Podcast Ep 64: Light in Gaza

On episode 64, we speak to contributors of a new literary anthology, Light in Gaza: Writings Born of Fire, in which essays, poems and artwork illuminate the Palestinian experience of Gaza.

“This book seeks to answer a very straightforward question,” Jehad Abusalim, an editor of the book, tells us.

“How can we imagine a future for Gaza as part of the broader struggle for Palestinian liberation? And I think the answer lies in the common thread that combines all the pieces and chapters and poems, and even wonderful photos that people will see in the book. The answer is simple. The Nakba has got to end,” he says.

Nakba – Arabic for catastrophe – is the term that Palestinians use to describe how they were expelled from their homes en masse by Zionist forces in 1948.

Abusalim is the education and policy associate of the American Friends Service Committee’s Palestine activism program. The book itself is a project of the human rights group.

Yousef M. Aljamal, a journalist and contributor to The Electronic Intifada, says that his chapter in the book “argues that for Gaza to live a better future, travel restrictions have to be lifted and removed altogether.”

Since 1948, he adds, “one of the main targets of Israel’s occupation has been the fabric of Palestinian families and the Palestinian society as a whole. … [Travel restrictions] are a continuation of the ongoing Nakba that we have re-lived many times, and we are still living every day.”

Asmaa Abu Mezied tells us that in her chapter, she explores “the lost Palestinian identity between agriculture and environment. And I’m trying to look at our grandparents’ relationship to the land, to the agriculture as a profession, but also as a part of a movement of resistance that Palestinian farmers have been leading.”

Articles we discussed

Video production by Tamara Nassar

Theme music by Sharif Zakout

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Full transcript

Lightly edited for clarity.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Welcome back to The Electronic Intifada Podcast. I’m Nora Barrows-Friedman. A new literary anthology, Light in Gaza: Writings Born of Fire has just been published from Haymarket Books, a book that imagines what a future in Gaza could be in an attempt, as one of our guests and the co-editor of the book Jehad Abusalim says, to break the intellectual blockade on Gaza. Jean-Pierre Filiu, author of Gaza: A History, says about the book, “as Mahmoud Darwish wrote as early as 1973, we do injustice to Gaza when we turn it into a myth. This is why Light in Gaza, through its insightful collection of essays and poems, offers such a unique picture of the Palestinian experience in a territory cut off from the world for a decade and a half.” We’re delighted to have Jehad as well as two of the contributors to Light in Gaza: Writings Born of Fire on with us today, Asmaa Abu Mezied and Yousef Aljamal. Jehad, Asmaa and Yousef, thank you so much for being with us. And congratulations on the publication of this anthology.

Jehad Abusalim: Thanks for having us. Thank you.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Jehad, let’s start with you, as you’re one of the co-editors. And this is a project of the American Friends Service Committee where you are the education and policy associate at the Palestine activism program. Give us a sense of the scope of this book.

Jehad Abusalim: This book seeks to answer a very straightforward question. How can we imagine a future for Gaza as part of the broader struggle for Palestinian liberation? And I think the answer lies in the common thread that brings together, combines all the pieces and chapters and poems, and even wonderful photos that people will see in the book. The answer is simple. The Nakba has got to end. The Nakba, the catastrophe that befell Palestinians in 1948, was not just an event relegated to a specific point in time, the expulsion of Palestinians, the – Israel’s, you know, efforts to remove Palestinians from their lands to – to render them as refugees behind fences so that it can maintain its Jewish majority formula.

All these are processes that started before and during 1948, during the Nakba, and still continue until today. And we, in the book, we look at Gaza as one of – as an example of how the Nakba continues today. And we try to think about the several aspects of Gaza’s experience in – within this framework. So the book is about, it’s about framing, it’s about analysis. And it’s about the richness and the diversity of the Palestinian experience of Gaza. And most importantly, it’s about conveying the voice of Palestinians in Gaza to the outside world and making their voices heard.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Asmaa, tell us a little bit about yourself and your work as a writer and as one of the contributors to this anthology.

Asmaa Abu Mezied: Thank you, Nora. And so I consider myself a beginner gardener. And it’s ironic because I started my gardening journey. Because it’s related to my work. So I wanted to connect with nature, but also to understand the experiences of the women that I work with. And one fact that it was interesting to – for me to see is that I had one type of flower that I was trying to grow and it lasted a year without blooming. So I was, like, almost ready to give up and for me, it was interesting that only during the aggression of 2021, when, like, things were about to, like, just give up, it bloomed. And I felt like it’s a message for me to continue.

And that was also through the process of writing the chapter. My work in the book is looking at the lost identity, the lost Palestinian identity between agriculture and the environment. And I’m trying, trying to look at our grandparents’ relationship to the land, to agriculture as a profession, but also as a part of a movement of resistance that Palestinian farmers have been leading. And Gaza, in particular, what does it mean for it? So it’s a lot inspired from my own grandparents who are farmers, by heart and by profession, but it’s also a reflection on what does farming mean to us now in Gaza, with all the restrictions that we’re seeing, with all the very systematic attacks on agriculture as a profession, but in its essence as an attack on agriculture as an identity as well.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Can you talk a little bit more about that? The essay that is in the book is called “On why we still hold on to our phones and keep recording.” And, you know, just the title of that kind of struck me. Because, you know, we’re coming off of the heels of yet another brutal Israeli assault on Gaza just last month. Can you talk about, about what, you know, what that title means? And, and, and kind of the, you know, how it relates to not just, you know, something that you witnessed last year, but that’s something that keeps happening again, and again?

Asmaa Abu Mezied: So, during the aggression last year, like the amount of – like guilt that we felt, because we are every single day, we woke up, and we are the lucky ones who survive. But also the fact that we have to sit on screens to monitor everything that’s happening, but also get exposed to the discussion that dehumanizes you, that puts you in a space that you have to prove that you are worthy of even breathing, or even taking a space to speak was something really suffocating. But what I felt most important is not that we should write to them. Actually, we should write to ourselves. And I think this is something we tend to forget.

But with generation after generation, that kind of collective memory is not something that is preserved. And I’ve seen it with my work and in the chapter on agriculture. And I felt it’s important for us to document and write and record, because later on, in 20 years time, there will be people who will tell us and make us feel that we have not done enough, that we have run away, we were cowards. So it was not really for them. It was only for our future generation that, you know, you need to understand what we went through and you need to understand how we continue to do our work to survive, and to take that knowledge as a way of strength to also continue.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Thanks, Asmaa. Yousef, you’re a longtime writer and journalist, you’ve contributed to The Electronic Intifada many times. Tell us about your essay, which is called “Travel restrictions as a manifestation of Nakba, Gaza, the path backwards is the path forward.” Tell us about your essay and what it entails.

Yousef Aljamal: Thank you for having us today. As you know, some of the writings that I have published with The Electronic Intifada address the issue of travel restrictions from a personal perspective. It doesn’t mean that, you know, the situation or the experience of my family in Gaza, vis-a-vis travel restrictions is unique. It’s not, but it’s a personal representation of this collective experience, travel restrictions and how they affect, you know, our lives, how they affect patients. I have written about, you know, my sister, for example, being denied a permit to have surgery, a minor surgery in Jerusalem and losing her life, about my mother trying to get a permit for 12 years to visit her own family in the West Bank.

And I thought that this is the best way to tell the story – to connect it with the personal because people do relate to personal stories. So my chapter in the book argues that for Gaza to live a better future, travel restrictions have to be lifted and removed altogether. So that Gaza could connect with the outside world on one hand, and could also connect with the rest of Palestine, with the West Bank, and what is today Israel, for Palestinians to be able to travel freely, so that no Palestinian would have to wait, you know, for the borders to open or, you know, cancer patients wouldn’t have to wait for Israeli permits to get their medication, and many of them actually have lost their lives.

So my chapter asks for, you know, lifting these restrictions, and showing how when these restrictions are lifted, that Palestinian lives could improve, that we could go back to the original settings when Gaza was connected with the rest of Palestine and the rest of the world. The same as the situation or the case was before 1948, where we could as a family be united. You know, I haven’t seen my family in a single place since I was born. Because we are divided by restrictions, by checkpoints, by borders, by permits. I have family everywhere, in most of the region and Jordan, in the Gulf and Europe and the US, but we cannot meet in a single place. So for Gaza to move forward, we have to go back to the original settings, that is when Gaza was connected with the rest of Palestine.

And in – under these circumstances, people could travel freely, students wouldn’t have to lose their scholarships because the border is shut down or because the checkpoint is not allowing them to leave. And in this case, as I said, patients wouldn’t have to die. We, as a family, could be in one place. And, you know, one of the main targets of Israel’s occupation has been the fabric of Palestinian families and the Palestinian society as a whole. So breaking down families is part of this ongoing Nakba that Jehad addressed at the beginning of his intervention, that you know, what is happening today in Gaza, this siege and these travel restrictions are continuing since 1948. They are a continuation of the ongoing Nakba that we have re-lived many times, and we are still living every day.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Absolutely. Part of this book is is not just talking about what has happened and what keeps happening to Gaza, but also what could be Gaza’s future, what does it mean, for both of you. Asmaa, maybe you can start, to reimagine Gaza, apart from its designation, as you know, an open-air prison or a massive research and development factory for Israeli weapons, or, you know, the home to 2 million people, 80 percent of whom are refugees. How do we talk about Gaza in terms of the future and in terms of preserving identity, culture and liberation struggle?

Asmaa Abu Mezied: I think one of the things that we’ve done in the book and also in the chapter is tracking that history and thinking in tracking the history and having that macro lens on how identity evolved in terms of agriculture and environment, for example, it really shows you the magnitude of systematic attacks on this identity, and how even the basics that would preserve a future, that could support a different future, is undermined in every way. But also that there are attempts, always there are attempts of reclaiming who we are and reclaiming what we want to do.

But I also warn against the romanticization of these attempts, because it has a reserve that is not endless, and that there are so many things that need to be done. To be honest, I ended the chapter while writing it with a message of hope and a reimagining and then the May aggression happened. And I talked to my editor and I told her I want to take it back. And I want to change the ending, because, honestly, without stopping what’s happening in Gaza, without the end of the blockade and the occupation, any future will only put the burden on Palestinians in Gaza to imagine a future that is, you know, a bright future. And that’s in itself a narrative that we should call it out, and we should fight it.

There are so many attempts, I can tell you about the attempts of people like gathering, you know, local seeds and trying to preserve the little that exists. But then we cannot ignore how economic and social deterioration is affecting and suffocating even these spaces, and the need for even Palestinians in diaspora and everywhere, to be aware of that, to know that there is a relentless effort that needs to be taking place, not only during aggressions but during all year long.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Yousef or Jehad, did you want to add to that?

Yousef Aljamal: I think I agree with Asmaa. So the situation is catastrophic in many different ways. There is an ongoing tragedy that also cannot be separated from the whole, you know, Nakba, the whole tragedy that is taking place in Palestine every day. And people need to be aware of that. People should not, you know, the impact of the 15-year-old siege on Gaza, on people losing their lives, but most importantly, losing, you know, the belief that a solution could be reached, we have people who have lost hope, but at the same time, there are some people who are trying to struggle and survive.

And despite the, you know, the struggles and difficulties, they’re trying to somehow get through and build their own future. We have a very good IT community in Gaza, people are trying to build their own startups, for example, or small projects. But again, the whole picture, we cannot separate this from the challenges people face. We have people working on, for example, solutions for contaminated water or you know, 97 percent of Gaza’s water is unfit for human consumption, we have people working to solve this problem. But again, we have a long way to go on many different levels. Romanticizing life in Gaza, I think it’s more harmful than beneficial to the people of Gaza. And that’s why when many delegations used to come to Gaza when I was there, I would take them to the most impoverished, you know, areas in Gaza so that they could see the impact the siege had on people because this is real life.

The majority of people live this life in Gaza today, unfortunately, 15 years on, the siege has not ended, it’s getting worse every day. But at the same time, we want to highlight that there are people who are resisting, the people who did not lose hope, they’re doing their best to survive and, you know, continue their lives under these circumstances, that they are also thinking of the future and solutions, not just for Gaza, but the whole, you know, situation, the occupation, settler-colonialism in Palestine, that they see themselves as part of this liberation project. And that’s why, for example, we have the Great March of Return, or we had the Great March of Return. And it’s not only about Gaza. It’s also about the rest of Palestine.

And that’s why, also, you see people from Gaza following the news of Palestinians in the West Bank and today’s Israel, because we cannot separate, you know, these communities and the people in Gaza to think of the, you know, of Palestinians in the diaspora and elsewhere, they see themselves as part of one project. But at the same time, they want to tell the world that the impact of the siege on them had been very catastrophic, and the image is not very bright, unfortunately.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Yeah, I mean, it reminds me of, you know, all of the very small NGO projects that, you know, these, they like the US and the EU and Canada like to tout, as, you know, we are we’re doing something for the Palestinian people, while still sending, you know, billions and billions of dollars to support Israel at every turn and resupply Israel with weapons when it wants to bomb Gaza. You know, so it’s like these very piecemeal sort of tokenization and, and really like a dehumanization project of Palestinians like, like they don’t know how to support themselves. So the EU is going to do something, you know, to help you know, whereas this is not what the Palestinians need in terms of a liberation struggle and support for that. Jehad, did you want to talk a little bit about imagining this future in that context?

Jehad Abusalim: Sure. The book does not provide clear cut recipes for what the future should look like. And this is important to say here, because you know, the contributors to the book, do not necessarily represent the multiplicity of opinions in Palestine. We try to capture as many perspectives as we can. And we try to portray a complex picture about how Palestinians in Gaza, from Gaza, in Gaza and outside Gaza, and, and one of the authors is actually from the West Bank, who has never stepped foot in Gaza. But, you know, so he’ll talk, you will read his chapter on electricity and what the power crisis does to people there, it’s a pretty fascinating piece. So we tried to bring together all these perspectives in the book, to portray this picture to show that, you know, here are some of the conversations that these authors are having. And they are representative of some of the discussions that are ongoing in the Palestinian street, on social media, in the civil society, academic and scholarly circles, and so on and so forth.

But I think what’s more important about the book is its politics, and the kind of analysis it encourages people to embrace when thinking about Gaza. And, again, I would like to reiterate my initial point about the historical context that surrounds Gaza. We and speaking of all the, you know, the band-aids, right, that the international community has been, you know, has tried for decades to use to manage the situation, to control Gaza, to tame Gaza without, you know, without any of these solutions actually working out. So, so it’s, it’s a matter of politics, and it’s a matter of analysis. And it’s a matter of how we understand Gaza. And to understand Gaza, we need to go back to 1948. We need to go back to the moment when a part of Palestine, the Gaza district, which was one of historic Palestine’s largest administrative districts, was reduced in size and cut from the rest of historic Palestine.

It was turned into the Gaza Strip that we know today, and where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were pushed towards the southwest and towards the west, and to be made refugees, people – when Palestinians ended up in Gaza, in 1948, they weren’t planning on staying there for decades, they weren’t planning on staying in the Gaza Strip as refugees living in eight refugee camps. These people had land, had property, they lived in cities and towns with dignity and honor. And, but here we are, it’s 2022. And, you know, the Gaza Strip is this small geographic area that is confined and fenced off from the rest of the world, just so that Israel can maintain its Jewish majority. I mean, if we look at the numbers, the rate of population density in Gaza today revolves around 6,000 to 7,000 human beings in a square kilometer. In American terms, that’s 13,000 persons per square mile. And by 2050, this will double.

So we’re talking about a Gaza Strip with 4 million and a half people, where the population density will reach 35,000 human beings per square mile. We’re talking about an impoverished small strip of land that lacks resources, that lacks the ability to support the people who live in it, to maintain their physical well-being. And, yes, people in Gaza are fighters, they have been resisting, they will continue to resist. And they’re willing to fight. You know, and Gaza is an example of how a group of people will refuse to be, you know, to see their rights reduced from political ones about their liberation, self-determination into, you know, just the humanitarian case of begging for bones.

No, that’s not what Gaza is about. And that’s why we wanted to push for a fresh and brave political understanding of what is wrong with our current understanding and approach, especially in the context of the international community when it comes to Gaza. And I talked about this in the introduction to the book and I talk about how, for example, the so-called two-state solution, which is internationally accepted and promoted as the solution for the Palestine question. It does not and will not help Gaza, because there are no practical solutions, even for, you know, the questions such as demographic expansion and growth, right, like Israel today justifies its settlement expansion in the West Bank on the basis of natural population growth, but nobody is talking about natural population growth in Gaza. Where are these people going to go?

If Israel continues to colonize the West Bank, then are these Palestinians in Gaza, this population that has been growing, supposed to move into parts of the West Bank when they are part of a Palestinian state? According to the two-state solution? There are no answers, nobody is willing to answer these existential questions. So – and that shows that we need to go back to 1948, we need to address the processes that have been set in motion since 1948. These are structural processes and issues that are about maintaining the privileges, superiority and power of a certain group at the expense of another. It’s as simple as that. And that’s the message of the book.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Thank you Jehad. Asmaa, what do you hope readers take away from this collection?

Asmaa Abu Mezied: Yeah, the journey of writing the book was very enlightening for me. Because interestingly enough, there isn’t space to talk about our identity from an agricultural and environmental lens. And in my journey of writing this chapter, I started appreciating, or actually, just walking by a tree and trying to guess how old is this tree, because like, one tree that was near my grandparents’ house was planted in 1956. And it’s still there. It has a social significance. But then we no longer linger on these resemblances of identity and significance of identity. And I think it’s something very important for us as Palestinians to reconnect to what land is. The land and agriculture is beyond livelihood – livelihood, and having, you know, food on your table is one aspect. But historically, as Jehad mentioned, and we need to look at that historically, agriculture was a collective action. It was an action where people can collectively organize and work together to have the harvest.

And that collective spirit was also very beneficial in terms of resistance, in terms of even, you know, social change as well. And unfortunately, the more we have diminishing agricultural spaces, spaces with a demographic expansion, the more we are seeing a shift in that and loss of that collective organizing, that conviction of the spirit that we used, it used to be part of our identity. What I really want readers to take, for Palestinians, I wish that this is a space for them to reflect a lot. And I explained in some part we like to wear necklaces of, you know, olive trees. But we don’t think about the experience of the farmer on a daily basis, or how he maintains that olive tree, despite all the attacks on that olive tree.

So to buy a necklace is something good, but to support Palestinian products, and to support the local Palestinian products and creating a demand for this Palestinian product is something that will help this farmer to continue, you know, being resistant and to continue their work on that angle. For other readers. I think and I hope that reading the book in general, would give people an insight into how we think as Palestinians in Gaza. And also what does Gaza mean, I always – when people come to Gaza in a very few days, and suddenly they realize that they know Gaza more than us. And they stay in the fanciest places and judge how Gaza is in no need of like, you know, support and so on.

I really tell them that, in my opinion, Gaza is like a very old lady. If you look at her face, you have so many wrinkles that should tell a story of what she has gone through. What does that lady is telling you to listen to? And where has she reached that old age? And what was the cost on her health, on her body, and even in her spirit to reach that age? And I hope that the book is an attempt for people to listen to that lady, telling them her story with her voices and her experiences. And to listen and to give that space for Palestinians from Gaza to speak and tell their story.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Yousef, did you want to add to that? What do you hope readers take away from your essay and the essays of your colleagues in this anthology?

Yousef Aljamal: I think one important thing that, if this book achieves would be a great success is that, as, you know, Palestinians have always been dehumanized and reduced into statistics and numbers. So I hope that these stories and chapters and personal experiences will push people to think and connect with the Palestinian people. For example, when we talk about travel restrictions and say 10,000 people were denied permits, for example, to travel to the West Bank, or were not able, you know, the 100 students were not able to travel through the Rafah crossing, and lost their scholarships, let’s say this year, that they connect with these people, because these people have, you know, personal stories, they have families, they have history, they have hopes and aspirations they want to achieve.

And by reading, you know, these stories that people will be able to connect with the normal Palestinian on the ground in Gaza, and elsewhere in Palestine. Like when they travel, for example, when they cross a border, when they get to an airport or when they get on a flight, they will remember Palestinians who cannot. And they work to end this injustice, especially that in some cases, like the case of the US, for example, this is happening because of the US tax money given to Israel every year to maintain this system of apartheid and military occupation.

So people would take action, so that when they feel that the story of Palestinians in Gaza matters to them, and means something to them, that they will take political action on a grassroots level, on an institutional level, on a political level, to bring about change. And we’ve seen some of these initiatives recently, for example, taking place at the US Congress, some resolutions to link US aid to Israel to the treatment of Palestinians and respecting the human rights of the Palestinians, including parents and children. So hopefully, this will also bring about change. We wrote these stories, not because we enjoy writing about our tragedies. Retelling these stories is very painful to us every time, especially when we talk about personal tragedies. But we write about these personal tragedies and destruction and death. Because we hope that our future would be better than our past or our tomorrow is better than our yesterday and which means that a political change would happen. So people who will read the book and the chapters will try to bring about political change to end the siege and the occupation of Gaza and the rest of Palestine.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Yousef Aljamal, Asmaa Abu Mezied and Jehad Abusalim, thank you so much for being with us today on The Electronic Intifada Podcast. The book again is called Light in Gaza: Writings Born of Fire, published by Haymarket Books. Jehad is one of the editors along with Jennifer Bing and Michael Merriman-Lotze. We’ll have links to the book itself and more about some of its authors on The Electronic Intifada podcast blog post that accompanies this episode. Thank you all so much, and congratulations again on the book.

Jehad Abusalim: Thank you, Nora.


Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).