that As'ad will not agree to a reception with an Israeli diplomat.' So the reception was scrapped. I then told my host that I wouldn't be acknowledging or speaking to the Israeli guest. She looked baffled and nervous. She asked me why I have these positions. I told her, 'You'll understand after you hear my remarks.' I could tell she was getting more and more nervous by the minute. Then she said something about the 'academic' environment or collegiality, and added something about 'us' getting along. That made me even more angry, which was great preparation for the debate, and I said, 'This is no joke, or game or schtick for me. This is about killing 400 Palestinian kids in Gaza in 3 weeks. I don't 'get along', and I don't want to 'get along'.'

By this time, the security and the police had grown even more visible and extensive. The moderator remarked that it was necessary for 'his safety.' That made me even more pissed off (which, as I've said, was great preparation for the debate as far as I was concerned). I said, 'What about my safety? Is that part of the picture, or don't Arabs deserve safety?' I watched them searching backpacks and was told that the Israeli had notified the police and various security agencies.

As I sat there, I was pleased to see my students from California State University, Stanislaus. I'd warned them, 'You'll see a different side of me from the one you see in the classroom.' Then I met a Palestinian student from San Francisco University - probably the only one on campus. I also saw a student of mine from 7 or more years ago.

While I was sitting - with the moderator now in the middle - I saw the shadow of a man (because I'd made a point of not looking at him) standing before me with his hand out. He was saying, 'Nice to meet you, professor. Hi, professor.' I kept looking straight ahead, as if there was no one standing in front of me. He repeated his greeting a few times, but I kept on totally ignoring him. He finally gave up and took his seat. Well I debated a man yesterday, but I have to say I haven't the faintest idea what he looked like! I didn't look at him or address him once. At one point, during the debate, he asked me to look at him, but of course I ignored him. He then looked at the audience and said that I hadn't looked at him or shaken his hand or made any attempt to humanise him. I muttered into the microphone that I see them the way they see the children of Gaza.

Over dinner with Amer and Riad later, both commented that they would have had great difficulty ignoring him the way I did. Amer, however, added that my lack of shyness, timidity or the need to be polite helps me in these situations. I must say, it is easy for me to be socially rude when I want to be. I asked them, 'Are you kidding? My very best moments are when I'm ignoring Israelis who are trying to greet me or shake my hand.'

The president of the university greeted his... Israeli guest. One of the university administrators has noticed that and later expessed his displeasure to me. The moderator didn't even bother flipping a coin or asking who would like to speak first, but simply gave the Israeli the nod. She wasn't to know of course that that's the way I like it, because then I get to say what I want and respond to the first speaker. We also had 5' to respond after the presentations.

Now you must understand that I can't really evaluate my own performance or say how I did. I'll leave that to witnesses or your own opinions when you watch it on video. That's right, I'm told it was taped and will provide you with further information when it comes to hand.

What I can say is that as soon as it was my turn, I felt a rush. My voice was back in full force and I was singing like Fayruz. A woman who'd accompanied the diplomat and was sitting in the front row was squirming and looking sympathetically at her Israeli colleague some 2 minutes into my talk. I couldn't read her face but felt she was telling him, 'We didn't expect this to happen.' But it did, and As'ad was on a roll. I can't tell you how well I did, but I can say I enjoyed it thoroughly and would even waive the speaker's fee to do it again.

When I first came to the US and watched debates between Israeli and Arab speakers, I always found myself being critical of their style and content. So I have no excuse: when I debate, I say what I want. I do it my way, and last night was no exception. I explained my approach to the audience. I said, 'I want you all to know that my participation was at the invitation of the University of San Francisco and that I strictly adhere to the boycott of Israel.' And I called on them all to boycott Israel at all levels. I told them that I first met (armed) Israelis while under occupation in South Lebanon in 1982, and that I resolved back then that I would henceforth meet them only on my own terms. I explained that I was strictly against terrorists and terrorism, that I'm opposed to any deal or negotiations with al-Qa'idah or with Bin Laden, and that accordingly I'm opposed to any deal or compromise with the state that pioneered the practice of terrorism in the region. And I went on...

The moderator was clearly nervous. I told her that later. She started getting nervous as soon as I spoke. She told me she never gets nervous. I said, 'Well, you were nervous many times today.' The audience was largely sympathetic to the Palestinian view. Most were quite knowledgeable of the issues and many had been to Palestine, which put the Israeli speaker in a difficult position - not that I felt sorry for him. There was a British professor (who had a teaching job in France) visiting at Stanford who kept yelling at the Israeli speaker. He was absolutely furious. Amer, Riad and I later commented that it was rare to see an American professor venting such anger at an Israeli speaker. By the time I'd finished my first 20' presentation, I felt relieved. I felt I'd done my job even though I said more later. I'll let you know when the video's uploaded, although I've been told that the first 20' - the Israeli speaker's presentation - is mysteriously missing from the university's tape. Oh, at one point I did criticise the moderator. It was during the Q & A. I was making a point and she started to interrupt me. I said, 'Look, I can tell you've been nervous regarding my attitude ever since I started speaking.' I said, 'It's clear you weren't expecting this. You were expecting an Arab who would hold hands with the Israeli speaker. I know I've disappointed you, but I did tell you I'd say what I wanted and in my own way.'

Driving back home that night with Amer and Riad, Al-Jazeera Arabic called me for a comment on US reactions to Lieberman's remarks. I was yelling into my cellphone but my voice was weak by that point. It'd been a long day - satisfying, but long. But, lest we lose sight of the realities, I told Amer and Riad that no matter who won the debate, they're still occupying our land and killing our people."

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