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What Brexit Britain can learn from the Middle East

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Photo by Eddie Awad
El Hoda Coop

Like a lot of folk, I’ve spent the past few days wondering how I’m going to deal with the turbulent realities of living in Britain in the coming months and years.

Recessions aside, the recent history of Britain has been remarkably free of conflict and upheaval; my generation is unused to prolonged political uncertainty and deep social divisions. In this respect the British mindset reminds me of what a Gloucester shopkeeper said after we’d both waited some time for a particularly anxious customer to finish worrying out loud about non-problems: Not Enough Tigers. Local people, she explained, tended not to have the day-to-day experience of danger and threats experienced by those elsewhere in the world.

So it’s a shock to wake up and find that, overnight, our country has lost its key allies and lacks an effective government and opposition, while racist incidents seem to be springing out of nowhere. (Today on Twitter, someone with a German name said a shopkeeper told him he’d be going home soon. Since I have a German name, that could have been me.) And there is no clear way forward: what will be, at best, a period of protracted change and uncertainty will go on for years.

Rummaging around in my experience for resources to make an urgent psychological adjustment to this new Britain, I’ve been remembering the feel of everyday life in the Middle East. In both Lebanon and Palestine where I’ve spent a lot of time, what struck me forcibly was the resilience of ordinary people to chronic instability, their ability to live their lives in a positive way despite ongoing disruption and uncertainty.

In the Palestinian refugee camp I knew best, people held jobs and businesses, got married and had children, building their houses upwards to accommodate their growing families. They took pleasure in all these things while at the same time dealing, often on a daily basis, with checkpoints, incursions and worse; it was almost as if they were leading parallel lives.

In Lebanon a month after the 2006 bombing by Israel, I couldn’t sleep at night for the sound of partying. In the wake of the latest war, new clubs had sprung up around Beirut to meet the new level of demand for a good time. This heightened hedonism was an extension of the determination I’d seen in Lebanese generally to direct and enjoy their lives despite living under what aid agencies call low-intensity conflict.

It’s more than a dozen years since I saw my Palestinian friends. A few weeks ago a message turned up on Facebook accompanied by a picture of me on a beach with a small boy. The writer had now grown up and become the best English speaker in the family. All the children I’d known now had degrees and jobs in the professions, he said; the adults were ‘doing great’ too. There was no mention of The Occupation.

Don’t think that my Arab friends are in denial about the political conditions under which they live or the most likely future scenarios. They are coping with tough times in what seems to me a sensible, healthy way, by engaging in a kind of constructive double-think. That’s something we’re now going need to need to do in Britain.