Borderlands materialize from the spoils of war, which may be why they are sumps for the purest expressions of state power: Economic exploitation, racial caste, militarism. I saw these things growing up in the Rio Grande Valley along the Texas-Mexican border, and I recently saw a different version of them in the Golan Heights, the contested area that Israel has occupied since seizing it from Syria in 1967. Both the Valley and the five Syrian towns in the Israeli-claimed Golan are contradictions of abundance and immiseration: Although they’re among the poorest regions in their respective countries, both areas produce incredibly fertile soil that bears all sorts of foods, citrus and watermelon and onions and nuts and more, that feed millions of people but only enrich a few hundred, if that. Such pillaging has been a core feature of life in both places since they were seized, and the fault line between agricultural winners and losers is also divided by race and cultural heritage: American and Anglo versus Mexican and Latino; Israeli and Jew versus Syrian and Arab.
People in both the Valley and the Golan carry the psychological markings of unfinished war. Although they happened about a century apart, the conquests that claimed both Valley and Syrian Golan had the same racializing effects that hardened pre-existing hierarchies. To this day, tensions regularly turn brutal, exposing the fiction of borders as a means of containing colonial violence that cascades across time and space. In the Golan, this violence has appeared in recent years as bombings and espionage committed against the Israel Defense Forces along the border by Arabs sympathetic to various factions in the Syrian war; in the Valley, it has come in the form of sporadic killings and kidnappings related to Mexico’s total assault against drug cartels, a conflict in which, of course, the US is implicated from a dozen different angles. Barring some genocidal final solution, life in both places will continue to periodically erupt, because the colonial projects generating tensions will never be completed.
Curious to learn about the border experiences of conquered people elsewhere in the world, I traveled to Majdal Shams, the Druze Arab town high up in the Golan mountains that abuts the ceasefire line between Syria and Israel (a line that Israel considers a national border). Here, just a few kilometers from fighting between rebels and the Syrian regime (what is believed to be ISIS versus Hezbollah forces backing Bashar al-Assad), the cultural deformities caused by Israel’s occupation are compounded by the ongoing war across the way, which has upended relationships in Majdal Shams as locals pledged support or opposition to Assad.
On a cool night over a plate of saj bread smothered in labani, I spoke to two men, an artist and a human rights attorney, about borders, identity, colonialism and war. Wael Tarabieh led an arts and cultural center that became a core of support in Majdal Shams for the Syrian revolution in 2011 before collapsing in despair and confusion amid endless bloodletting. Kamara Abu Saleh, who works at the local anti-occupation human rights group Al-Marsad and whose sister is married to Tarabieh, is the grandson of a local anti-colonialist fighter memorialized with an iron statue in the town square. They are two of the approximately 25,000 Syrians who still live in the occupied Golan, down from over 140,000 before the 1967 Arab-Israel war.
This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Aaron Cantú: Can you describe how people in Majdal Shams identify themselves – do they seem themselves primarily as Arabs, Druze, Syrians? And how has the Israeli occupation affected this?
Wael Tarabieh: The matter of identity in Golan Heights took its shape because of the big strike in 1982, after Israel annexed the Golan and we refused their citizenship. For Arabs here, the Israeli side always tries to engineer your identity, and to redefine your identity not as you wish and you think but as what serves their interests. And for their interests, it’s better for [us] to be Druze people than to be Syrians. Regardless of that, Druze is a smaller identity than to be Syrian. Syrian is a very rich identity. So, people of Golan Heights decided in 1982 that first we are Arab, then Syrians, and then we are Druze.
AC: What does that connection to Syria look like?
WT: Our belonging to Syria is something emotional, something spiritual. For example, now I am almost 49 years old, and I had never been in Syria. I was born one year after the occupation began, and my connection to Syria is always related to my opposition to the occupation, so you know, it’s something in the negative.
AC: This is similar to my experience because I’ve never travelled through Mexico. I don’t think I feel a spiritual connection to it, but I understand the longing for something you cannot identify.
WT: You asked what the connection to Syria looks like now. Because of what’s happened in 2011, it took things into flesh and blood, so it is no longer just something spiritual. After [the Syrian revolution] began, some of us in Majdal Shams, artists and others, wrote a manifesto that supported, very obviously and very directly, the demonstrators and revolutionaries in Syria, the peaceful people who were demanding freedom and dignity and so on. And we were also very obviously against the regime of Bashar Assad. So this was the moment of how a big gap developed in Majdal Shams between people here supportive of the revolution and people who supported the regime.
AC: Did some people here see loyalty to Assad as part of their opposition to the Israeli occupation?
WT: Some. [Supporters of the regime in Majdal Shams] took photographs of Assad and brought it in our faces, saying, “This is our god whether you want it or not, and he will be forever,” and so on. And the supporters of the regime succeeded in gathering more people than our side. They’re the same people who gather at the border twice a year and shout [to counterparts in Syria], “You are the best!” “No, you are the best,” and so on, this comedy took place for 20 years, every year, people lying to each other. And this was also one aspect that made young people feel that political life was disgusting. But for two or three years after 2011, things became very directly said and expressed, and even people here stopped speaking to each other and greeting each other.
AC: What happened as the war went on?
WT: When things in Syria went in other ways and the fundamentalists took the scene, things started to calm down [here]. The amount of blood and killing people see every day made people feel something… it meant there was something wrong in their original thinking, it’s not just one narrative. And people thought the regime will, you know, support the Druze, but Assad has killed the Druze, too. But the other part of it is, as Syria continues to be in chaos, there is less opposition to Israel’s occupation here.
Kamara Abu Saleh: People here in [the] Golan Heights identify with the state of Israel now more than before. In Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, everywhere, there is big chaos, war, revolution, killing, no safety at all. So that’s why in these days and these times, it’s very easy to use a narrative of making people identify with Israel and stay here. Israel says, “Your life is in danger, if you protest being in Israel, what [are] your choices? Go back to Syria? You want to be under Russian bombs and killed by ISIS and other groups?” So maybe it’s debilitating, this kind of feeling, because this kind of feeling is based on fear. It isn’t based on logical thinking.
WT: This is the gift that Bashar Assad gave to Israel. Because before that, Israel was an evil. But now, when Assad has given us his ugliest face…
AC: Do you think in the future this feeling will change?
KAS: I don’t know what will happen in the future. I know what’s going on now, and now people are afraid. If you’re asking me, right now, would you like to go back to Syria and be free from the Israeli occupation? I would say no.
WT: Maybe not today. Let’s wait.
AC: A few years, maybe. (we all laugh)
WT: Nobody will accept to be thrown to their death. It’s a normal thing.
KAS: But because I say, “Please, let me be under occupation these days,” that doesn’t mean I want to stay here. It doesn’t mean that I accept [for] myself to be class B or class C citizen. It doesn’t mean I accept the discrimination against me in the planning and construction, everything, even in jobs in the public sector.
AC: How are you discriminated against?
KAS: If I apply for a job in the public sector, and I’m not serving in the Israeli army, my application will be like last place. In other cases, we’re discriminated by the natural resources. For example, water. If I have an orchard field, I cannot be a farmer because I still have the problem of acquiring water. At the same time, Jewish settlers in the Golan do not have this problem. Or they have it much less, much much much much less. It’s a big difference.
WT: The prices, one farmer told me, is one to seven for the price of water, between Jewish settlers and Arabs in the Golan.
KAS: And look here at Majdal Shams. It’s very crowded and it’s in the middle of nowhere, there are no jobs, we cannot expand, we just build on top of each other. And yet the settlers in the Golan are given $12,000 from the government if they live here for more than four years. This kind of discrimination is a bit hidden.
WT: Another thing is the loans from the banks. The highest interest rates on loans in all of Israel is at our bank in Majdal Shams. Even if people have iPhones and cars, the whole scene is not reflecting the actual economic limit of people here.
AC: The global economy almost went down in 2008 because the banks gave bad home loans mostly to poor black and brown people in the US.
WT: Same strategy as here.
KAS: If you are not Jewish, you are not fully accepted. It’s not that people don’t want to be in good relations with Israel. No, we really want it, everybody wants it, but it cannot be. You can be good colleague, good friend, but you’re still stuck in your culture, and is [seen as] primitive. You can be educated and smart but you are not accepted. But if you work in construction, you are more acceptable. [The Israelis] think, we want you like that. Don’t try to be different. Don’t try to get to be better than we want you to be. You know what I mean?
AC: This reminds me of the idea of respectability politics in the US. It’s this idea of, if we dress well and we cut our hair and act like the professional white class, they will accept us. But it’s like you’re saying, they will never accept you fully. And since Black Lives Matter has become popular, there’s this idea of, we don’t want to do respectability politics anymore, because no matter how respectable we try to be, we won’t be accepted. So now there’s an idea among people who are not white of, we will not be respectable, we’re going to be who we are, and if you don’t accept us then fuck you.
WT: Many young [Arab Druze] who go to Haifa or Tel Aviv and try to be involved with the community as Israeli youth are rejected. One example: A friend of mine has a girl, his daughter, she is very talented, speaks Hebrew perfectly. She was chosen to continue her high school in Jerusalem for the talented young people in Israel and lived for five or six years with young Israelis. But recently I’m talking with my friend, and I asked what [his daughter] decided to study in college. And he said because of her experience there, she decided to study Arabic and culture, because she eventually concluded that her identity is Arab. So she worked on herself, she took the first prize of a very serious study program in Arabic culture. So this is an example of why I have hope in the new generation. They are clever, but they also had to live there and experience their own narrative, not mine.
AC: In the Rio Grande Valley 100 years ago, Mexicans in South Texas inspired by the Mexican revolution tried to overthrow the government and white supremacy. After they lost, a group of bourgeoisie Texas Mexicans started an organization [LULAC] to try and integrate into wealthy white American society. It hasn’t really worked out.
WT: Israel is succeeding in this cultural battle here right now. You see the Israeli flag everywhere [here] and it’s becoming part of things that you see every day. They use the Druze identity to say: you are not Arab, so you can be separated from Arabs and Syrians, and the Muslims are your enemies. This entire narrative is designed in order to separate these people from their roots, their real roots.
AC: Do you think a cultural movement like the one happening in the US right now, with Black Lives Matter, could happen in the Golan?
WT: I don’t think so, because we as a community are not mature enough for that yet. It needs time to arrive at that.
AC: For us it took decades, a hundred years to get to this point.
WT: Right now we are in the phase where many people [in the Golan] are believing that they can be engaged in Israeli life and succeed. You notice their happiness [at] being here, thinking it’s a place in a strong country and so on. It would be a long time, I think. But I think the culture is the only thing that cannot be controlled by the strong side. I have big hope for the new generation.