Entry 12: For Norman Finkelstein– A conversion story

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This is Entry 12 in the Mondo Awards end-of-year Inspire-us contest. A regular commenter at this site, occupyresist, asks that we preserve her anonymity, and she nominates scholar-author Norman G. Finkelstein.

I was wrapping up a degree in Chicago. My then-husband had run off back to Saudi Arabia and left me to deal with everything, which was in retrospect to be expected.

I don’t think I will ever live in a place like Chicago. Don’t get me wrong, the city is so easy to fall in love with….but for a ‘desert-dweller’ like me, the winters are extremely harsh!

I was an admirer of Noam Chomsky’s work, accidentally introduced to me by my father. And so it has always been perplexing to me how my father is given to a staunch disposition of Saudi (for lack of a better term) exceptionalism and random uncharacteristic outbursts ‘we cannot trust THEM’ kind of thinking. I sometimes wonder if he says those things just to irk me, or pre-empt the threat he sees from my cosmopolitan-oriented (to him Western-oriented) mentality. He has lived in the US and been exposed to people from different backgrounds, so I don’t know where this is coming from. We still argue about these things to this day, and we’re either probably going to continue arguing for a very long time or I’m going to have to give it a rest and make babies to distract him. My mother, on the other hand, never ever thought in those terms, which is why I am constantly amazed at the phenomenon that is their marriage.

Growing up, I did not have a good, solid education on the Israel/Palestine conflict, or even any real critical history regarding the Middle East or the world that wasn’t establishment-approved (yes, thank you Saudi curriculum). We had to memorize the contributions of every Saudi King, and history started with the advent of Islam. For me, nothing else existed outside of the Caliphate, Al Saud, Ummayad, Abassid and Ottoman empires). It’s a good thing that I was fortunate enough to read Maria Rosa Menocal’s “Ornament of the World” in college, an inflection point, because if I had continued to study in Saudi, I would still be imbibing, regurgitating, and internalizing unprocessed BS.

I was on almost 2 packs of Marlboro Lights a day those days, contemplating my future and thinking about what the hell I was going to be doing back in Saudi Arabia when I had so many potential job prospects right here in my other country (cue Dad’s voice: You Must Give Back To Your Country – cue Mom’s voice: careers are nice, but husband comes first). So it was December 2008 and I found myself watching on Al Jazeera Livestation the military incursion into Gaza. I was alone, in a living room, with a Dell laptop running Ubuntu. It was freezing outside, and the heater was moody that day. I remember clearly my cat was shivering under some covers. I became really angry as I saw the number of dead (300 at the time) and the propagandist outpouring of the mainstream media, I’m not sure why, though. No international happenings really ever evoked that kind of obsession in me, and so I started religiously following events. I called my parents, my husband, my brothers ‘Are you seeing what’s happening over there?’ ‘Allah yiseebahum, Allah yihud 7eelahum…shufti? Hadool Al Yahood illi marra 3ajbeenik’. ‘Mom, Dad it’s ZIONISM. La tigoolu Yahood.’ ‘Billahi? Tayyib, khalleeki inti wi afkarik hadi. Walla sirna Amreekan’. I used to grit my teeth at that point and think: Yes!!! I, for better or for worse, identify more with this country. At least I am treated like a thinking, feeling, human being here, and not a minor. Sue me!

My husband, as was to be expected, was indifferent.

But what really got to me was that the world around me was completely oblivious. My neighbors, shop-keepers, … I know that there is constant misery in the world, and I vaguely knew about what was happening in Iraq, but not enough to understand it and more to the point people didn’t even know that they were bankrolling this particular slaughter. Here I was, about to leave one country, in which I will eventually start paying taxes as an expat, that will go to the aid of another country, Israel, which has and will use the aid to kill the powerless Palestinians. I didn’t even know about the particulars of the Nakba or how it came about, and I was very suspicious of the traditional story: Jews stole the land, Palestinians are powerless, blah blah blah, because a deep aversion and suspicion to everything Saudi [and shamefully, in turn, Arab] at that point had already entrenched itself in me, especially this quagmire of defeat and impotence of the citizenry.

But….I voted for Obama. He was supposed to bring something called change, right? OK, he’s still president-elect. But why isn’t he saying anything?…change for US, not for them….?

There it started. I was not an activist, never could be one. But this got me going. Ha’aretz, vicious Digg wars alongside frustrated Palestinians, demonstrations in the freezing cold, meeting activists, hooking up with old Palestinian/Jordanian college mates, Facebook rants, “400 dead not enough? How about 800, 1200? Or are you hoping to wipe them all dead? Maybe Saudi Arabia should do what King Faisal did and turn off the damn tap so people can wake up!!!” thoughts that were satirically depicted in the famed Jon Stewart Strip Maul episode.

I had heard about Dr. Finkelstein’s tenure-ship issue through a relative studying at DePaul. It didn’t register then….but when I saw him on YouTube talking about Hezbollah in a Future TV interview, I thought: Who the hell is this guy?

I started looking into him. I ordered all his books in early January 2009, and pored over them, starting with Beyond Chutzpah.

In Saudi some people view Palestinians residing there as opportunistic, greedy, etc…they are the Jews of the ME. And yet, many view those residing in the OTs as righteous victims. It confuses the hell out of me sometimes. How can you identify with their collective victimhood and yet lambast them for acting like … a Diaspora?

One of my best friends is a Palestinian with a Jordanian citizenship – that’s how she identified herself to me when I first met her 4 years ago. To think that her dear family is watching this on TV, in the UAE, … I couldn’t bear to call her. I know how she would react. I called another, more sober Palestinian friend, Alia, in the UAE and asked her what she was doing, and told her about what was happening over here. She and I apparently had the same reading list on I/P. To keep ourselves sane, we started doing Digg rounds.

To look at the suffering the Palestinians have endured through the eyes of someone who MUST be under enormous pressure to acquiesce to the TRIBE, or else. This struck a DEEP note in me, because it made me realize that people ARE genuinely capable of compassion towards those who not only do not share much by way of background, but also are fighting AGAINST the injustice inflicted by his ‘fellow tribesmen’, to put it crudely. Yes, sadly, this was a genuinely novel experience for me.

This changed my outlook on … life. It gave me new hope. And yes, my dad was wrong. He might have been right about my ex-husband, but he MUST be wrong about ‘us and them’. We are in the end human beings, dad. I wish you can understand that. I’m giving up your ‘tribal’ loyalty, and your rigid defiance of everything unSaudi, NOT my compassion.

I was forwarded this demo/discussion event at UChicago with a panel comprised of John Mearsheimer, Ali Abunimah, and Norman Finkelstein.

I called a couple of people from past demos, and we squeezed into my little coupe, and zipped down to Hyde Park. We were late, and it was my fault! There was a line that formed outside waiting for the hall to unpack. I thought, let’s wait at Einstein Bros. for a bit. We squeezed in during the Q&A. I walked in with the group, and noticed how there was an ample number of people sporting kippas, some with the Israeli flag on them. Also noticed a larger number of people with checkered keffiyehs wrapped around their necks.

It was a curious sight for me, a person coming from a society where everything and everyone (to me at least) was forced to expect conformity and be a conformist. One of my professors, who happens to be Jewish, came up to me in the café, and noticed what I was wearing, and said: I am really sorry about what’s happening over there in Gaza, do you have any family there? I said, no, but I have some friends with family in Palestine.

Those three are giants. I don’t remember exactly what was said, but I remember my emotions. Excitement, worry, agony, elation, …. It was a rollercoaster ride of emotions. They were saying what that tiny voice in the back of my head kept trying to tell me.

We were listening to a response to a question posed to Ali Abunimah…and all of a sudden someone in the audience shouted what sounded like a threat to him…something along the lines of ‘I’ll show you…’.

As we watched, pro-Israelis and anti-war activists, continued asking questions, and the random heckling started getting worse. Some guy shouted ‘WHAT ABOUT ISRAEL?’ and everyone shushed him. It was becoming increasingly tense, and the effect that those three panelists had was astounding. It was the first time I saw articulate responses and analysis of the situation that did not involve shouting, apology, or boasting, and it had a profound effect onme, because that last wall of ice and contempt I had finally melted, seeing all those activists from so many different backgrounds raptly listening and nodding in agreement. This was no longer a problem solely concerning the castrated Arab populace. This belongs to humankind, and a burgeoning number of people are heeding the call for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Afterwards, I took everyone home since I was their ride (hope I can use those words again soon). My friend David was hungry, so I offered to buy him dinner at Reza’s. We sat down and started talking about what happened.

Next thing I knew, a large group of people walk in. Amongst them was Professors Norman Finkelstein and John Mearsheimer.

My friend walks up to them after dinner, and says “We just came from UChicago. Thank you for speaking up about this conflict” I was strangely quiet, but I decided to send one person an email.

Hello sir,

my friend and I passed you at Reza’s today and my friend thanked you all for the panel discussion. I have to say, in listening to you and in reading your books, that you have restored my faith in the potential of humanity to exercise a rigorous and unbiased search of the truth. I commend you for doing so, and I hope that you will continue doing so, even if the world stands against you.

….I am going back to Saudi Arabia, a country in which, if I had done one iota of the protesting I had done here, for Gaza, I would be shot at with rubber bullets and jailed for months on end, if not years, of course claming (sic) that I’ve broken numerous falsely applied and misinterpreted religious laws (i.e. no mahram, inciting fitna, etc). And the media would help in covering such an event up. This genocide in Gaza will either turn KSA upside-down, or will just make the population more desensitized to Palestinians’ plight (and I see the second happening all around me, and I’m not so sure that I don’t want the first one to happen. The obliviousness is tiring, there as well as here.) [In retrospect my impression was inaccurate, because my social circle was limited to a detached lot].

I was mostly raised there, which means that I was raised with this mostly unspoken but widely accepted “fact” that there is this inherent hate from Jews towards Muslims (I’m sorry, I had to say that) as a child and that we should always be suspicious. My parents never endorsed such ideas [in retrospect my dad did], but our education system was rife with them. I’ve of course since come to question them, and coming across (sic) your and others’ work I’ve all but dispelled such idiotic notions. Please accept my humblest apologies.

Thank you,


I got a very sincere reply from Dr. Finkelstein, and the rest is history. If I, and so many more Saudis of my generation, can grow like that, I’m sure many who are indoctrinated and brainwashed on the other side of this conflict, and across the Atlantic who have stupid, unfounded fears of all things Muslim or Arab, can do the same.

As I now see it, we’re all human beings and who gives a flying f***. Just see me, see my best friends Lina and Alia, see them as human beings. They have a poignant longing for a place they cannot see, let alone live in, because their families, their parents and grandparents, were kicked out and scattered the world over. The place that today is supposed to embrace them and their families does not and might never do so, for some incomprehensible reason.

Don’t be afraid to change your mind. Meet us all the way. Otherwise, you will get my parents’ generation, one that is bitter and cynical concerning the ability of humanity to surpass its tribal loyalties and support justice. And, you’ll be helping my generation’s voice rise, and halt once and for all the blaming of others for many of the woes of our societies.

Next year in Jerusalem.

[DISCLAIMER TO SAUDI, AMERICAN AND INTERNATIONAL READERS: All views here should NOT be taken as representative of the diverse viewpoints that do exist in KSA or the reality of life here. These are, or were, solely MY opinions, impressions and perspectives at different points in time. I do not mean to offend anyone or imply that my family or social circle are a concise depiction of the dynamics or perspectives that are mainstream in Saudi regarding the Israel/Palestine conflict. And if I come off as reductive or inaccurate in some places, please feel free to correct me. I have (to this day) not been able to regularly interact and forge lasting bonds with society in Saudi outside of my immediate family and few close friends, except through the internet]

About Annie Robbins

Annie Robbins is Editor at Large for Mondoweiss, a mother, a human rights activist and a ceramic artist. She lives in the SF bay area. Follow her on Twitter @anniefofani

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