Live Like a Porcupine, Fight Like a Flea: A Translation of an Article by Basel Al-Araj

Originally circulated by PYM 03.24.18; article previously appeared in Arabic in Al Quds Media Network

This year marks the first anniversary of the assassination of Basel Al Araj, killed at the hands of a Zionist/ Sulta collaboration. Al-Araj was perhaps one of the most critical contemporary minds serving the resistance. To be frank, Basel would most like find a political qualm with the translation of his work; however, as the Palestinian Youth Movement, we recognize the invaluable contributions this translation can possess for our youth in diaspora. It is thus with great honor that we bring the translation of this work to our youth. Allah yerhamo. Bil ro7! Bil dam! Nafdeek ya Falasteen!

In the year 1895 the psychologist Baldwin coined the term “Social Accommodation,” to describe the social balance (of a biological or physical accommodation) created as a form of negotiating with the surrounding environment. Social accommodation is defined  as a social process aiming to minimize or avoid conflict. It’s a social adjustment process that stops conflict between groups, by way of temporary or permanent consolidation of peaceful interaction.

The psychological aspects of social accommodation indicate individual or collective behavior that aims to reconcile conflict through avoiding aspects of negativity or animosity. This could happen through material (economic), social or psychological compensations to a section of a minority group. Sociologists differentiate between accommodation and adaptation which is defined as the adaptation to natural or organically existing conditions.

Accommodation could also take different forms; it may be voluntary or forced. It could also happen through arbitration, conflict resolution or endurance. Later Ernst Haeckel used the concept of “the ecology” to indicate the relation between humans and the organic or non-organic environment. Ecology became the science that studies the interrelationship of organisms and their environments.

I can’t tell why and when this relationship started between the Palestinian (I use it here broadly to include the Levantine and not just mandate Palestine) and the porcupine. Was the animosity due to interest in hunting it for its delicious meat, and the myths about its healing properties including for male fertility? Or was it simply because porcupines were damaging to farmers and their agricultural crops?

The porcupine is a rodent mammal and is very similar to hedgehogs but is bigger and has multiple names. In fus-ha Arabic it’s called Al Shayham and its scientific name is Hystrix indica. Its body is covered with spikes 10 - 35 cm long (4 to a little over 13 inches) used for self- defense. It weighs 4 to 16 kilograms (9 to 35lbs) and I do recommend trying out its meat.

Porcupines are night animals that live underground in relatively large hole that connect to a network of tunnels, where it also creates rest spots. The porcupine uses various techniques to get in and out of its hole, making the animal seem paranoid, or, what we call in Palestine, has a “high sense of security” . A scientist named Prater is one of the most renowned scientists that studied porcupines. The porcupines that live in our region are fully vegetarian, mostly eating the colocynth plant known for its bitterness, which is why it is not recommended to hunt porcupines with guns, if bullets hit the liver or the spleen it makes its meat very bitter.

The porcupine has a significant presence in the Palestinian popular memory and folk stories. Palestinians told endless stories about the porcupine, they describe it as a strange creature; it cries and wails like humans, it has hopes and wishes. It is said that it is like humans in that if it gets upset it aims its spikes on its predators to hit them. It only wanders around at night; lonely and solely contemplating, getting attracted to smells, to fruits, and roots. The porcupine is quiet and isolated. Though it can wail, it is lonely; its pain is deep, but its grudge is deeper still--just as it is with its hunter.

When hunting, the first lesson to learn is to observe the prey’s behavior closely. Palestinians studied the porcupine closely and learned everything about it (I went out on two hunting trips on which we were very lucky but we did not share our kill with anyone). The hunter needs to learn how to adapt (not to accommodate) with the life and behaviors of its prey to be able to hunt it. But what happened is that the Palestinian took on the porcupine’s behaviors completely, including during danger, becoming a porcupine himself.

One Eid-al-Adha  my family slaughtered five sheep, and I took part in the event; I helped in skinning and cutting of the meat. Unfortunately, the sheep had fleas and I got some on me. I tried really hard to catch them and kill them but it was exhausting, it made me paranoid. I was only able to get rid of them by taking a bath where my battle with the fleas was terminated through combing my body with hot water and soap.  

The flea is a tiny flightless insect of the Siphonaptera order, mostly living as a parasite on other animals, mostly mammals. It’s about 1 to 4 mm. (0.04 to 0.16 inches). It normally moves through a pair of long back legs and stings its host causing itchy red spots.

The flea has fascinating fighting strategies and techniques; it stings, jumps and stings again avoiding hands or feet trying to stomp it. It does not kill its host (meaning it does not kill the entire functions of a dog host for example), what it does is exhaust its host and consume its blood, causing constant disturbance, eventually preventing the host from being able to rest. It makes the host nervous and demoralized. For that to happen, fleas need to procreate, so what begins as a regional infection becomes a more comprehensive problem when the flea procreates, stinging more areas that are more proximate.

Mao Zedong says: the enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue. His theorizing on guerilla warfare can be described as a the flea war.

The conundrum of “how would a nation that is not industrial win over an industrial nation” was solved by Mao. Engels saw that nations that are able to provide capital are more likely to defeat its enemies. Meaning that economic power has the final word in battles because it provides the capital to manufacture arms. Mao’s solution however was to emphasize non-physical (or non-material) elements. Powerful states with powerful armies often focus on material power; arms, administrative issues, the military, but according to Katzenbach, Mao emphasized time, space (ground), and the will. What that means is to avoid large battles leaving ground in favor of time (trading space/ ground with time) using time to build up will, that is the essence of asymmetrical war and guerilla war.

Now if we’re to go back to animals for our comparison, we see that the guerilla fights it's wars like fleas causing the enemy damage similar to what the host experiences when attacked by fleas. A huge area to defend, a small enemy (the fleas) spread out everywhere, fast and hard to capture. If the battle lasts long enough to exhaust the host then it will fail in the battle due to its weakness  while unable to locate the flea(s).

Robert Taber explains it “In practice, the dog does not die of anaemia. He merely becomes too weakened - in military terms, over-extended; in political terms, too unpopular; in economic terms, too expensive - to defend himself. At this point, the flea, having multiplied to a veritable plague of fleas through long series of small victories, each drawing its drop of blood …”

Live like a porcupine, fight like a flea.