Watching the Olympic Opening Ceremony in Occupied Palestinian Territory

It felt strange and sad to watch the Olympic Games opening ceremonies at a square in Ramallah. The square, which is a new square being built probably to celebrate the “statehood” contains a jail cell to remind passers by the conditions the thousands of prisoners, and a partially completed tower and flagpole which sports a bronze statue of a keffiyeh adorned soldier. It was full of people, really full, maybe a thousand or two came out to watch the ceremonies on a large screen (I say “large”, but if we were in Canada it would have been at least two times larger). I suppose it’s a nationalistic thing for Palestinians today, the Olympics that is. After all, Palestine is recognized as a competing nation by the International Olympic Committee, and there is even a small team of Palestinians which will compete in these games.

But nothing about the ceremony, at least the first 45 minutes or so that we stayed for, reminded me of Palestine. No, the ceremony was unsurprisingly a British affair. Truly epic in proportion, it told the mythic history of Britain, beginning with pastoral Britain (the mythic one, with poetry and song, not the real one). Then huge smokestacks rose out of the ground and a lot of time and pomp was devoted to the industrial revolution. And I suppose rightly so, given how important industrialism is to Britain’s world power and its history of empire.

The story, told in a highly symbolic manner, made me feel intensely British. Not in the sense of a pride, or a nationalism, or a form of citizenship, but a cultural identity – I recognized all the symbolism. I felt like maybe I was the only person in the crowd who really understood what was going on, who got it. But this is silly of me – one aspect of British imperialism is all around the world people know British culture, people get the references, people know the history, at least more or less.

But this feeling of cultural identification, of seeing these stories as my stories, made me feel a profound shame. As I stood there, saw the little paper flags with the Palestinian flag on one side and the Union Jack on the other, I couldn’t keep thinking about anything but how the British came and raped this place, stole it from its people, and allowed them to be driven from their land.

Perhaps a small thing I can say is that the British Olympic committee rejected Israeli pressure to include a minute of silence for the Israeli athletes killed in 1972 by Black September. But I almost wish Israel had succeeded in this wish – it would have clarified the situation much more, and shown Palestinians whose side the U.K. is really on.

As I write this the ceremony is ending, and I hear applause and cheers from my apartment window. What are they cheering for? They cheer for the Olympics, they cheer for Great Britain, they might as well be cheering for Israel.


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