Interview: Lipika Pelham

Lipika PelhamOne of the most complicated and controversial contemporary subjects has to be the Israel/Palestine question. Presenting the situation through the lens of a highly personal memoir, The Unlikely Settler, filmmaker and former BBC journalist Lipika Pelham may have illuminated the issue in a way that journalism can’t.

Pelham grew up in a dusty border town between Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal, lived in London, Morocco, and Jordan, and in 2005 moved to Jerusalem with her husband, a Middle-East specialist, and their two children. Little did Pelham know that the following years would challenge every aspect of her life.

A few weeks before The Unlikely Settler was published, I had a conversation with Pelham in which she helped me understand the Israel/Palestine situation much more deeply—so much so that I am again reminded that black and white views can only arise from ignorance, because the more you learn about a subject, the more complex it becomes.

—Randy Rosenthal


Tweed’s:  To me, The Unlikely Settler is essentially a love story. Yes, there’s the tumultuous love story between you and your husband, but he is in love with the Middle-East and you fall in love with Jerusalem. I know it will be unfairly difficult to put into words, but could you try and elaborate on what it is about Jerusalem that made you fall in love with the city? What made you stay there even after you could have gone back to London and resumed your job at the BBC? What is it that draws you (and so many people) to live in a place where your security is constantly threatened and which is so divided with prejudice and hatred? There’s something there that seems more powerful than these other factors, and I’m hoping you can verbalize what that is.


Lipika Pelham:  You’ve asked a very important question that I have been trying to answer ever since I realized that I was in love with the pitiless conflict zone. So, here’s what I think made that possible.

When the idea of moving to Jerusalem was first brought to me by my husband, I was taken aback. Why would I uproot my family, leave my comfortable job and house in London to live in a divided city with bus bombs, gun wielding teenage soldiers, and racial segregation? His convoluted reply was that I would learn to love the city where he wanted to see himself based as a peace negotiator between Jews and the Palestinians. Although initially that was the reason why I settled with the family in the world’s hottest conflict zone, I was soon to realize that the city permeated similar emotional resonances of the Bengali village where I grew up. Bengal and Palestine were partitioned within a year of each other, by the hasty withdrawal of the Empire, leaving both places randomly carved up along religious lines, and therefore their historical interdependence thrown in disarray. The divisions led to a legacy of tribal allegiance, mutual exclusivism and ethnic nationalism on both sides.

Unlikely SettlerFor me, Jerusalem was closer than London to the sense, or rather the “senses” of a long forgotten “home” that I carried with me. “Home” for me was the cacophony of life in the streets, the loud outpouring of very private emotion on the city’s buses, the smell and colors of Mahane Yehuda market. I remember screaming in childish joy when I saw live fish being tossed up in the air from a cool dark tank before being bashed on the head on a thick wooden board, gutted, sliced, wrapped in old newspaper and delivered to the awaiting customer.

As time passed, I became attracted to the anomalies of the conflict that appeared in the form of intermingling in Jerusalem’s markets and hospitals. I realized soon after my arrival that they were the few places where the city’s two main languages, Hebrew and Arabic interacted in harmony and humor, in quotidian conversations. Here, I rediscovered emotions raw and visceral, between the warring sides. In the city’s hospitals Ultra-Orthodox Haredi patients were treated by Palestinian doctors, and Arab babies were delivered by Orthodox Jewish obstetricians.

It was a perplexing conflict between the two peoples who could not live without each other. Just as the Muslims and Hindus could not, in my Bengali childhood. So, slowly but surely, Jerusalem started to grow on me.

On top of all the sensual and intellectual inspirations, I was endowed with several millennia of history at my doorstep. I would wake up and open my bedroom door to see the Old City wall and the Jaffa gate right before my eyes, with a narrow valley separating us—the valley of Gehinnom, where the Canaanite child sacrifices were thought to have taken place. You are never too far from the city’s history of gore and human drama.


Tweed’s:  You’ve managed to capture many of the reasons why I too fell in love with the city; the palpable history, the remarkable diversity, the markets, and, not to mention the delicious coffee and food!

Nearly everyone seems to have an opinion on the Israel/Palestine conflict. You’re an outsider, but you’ve been in conversations with the international community and many people who are professionally devoted to resolving the issue, and so I assume that you’ve heard every perspective and theory that’s to be had. With this experience in mind, what would you say is the most important thing that outsiders don’t understand about the issue? What are most people in the US and UK missing?


Lipika Pelham:  The anomalies of this conflict are not readily revealed to the outsider. Most international peacekeepers live in Arab East Jerusalem, and they try to avoid going to restaurants and cafes in West Jerusalem that are run by Israeli Jews. I always found that rather odd. If the international community believed in the pre-1967 borders and wanted to put pressure on Israel to pull out of the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, that should not require them to avoid West Jerusalem, which is legally in Israel proper. Is it then part of an implicit boycott of Israeli goods and Israeli rental properties?

On the other hand, I have seen white number plated cars belonging to aid agencies parked outside popular night bars in West Jerusalem. Children of foreign diplomats attended West Jerusalem’s reputable music and dance schools with my children. Many international moderators visited beautiful isolated hilltop restaurants in the forests around Jerusalem.

I have also seen men from the Ultra-Orthodox Haredi Jewish community flock to the Arab grocers at the Damascus Gate of the Muslim Quarter for their weekly shopping. Religious Jews visit well-known Arab dentists in Shuafat, East Jerusalem.

As one grows familiar with the city’s idiosyncratic character, one can’t help wondering whether the conundrums of the conflict are truly understood by the outside world. You can’t talk about a two-state solution being the only available truce between the warring sides, when the lives of the two peoples are so inter-connected. A retired Middle East correspondent recently told me that if the Palestinians working in Israeli factories in the occupied territories were asked to leave their jobs and boycott Israel, most of them would say no. “Well,” my journalist friend told them, “if you want a job, you can’t have a country.” However ruthless this may sound, it is true that during my eight years living in Israel-Palestine, I did not come across a real, unwavering conviction on either side in the direction of a clear-cut Palestinian statehood. It has increasingly become a glorious idea, a noble concept that the international community must press for, and what the Palestinians loosely believe they want while they get on with their daily lives. They work even on construction sites to help build Israel’s security barrier, known as the apartheid wall. And in Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, Palestinian Arab students take particular pride in showing off their immaculate Hebrew, their knowledge of the history of the revival of the language as they continue to pass their exams in math, sciences, and literature.

Perhaps because on the ground the execution of the paradigm of a two-state solution seems so impossible that even the staunch optimists on both sides have doubts regarding its practicality. Towards the end of my stay I heard my Palestinian friends stoically talk about a peaceful “sumud,” steadfastness, which is to make the most of what the Israeli state offers and slowly integrate, so that at one point the demographic ratio topples and Israel ceases to be a Jewish state.

The fate of over 600,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank is not going to be determined overnight. And if the larger “officially-recognized” settlements (home to some 300,000 Jews) were to stay in the West Bank, an intricate network of tunnels, closed corridors, or highways would have to be built to link the separated swathes of Palestinian land—towns and villages, which would make a future Palestinian state. And what about the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian workers working for Israeli companies including settlement building, what will happen to them? Will the international community match their salaries in the interim period that may last decades, while the two states emerged from the modern world’s most talked-about political myth?

Some cynics talk about removing the “International Peace Industry,” as it were, altogether from the West Bank. If the UN and various other organizations who have been involved for the past six decades in refugee repatriation, maintaining the camps, and educating the refugee children in various internationally funded schools were to be pulled out, many argue, then Israel, the occupying power, would be duty-bound to take over their work.


Tweed’s:  It’s quite surprising to hear that a two-state solution is neither feasible nor desired by the people actually living in Palestine and Israel, especially when we hear about it so much. It indeed might be a controversial idea to those who don’t know better. I know there’s no easy answer, but based on everything you’ve heard and experienced, including your upbringing in Bengal, what do you think a possible solution might be? (And by solution I mean a method of keeping the peace, not righting every wrong.) It seems like you have sympathy for the last suggestion, a long-term process of foreign disengagement, which would force Israel to provide for refugees. Or would you say there’s no solution to such a complicated situation?


Lipika Pelham:  I went to Jerusalem with the dream of a united Bengal. I believed in that ideal so strongly that even as a child I could not accept the political realities of divided Bengal, and insisted on saying, “I was born on the border of two Bengals,” which always caused an enormous amount of confusion. My children are still not sure “which country” their mother really originated from.

To change the status quo under a peace deal won’t be a short process—it could take as long as the length of the conflict, we are talking about another six decades to heal the wounds. A phased international withdrawal from most places is paramount, according to my friends on both sides of the divide who are tired of outsiders meddling with their affairs to little avail. Aside from the settlement issue, the three other sticking points in any peace negotiations are Israel’s security, the status of Jerusalem, and the Palestinian right of return.

I think the security issue would be relatively less complex to settle. We need to have an international peace-enforcing squad in place while the final status agreement is being discussed. This unit will be in charge of overseeing gradual withdrawals of Jewish settlers from smaller settlements—some 300,000 people, not an easy task, and ensuring effective deployment of a tripartite (consisting of international, Israeli, and Palestinian security apparatuses) task force to contain retaliatory attacks while a definitive borderline is being negotiated. The presence of such an internationally-moderated force has precedents in many other chronic conflict zones around the world. The roles of the various United Nations agencies, in particular, UNRWA, a unique organization set up primarily for Palestinian refugees, would have to be redefined under the framework of a final status truce.

Two most incendiary topics in this conflict are the status of Jerusalem and the return of Palestinian refugees. It is highly unlikely that Israel would accept moving back to pre-1967 Jerusalem, which would mean giving up the Old City, the Western Wall and the Temple Mount—the holiest site in Judaism. The demolition of Jewish settlements in Arab East Jerusalem would be an easier process over a time. Right now, I do not see any possibility of resolving the ownership regarding the contested holy sites belonging to the Palestinians and the Jews without an assertive but sympathetic international presence. Under strict vigilance and supervision of an international agency, in my opinion, the sites according to their religious denominations could be sub-contracted to respective local theological councils. Something similar to that already exists—Waqf, for example is an Islamic trust consisting of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, which is in charge of managing the Muslim sites such as the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque complex. Even after the 1967-war, which saw Israel capture the old city, the Waqf was allowed to retain its governance over the Muslim places of worship—a task that this Islamic body has been maintaining since the 12th century Islamic conquest of Jerusalem.

The second most emotive issue in peace negotiations is the right of return of Palestinian refugees, who were dispossessed of their homes in 1948. An estimated five million of their descendents are currently dispersed around the Arab World, in the West bank and in the Palestinian Diaspora. While millions have moved on since and found good life in Jordan, Egypt, and in other countries, 1.5 million still live in camps and recite the names of their parents’ and grandparents’ places of birth, which are now legally in Israel, as their true home. This is one of the most recognizable traumas of the displaced people that we know from other stories of displacement and dispossession. Since the current phase of peace talks started last summer after a three-year gap, the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has been negotiating with Jordan with an hefty offer of compensation of several hundred million dollars for each of the 65 years while the Hashemite Kingdom provided for the Palestinian refugees, who make up some 60 per cent of the kingdom’s demographic composition.

Of course it would be extremely hard for third generation refugees regardless of the generosity of the compensation, to completely let go of their literary and political claim over historic Palestine, their ancestral home. But over time and with a gut-wrenching process of reconciliation, that pain may start to heal. In the same way as refugees from other conflicts had to move on at some point, to embrace life in their “new homes,” on unfamiliar shores.

In this context, it might be politically advantageous for the architects of this new round of peace negotiations to acknowledge the trauma of the Jewish refugees who had to leave their homes and properties in the Arab world to come to Israel, often but not always, against their will. It would be a symbolic gesture, but pivotal for the process of mutual healing.

In my own life, I saw similar division of pain spill over and submerge my family with an all-powerful force. I grew up on the border between two Bengals with a grandmother who lived in three countries without ever moving from her village. In her lifetime she saw three wars and the carving up of her homeland, India, along religious lines, which led to the mass exodus of Hindus to West Bengal in what remained of India, and of Muslims to what was re-named East Pakistan (East Bengal), which later became Bangladesh. Some who stayed behind as minorities had to readapt to the new regime and to religious nationalism. I grew up with my grandmother’s strong cultural Hinduism and the influence of her recently converted Muslim family. But my Muslim father did not mind that I chose to embrace my ancestral Hinduism. He believed in co-existence; he had a big heart. And my grandmother’s stories were full of anecdotes from the most celebrated Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, where a recurring war splits the cousins, the Kauravas and the Pandavas, as they are duty-bound to hold weapons against their family members. My grandmother’s interpretation of the mythical kurukshetra war was that one cannot take even gods’ words at face value. She used to say that the battle in the Hindu epic is an allegory of conflict within man between good and evil. Krishna the god leaves that choice to Arjuna, the man, one of the Pandava brothers.

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict too, there’s no omniscient god—however influential the international community may appear to be, they cannot tell the two sides how to choose, it’s up to the collective dharma (virtue, social duty) of each of the warring parties to decide between good and evil. A resolution is indeed possible in this seemingly epic war, but that ultimately lies in the hands of the people on the ground.


Tweed’s:  Your book is highly personal. You’ve been through such personal strife in the midst of cultural and political strife, and I wonder if you’ve changed from your experience living in Jerusalem. For example, I liked how [Other Press publisher] Judith Gurewich described your book with the alternative title “Candide in Jerusalem,” referring to your rejuvenating optimism. Has this optimism always been with you, or has it developed while you were in Israel and seeped into the tone of the book?


Lipika Pelham:  I am glad that you think the tone of the book is optimistic! When I was writing it, many of the chapters were born of the schisms that I felt in the society and in my own life. I had to learn to come to terms with both. So, in a way, the writing of the book was cathartic, revelatory. I suppose when I realized that it was practically impossible to resolve any conflict without a great deal of compromise and empathy, I began to feel the gloom of this dual strife that you mention, slowly lift.

Have I always been optimistic? I guess yes. When at various stages in life I found myself wandering or struggling to settle in new countries, this inner optimism kept me afloat and helped me deal with the challenges of relocation.

Writing about difficult times in a memoir is a painful but necessary process. It’s a stormy voyage, which involves unwitting companions and deconstruction of the past in a way that may leave the writer and her characters with the feeling of being shipwrecked. But that’s just the beginning of a new chapter on a new territory. Where old norms have been crushed, and fresh opportunities are laid bare to be explored.

The main hurdle for me was to overcome the solipsistic narrative that the memoir writing requires, which as a journalist I was not used to. But once I conquered that mental block, I discovered that the place where I was writing from was full of epiphanies.

This almost ecstatic state of being could perhaps be best described by this passage from “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare:

………and then, in dreaming,

The clouds methought would open, and show riches

Ready to drop upon me; that, when I waked,

I cried to dream again.

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