Once, I once went out for dinner in London with an Israeli woman. Conversation warmed, and I stopped paying attention to my meal, given my congenital inability to multitask. “Stop playing with your food,” she reproved mildly. I rolled my eyes and retorted, “You’ll remind me about the starving on Bangladesh next.” I didn’t think she’d pick up on the reference – familiar to a generation of wasteful children brought up in the wake of the 1974 Bangladeshi famine – but she grinned. “Bangladesh? In Israel, our parents talked about Biafra.” She reached across the table, scooped a spoonful from my plate. “Of course, you know all about that, being Nigerian...” She looked up expectantly. But she was wrong.
Not very long before I was born, Nigeria – where I spent most of my childhood – was ripped apart by civil war, federal troops of the Nigerian government pitted against the secessionist Biafra state in the Igbo-speaking south east of the country. The war was as unpleasant as internecine warfare can be: The Biafran famine, the event that my dining companion referred to, was probably the low point. After federal troops cut supply routes to the breakaway state, the serving finance minister notoriously declared that starvation was a legitimate weapon of war. Hundreds of thousands died from malnutrition.
The thing was, however, I knew pretty much nothing about this before the chance remark over dinner. True, that 12 years of elementary and high school education failed to leave their mark on me is mainly my fault; but in this respect, I am entirely blameless. At no point during my education did I ever receive formal instruction about the Nigerian Civil War.
Strange, no? I blame the rhetoric of victory. “No victor, no vanquished” was the official line presented by the federal government on the cessation of hostilities. It made sense, up to a point. Life had to go on, erstwhile combatants had to live alongside one another once more. But it also elided historical fact. “No victor, no vanquished” circumscribed four years of brutal conflict, painful truths from the war remained untold. And so, my generation of Nigerians grew up with little knowledge of the horrors that preceded us by just a few years. We were one happy nation, we believed. We wanted to believe.
The years have passed. The Israel woman and I got married, had a kid, moved to Tel Aviv. I’ve learnt a few things in the intervening period. One is that the apple can fall far from the tree. The kid, in his first year of elementary school, has a zest for learning that I never possessed. Consequently, I spend endless afternoon kicking my heels in school corridors, whilst he attends one chug or another.
I’ve learnt a bit of Israeli history too, some of it from the walls in his school. You know how it is: little presentations about the presidents of Israel, the triumph of Zionism and so on and so forth. Nothing controversial. Or perhaps not...
The other day, I happened across a small mural, a tableau in two parts. It featured photographs of David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin. The former was captured in full rhetorical flow, the latter was shaking hands with Sadat and Carter on the White House Lawn. The emphasis was on statesmanship. These men built the nation, one understands. Settled fact. But it isn’t really, is it?
It’s a cliche to say that history is always contested territory, narrative and counter-narrative locked in eternal conflict. That’s the way it is, and always will be. But it is something else to strip the past of the nuance and subtlety that shape the fuller picture.
Take the mural in my son’s school, for instance. I do know enough about Israeli history to know that Ben Gurion and Begin represent two contrasting schools of Zionist thought, they did not exactly complement each other in the act of state-building. It’s a distinction that feeds directly into the schisms of the contemporary political scene. But you wouldn’t know it to look at this tidy little mural.
Am I overstating the issue? Six-year-olds probably need not be clued up on the finer detail of the sinking of the Altalena just yet. But then... The distinction between Israel’s history as presented and Israel’s history as lived sometimes seem like an ideal case study in how to aim for the lowest common denominator. Examples abound, in the political, social and cultural spheres. But the emphasis, relentlessly pushed – even to six year olds, it seems – is of one happy nation.
And that’s where the problem lies. The Nigeria I grew up in, that that denied a painful past in the name of national unity, is gradually falling apart. Narratives of the civil war have begun to emerge these last few years, propelled by an undercurrent that lay dormant – but never defunct – for forty years. A generation unprepared to deal with the truth are in denial, rejecting the counter-narrative and exacerbating untreated wounds.
A couple of months ago, Chinua Achebe – quite possibly Nigeria’s greatest writer of all time, an Igbo from the south east – published a personal memoir of Biafra, There Was A Country. Its tone is sharp, at times furious and unforgiving. At one point, he writes: “There are tons of treatises that talk about how the Igbo were wonderfully re-integrated into Nigeria. Well, I have news for them: the Igbo were not, and continue not to be reintegrated into Nigeria...”. He may be right, he may not. But it scarcely matters any more. 40 years on, the time to talk honestly about the past has passed. The quest for a simple narrative has calcified minds.
There’s a lesson here for Israel. One has become so accustomed to fearing the enemy without that it has become easy to ignore the demons lurking within. At some point, I fear, the spurious benefits of constructing an unthreatening uncomplicated truth will be swallowed whole by the long term consequences of denying a plurality of voices. And that’s a shame. I’d much rather, to be honest, that my son has the chance to grapple with the messy reality of his heritage now, rather than having it served up to him over dinner 20 years from now. If nothing else, he’s not much of an eater. He won’t even get a decent meal out of it.
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Akin Ajayi is a freelance writer and editor based in Tel Aviv who moved to Israel from the United Kingdom in 2007.