9 August 2004

"Finland's Palestinian from Israel"

By Tapani Lausti

Umayya Abu-Hanna, Nurinkurin. WSOY 2003.

Multicultural orthodoxy often emphasises that we have to respect people's differences. This seems a perfectly decent and harmless attitude. Yet, as the author of The Meaning of Race, Kenan Malik, has pointed out, overemphasising differences can lead to problematic conclusions.

In an interview a few years ago in London, Malik said to me that "racial thinkers have always been hostile to the idea that we can, and should, overcome the differences that separate us to create a more equal, more universal society. By emphasising differences rather than equality, anti-racists are rooting their arguments in the same philosophies as gave rise to racial thinking itself." (See "Diane Abbott draws Finns into British race debate", Eagle Street, March 1997)

Malik's comments came to mind when I was reading Umayya Abu-Hanna's fascinating novel about her childhood as a Palestinian Arab in Israel.

Abu-Hanna moved to Finland more than two decades ago and has become a highly esteemed broadcaster and journalist in her adopted country. The author has received several awards for her journalistic and literary work. The latest award by Kansanvalistusseura (KVS Foundation which promotes public education) was granted for her work for advancing multiculturalism and helping to shake the Finns' prejudices. The foundation added that Abu-Hanna has shown the enriching influence of immigrants to Finnish culture.

Having read her book, I well understand the reasons for the award. One can also argue, however, that the power of her book lies precisely in demonstrating how similar we are as human beings, whatever our background. The reader can easily identify with her puzzlements and humiliations because she or he would probably react in a similar way in identical circumstances. It is through this understanding of similarities that we can overcome our prejudices about our differences.

In her descriptions of a Palestinian child's difficulties in comprehending the intricacies of being an object of racial contempt and hatred, Abu-Hanna can explain the fate of the Palestinians probably more powerfully than with the tools of journalism. Mainstream journalism suffers from pressures to find a "balanced" way to report about Israel/Palestine in spite of the fact that one side is the oppressor and the other side is the oppressed. In her book, Abu-Hanna recounts her confusion on finding youths similar to herself pointing guns at her. These were Jewish youths whom she would join, on more quiet days, in shop queues in her neighbourhood in Haifa.

In an interview Abu-Hanna said that she exorcised her pain and shame by writing: "I have re-drawn my features. In Israel one does not speak of the Palestinians. They don't exist. One always had to hide one's identity. It was a question of life and death." She also said that she does not want an own state for the Palestinians but one democratic Israel where everyone can live in peace together. ("Valtio palkitsi taiteilijansa", Helsingin Sanomat, 10 December 2003)

Abu-Hanna holds a double citizenship: "I am Finland's Palestinian from Israel." She speaks perfect Finnish in addition to Arabic, Hebrew, English and Italian. The latter she learned at a Catholic convent school where her parents had enrolled her. Her parents had a Christian and Communist background. So certainly, Abu-Hanna is different from most other inhabitants of Finland. Here one can agree with the notion of societies being enriched by having people from different backgrounds.

At the same time, one has to be careful in how one sees these differences. It is unhelpful to lump together all people from a certain ethnic or other common background and imagine them as homogenous groupings. In his book, Malik warned that the current multiculturalist approach "overestimates the homogeneity and autonomy of the various ethnic groups and underestimates the degree to which all groups are reciprocally implicated in the creation of cultural forms within a common framework of national political, social and economic institutions."

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