A Story of Hope: Palestine in a Picture Book?

A poignant yet optimistic look at how conflict affects children comes in the shape of A Child’s Garden: A Story of Hope, an Amnesty International-endorsed picture book by Michael Foreman.

A Child's Garden

Today seems an appropriate day to feature this book, as it marks the first anniversary of the commencement of Operation Protective Edge, the 2014 Israeli offensive against Gaza – and the anniversary of my realisation of how ignorant I was to the history and politics of the Palestinian campaign.

Yes, I’d often observed the ‘Free Palestine’ posters over the years and the issues spoken of in the mainstream media were at the periphery of my awareness. Yet, really, I was uninformed and uninterested for a long time – it’s a sad fact that the amount of causes to campaign for and injustices out there mean we cannot lend our attention and time to everything that may deserve our recognition. And, in truth, certain issues tend to resonate with us more than others.

Yet last year, largely due to following independent press such as Scriptonite Daily via social media, I suddenly became aware of the slow genocide of the Palestinian people. Watching a live stream of a journalist reporting from within Gaza as air strikes took place and she conveyed the horror of hearing children screaming in the streets below, it became more than ‘just another news story’.

Then I picked up A Child’s Garden during a browse of the children’s picture books in our local library. Although no specific conflict was explicitly mentioned in the blurb, it seemed to me that the inspiration was the issue of Israel-Palestine. The illustrations appeared to allude to Palestine for many reasons: one group of people clearly in a position of superiority over another; white-washed high-rise blocks looming beyond wire fencing; families living amidst rubble in a situation of oppression and segregation; people dreaming of their return to hills dotted with date palms.

It was very evident that the issue at stake was the repatriation of land.

I found this book both disturbing yet hopeful. For, indeed, what have the Palestinian people got at the moment without hope? The alternative is too sickening to contemplate, and especially at the hands of a group of people who were themselves persecuted by a regime bent on ethnic cleansing (whilst not all Israelis are Jews and not all Jews are Zionists, et cetera, let’s not forget that the State of Israel was officially created after millions of Jewish people were killed or displaced by the Nazis – and that the topic of this post renders me immune to Godwin’s Law!).

The book reminded me of the character and fortitude of El-Phil, a vibrant Palestinian villager in Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s documentary, 5 Broken Cameras. Amidst the chaos, uncertainty and tragedy, there was still something or someone who could raise the energy and raise a smile, a child-like need to play in spite of the pain. There is also more than a hint of defiance – and the awareness that the alternative to hope is utter despair.

Illustrated to drive these points home, the symbols of peace and hope sit vibrantly in colour against a background of grey; the green and seeking tendrils of creeping plants teasing the fences, the rainbow wings of birds knowing the freedom of the skies. Through children and nature, differences are diminished and our true birth-rights brought forth.

A Child’s Garden was a thought-provoking yet gentle means by which to continue a conversation with FreeToBeP about war and oppressive regimes. The book works on many levels without introducing issues or images that are too harsh to present to a child, allowing parent and child to set their own tone for discussion. There is no bloodshed and no death, yet there are walls, sadness and segregation. The hardships of families living in war-torn countries may be softened but the emotiveness is not lost  – personal loss is conveyed through the brutal removal of a lovingly-tended plant rather than the heart-breaking bereavement of beloved kin.

Call me naïve but the very fact that this issue can be so carefully and appropriately portrayed in a ‘mere’ picture book speaks volumes about the nature of war and peace.

The answer is simple if only we value other members of the human race. Is that really so hard to do?

Peace and freedom are natural states craved by the scarred yet innocent children in this book. There is a simplicity many of us would do well to emulate: the children do not wish to engage in complex politics about Zionism or Hamas or the IDF, they wish to engage with the land of their forebears.

Likewise, I won’t pretend to know all the politics but what I do know is that something which, technically, holds millions of people hostage whilst systematically stealing their land and slowly killing them off is not a situation a fellow human being should tolerate.

We know the big players are generally corrupt and do not necessarily stand for the wishes of the civilians. We know our own government pays lip service to peace-keeping as they simultaneously trade weapons or engage in wars that result in untold amounts of ‘collateral damage’ (talk about dehumanising – in layman’s terms, that’s the murder of innocent civilians).

Whatever Hamas or the IDF do, it is not a simple narrative of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’. Even as Israeli MPs demonise unborn Palestinian children, there are Israeli human rights activists fighting for the interests of people living in Gaza and the West Bank. As pro-Palestine campaigners are accused of anti-Semitism (in secular countries no less!), alongside them exist Jews against Zionism. For as many people who believe in the two-state solution there are probably just as many who don’t; those who will never recognise a Palestine and those who will never recognise an Israel.

Hence, we could go around in circles with the politics, just as the conflicts and ceasefires do. The crux of the matter is that there are thousands of innocent families being forced from their homes with nowhere to go, children forced to grow up in a blockaded war zone without even hope of escaping to the loftier status of asylum-seeker. Children like yours or mine who just happen to have been born in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Some of those children will, with enough misery and pain to fuel their righteous anger, go on to be the vengeful extremists of the future.

Some of those children will, with enough empathy and passion to fuel their righteous anger, go on to be the peace-makers and peace-keepers of the future.

So, let’s at least stop feeding our own children stories about ‘us’ and ‘them’, about the ‘need’ for armaments and war. The world is already quick to tell them this.

Let’s instead teach them to see the humanity in everyone, irrespective of their nation, religion or culture.

Let’s teach them to seek information beyond what the BBC tells them.

I don’t want my children to grow up in fear and suspicion of the world, but I do pray that they see the people rather than the propaganda, that they think about making the world better rather than making do, that they recognise small ways to help make big differences, and – as per A Child’s Garden – that they give thanks when hope and simple pleasures sustain the dream of freedom.

And, in time, may that dream of freedom come true.

Learn more? Links below:

Palestine Solidarity Campaign

5 Broken Cameras

The Parkour Guide to Gaza

Raif Badawi: A Lesson in Human Rights

free raif

Yesterday evening we attended a touching tribute to Raif Badawi, the liberal Saudi blogger who is in the midst of a sentence of floggings and imprisonment for daring to speak his mind.

Having found out about the candlelit vigil late in the afternoon, the children were given little warning of our unusual evening outing to Weymouth Pavilion. Yet they approached the small crowd beside the theatre in good spirits and were cautiously intrigued by the flickering flames. One attentive lady soon assigned FreeToBeP the task of keeping the candles alight as a gentle sea breeze ensured the steady snuffing out of the many tealights.

My children may not have understood why we were there, but their presence seemed poignant. It was one of those moments where I can understand (if not agree with) people who don’t wish to have children due to the sort of world that they would be being brought into.

FreeToBeP and FreeToBeZ both adopted a natural reverence – whilst they may not have fully appreciated the occasion intellectually, they certainly seemed to intuitively.

Initially, it appeared difficult to know how much to disclose about such a case as Badawi’s to a child – I don’t want to wrap my kids in cotton wool, yet equally don’t want them fearing that the world is a cruel place. But, really, the explanations came naturally and in a language that FreeToBeP would understand.

I gently explained that in some countries, people can be punished for doing exactly what I do: expressing opinions publicly by way of an online blog and encouraging people to share information, think outside the box and question life, the universe and everything.

I gently explained that this man has children who know their daddy is being hurt, and that it’s important to try to free him so that he can be reunited with his family.

I gently explained that we were attending to show that we care about other human beings and don’t agree with people being treated cruelly, that when we know someone is being mistreated we must speak out against it.

Somewhat black and white explanations maybe, but more than sufficient for a six year old who is at liberty to ask further questions if my initial words don’t suffice.

I hope that by attending such events, I’m not merely focusing on the negative happenings of the world but showing my children how much compassion and hope there is between people despite the brutality of others; that through solidarity with our fellow humans – even a stranger in another country – we can affect change and our children will grow up to live that change.

The simple message was Yes, bad things happen, but good people rally together to make things better.

The children were a huge credit to me, FreeToBeP conscientiously being the flame-keeper and FreeToBeZ the observant bystander: both of them calm and contained and careful in both speech and action. I have no doubt that they, on some level, perceived the energy of the event and responded accordingly.

The general atmosphere was one of quiet respect – it was sociable, hopeful and yet suitably solemn. We were a fairly small gathering yet not insignificant – for if no one stood up in protest, the world would be a free for all in quite a different way to the one Raif Badawi calls for.

Yes, there are many atrocities taking place the world over – each and every day witnesses the suffering of numerous warzones and injustices against innocent people. But some stories captivate the collective consciousness more than others (or someone tell me this is due to media spin!) and call on us to respond, to take action, to say “enough is enough”.

burning candles

As our candles stood as symbols of hope, so has Raif Badawi’s case become a symbol of the right to free speech.

He is just one of countless scapegoated people, yet in speaking out against the inhumanity shown towards one, we speak out against inhumanity in general.

As my children tended to the tiny flames, so I saw the tiny flames that they are – the next generation who will light the way forward.

In allowing our children to take part in peaceful activism and empowering them to believe that they can change the world, may they be the lights of hope that pave the way to a future where freedom of expression is a birthright the world over.

 

To sign the petition against the punishment of Raif Badawi, please visit Amnesty International here.

To read extracts from the blog that got Raif Badawi into trouble, visit The Guardian’s article here.

A local account of the evening’s vigil can be found at the Dorset Echo website here.