“Writing is an act of courage,” say storytellers from Gaza

Israel’s attacks on Gaza in 2008-09 killed more than 1,400 Palestinians and destroyed thousands of homes and buildings.

Ashraf Amra APA images

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Gaza Writes Back

From left, Yousef Aljamal, Refaat Alareer and Rawan Yaghi joined Ali Abunimah at an event in Berkeley last week.

Nora Barrows-Friedman

Refaat Alareer: My name is Refaat Alareer. I am a Palestinian from Gaza. Gaza Writes Back is one of the most important projects I have worked on as a Palestinian academic. The Gaza Writes Back book came to mark the fifth anniversary of Operation Cast Lead, when Israel ruthlessly murdered more than 1,400 Palestinians and injured thousands and made homeless more than 20,000 Palestinians.

At that time, as a young Palestinian living in Gaza, I realized there was more I can do to resist the Israeli operations, Israeli racism and humiliation inflicted on Palestinians. We started writing on our blogs and publishing articles on Mondoweiss and on The Electronic Intifada. And basically after the war, everybody was writing but mainly writing personal reflections and experiences.

Later on, we realized that there was a very important step we must take, which is to upgrade what we write into fiction in order to take the whole Palestine issue, cause, globally by fiction — because fiction is timeless and universal. And then my friends and I started holding and conducting some workshops and writing courses on creative writing and short story writing, poetry writing, and everybody started writing wonderful pieces — because we live the pain, we live the experience, and writing about Palestine was not difficult. Because at the same time, we realized how important it was.

So Gaza Writes Back came from these beliefs of the importance of writing back, in order to bring the Palestinian voices, the Palestinian narrative out there. The book contains 23 short stories written in English by young people, and 12 of these young people are female.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Can you talk a little bit about the process of working with these writers? In short fiction and poetry there’s a lot of creative liberty that you can take — a lot of these stories are inspired … not all of them, but a lot of them — are inspired by Operation Cast Lead. So what was it like being able to work with these writers and being able to cultivate these voices of creativity?

RA: As a teacher of creative writing, I always believe — I still do, actually — that there’s always a writer inside every one of us. All you need to so is some poking. And that writing is an act of courage. You have to be courageous in order to believe that you can write. For these Palestinians, they had the very good command of English and the understanding of the importance of their role as young Palestinians who have to do something for the struggle against oppression and racism.

So every time we had, for example, a course on creative writing, we would have twenty students or twenty people joining from different universities and sometimes I would invite people who I know can write. And we would usually start by reading samples of poetry or short stories and talk about them, discuss them, and take it from there, instead of being on the recipient part where we just receive literature — we had to produce literature because that’s what we intended to do from the first place.

The other thing is that I decided to take this thing to my own classes at the Islamic University [of Gaza] where I teach. I started assigning my students to write fiction instead of research papers. And I usually had students coming to me and complaining that they had never written anything before, let alone write fiction.

But, again, with the discussions we would have in the class, in the samples and the training sessions we would hold, basically everybody started writing. Even the first story in Gaza Writes Back, called “L for Life” by Hanan Habashi, in my opinion it’s the best story in the book. And Hanan Habashi came to me at the beginning of the term saying she hasn’t written anything before, and it’s not easy for her to write. And I said, you have to start believing in yourself. As a Palestinian, you have the talent, you have the experience, you live the pain, all you need to do is just to put your pen on the paper, and then words and ideas are going to flow naturally.

And from these classes, we had so many amazing pieces that I collected and kept somewhere, and later on when Helena Cobban of Just World Books contacted me, we discussed the idea of having a book from Gaza to mark the fifth anniversary of Operation Cast Lead. I announced this on my Facebook [page] and elsewhere that I was working on a book of short stories, and if you have ever written a short story, if you can write a short story, please send me whatever you have. And if you are willing to adapt, to develop and try to write short stories, we will be holding a training course where Yousef [Aljamal] works, to train young people who want to write short stories. And we started to receive tens and tens of pieces.

NBF: Rawan, could you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about yourself?

Rawan Yaghi: My name is Rawan Yaghi, I’m 20 years old. I’m currently studying in the UK. I used to study at the Islamic University of Gaza. I did English literature there, and now I’m doing linguistics.

NBF: And had you ever written short fiction before?

RY: Yes. I started writing short fiction when I was 17, and most of my pieces were about children and their point of view when they experience loss and war and destruction.

NBF: And you have several pieces in Gaza Writes Back that are written from the perspective of young people, of children, especially during the attacks in 2008-2009. Can you talk about why it’s important for you to pick a child as the narrator in your stories?

RY: Because during Operation Cast Lead, I would stay at home with my family like everyone else. And we heard about stories of children going through really difficult situations, like being trapped under rubble or losing their relatives or witnessing the death of their parents. And I was always afraid of having to go through that myself, and I wasn’t even that young. I was 16. And I felt that if it’s so terrifying for me, how would it feel for a child?

So I thought a child’s experience must be talked about, must be exposed, so that it doesn’t happen to more children in the world.

NBF: Could I ask you to read one of your pieces from Gaza Writes Back?

RY: Sure. “A Wall” is a short story about the separation wall in the West Bank, and it talks about a young person just walking next to the wall and thinking to himself or herself.

A Wall

It’s funny there’s a sidewalk here. I walked with my fingertips touching the huge blocks of the great wall built to scare me. I didn’t look at the graffiti; I know it very well. The sky was half eaten by the wall, and the sun was no better. I tripped on a stone, probably thrown by some of my friends yesterday. I sat down where I stumbled and grabbed the stone, started at it for a minute, and threw it over the wall. I listened for an “ouch,” a curse word, footsteps, a call, a whisper, or a gunshot. Nothing. I kept on walking. It didn’t seem to end. My fingertips were now stained with all the graffiti colors. I stopped. I turned my face to the wall. I put both my hands on it. I pushed. I kept pushing, my arms straight, my teeth clenched, my legs rooted to the ground, the smell of the spray-paint going through my nostrils to my lungs. A man walking past me stopped to see what would come of this. My feet started backing the other way. A sound from inside me broke out into a scream. I collapsed to the ground crying. The man laughed and went on walking.

NBF: Rawan, thank you so much. And Yousef Aljamal, you’re no stranger to The Electronic Intifada. Tell us a little about yourself, and where you’ve been the last nine months — and why you wanted to contribute to Gaza Writes Back.

Yousef Aljamal: My name is Yousef Aljamal, I’m a Palestinian refugee from the Gaza Strip, from Nuseirat refugee camp, a contributor to Gaza Writes Back. Currently I’m doing a master’s in international relations in Malaysia.

“Omar X,” my story that I contributed to Gaza Writes Back, is deeply rooted in my family’s reality. It’s the story of my oldest brother who was shot dead in 2004 by Israeli soldiers who invaded our refugee camp and shot 14 Palestinians dead, including my oldest brother and his friend. The story tries to capture the last moments in Omar’s life when he was bleeding, because the following day when he was shot, I rushed to the site of the killing and I found some of Omar’s belongings on the ground, including his cell phone.

And when I checked the call history, I found out that he was trying to call the family, probably to say a last goodbye. But he couldn’t because of the advanced Israeli military [technology] that cut off all communication in that area. Israeli snipers didn’t allow, of course, the paramedics to transfer him to the hospital — as a result, he passed away.

So I tried to imagine what he was thinking of, the things that he wanted to tell the family when he was bleeding, and since we were on his mind until the very last moments of his life, this story is to immortalize him through fiction. To remember him, to make him memorable. To educate people all over the world about him and the 13 Palestinians who were killed that day in Nuseirat refugee camp.

This was not the end of the story. The story is entitled “Omar X” because two years later, my mother delivered another baby boy, and, as expected, named him after my oldest brother. So I ended up with two brothers named Omar — one is the oldest, and one is the youngest. So this story is also about my youngest brother, who had to live in the shadow of my oldest brother who was murdered by Israel.

NBF: And you’ve been a journalist for many years. How was it switching gears and diving into fiction?

YA: This was the first time I wrote fiction ever. I have written many articles, non-fiction, about the personal experience of my family and the personal experience of other people under occupation. I think [writing] fiction is not that different, however, it’s completely different because I write about personal experiences, and I feel very much involved in writing whether I write fiction or non-fiction, because I talk about my personal experience.

When I write fiction, I have to make a few changes, add new characters, but still the story is there — the same story, the truth is there. It doesn’t change.

Omar X

The night was silent. The moon hid behind some summer clouds. His smile revealed his young age. His steps beat the ground slowly, looking for the path. The thump-thump sounds of a helicopter were getting closer, penetrating the peace of the crowded refugee camp his family had lived in since 1948, and the familiar noise of tanks rolling in violated the silence of the night and decreed that he will never sleep again. He got into his khaki uniform hastily, grabbed his gun, and rubbing its dusty barrel, stormed out of the house. As he waited a little at the doorstep of their house to make sure no one was watching, his eyes wandered right and left, and finally met the eyes of his friend, who was murdered three months ago and is now immortalized in posters stuck on walls of the camp. Those honey eyes of his best friend always brought him comfort. As the helicopter moved away for a while, silence prevailed again.

Soon after, Saad joined him, and together they entered an orange orchard. Saad insisted on going in first. Omar followed after Saad made sure no soldiers were around. “The place must be safe. Let’s get closer to that building in the middle. We can see things clearer from there,” Omar suggested in a whisper.

The grass under their feet was fresh. The only noise they could hear was that of the branches rubbing against them as they went further. Saad stopped to check his gun. Omar did the same. They stood still for a second. Silence was heard again, this time even clearer. It all made sense now. That silence was artificial. Omar and Saad did not have time to communicate, except for some glances. Bullets poured from the building into them. Omar fell down, shot. “Watch out! Crawl on the ground!” Saad, still in disbelief, shouted. More bullets whizzed by.

Despite her love for her first son, Omar’s mother could do nothing to stop him. She wanted him to study hard to pass his high school final exams. “Just study hard this year, then you can put off your education for a few years,” Um Omar suggested, urging him to focus on his school. “I will bring you a certificate that will make you raise your head proudly high in the sky,” Omar would say to comfort his increasingly worried mother.

As he bled, a song he loved and always sang jumped to his mind: “My mother prepared me a comfortable bed. She made me a leather pillow and wished me eternal happiness. This is your bride, shining like a diamond …”

Omar was too fragile to take out his mobile and make a last call to his family. He kept bleeding, and the bullets kept coming. He swung his head to his right. Face down, Saad was lying lifeless next to him. He gathered enough strength and extended his hand over Saad’s body. And before he could do anything, his hand fell down.

NBF: Thank you, Yousef. Refaat, finally, how has it been touring the US, and what kind of response has this book and these fabulous writers gotten so far?

RA: It’s been fantastic so far. We’ve been to all sorts of places, university campuses, churches, synagogues, all sorts of gatherings, we’ve met all sorts of people. And the reaction to people who we spoke to was really amazing all the time, we heard from people who read the book and reacted positively to it, recommending it to their friends and family.

But most importantly, we’ve met wonderful people from all walks of life, mainly Palestinians born and raised here, very active for Palestine, for BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions]; we’ve met wonderful people like Ali Abunimah and others. We also — and this is very important to me, personally — we met so many Jewish people working for justice for Palestine. It’s something Israel doesn’t want us to know as Palestinians — that there are many Jewish people who work for Palestine.

For us, Gaza Writes Back is only one project, one drop, we’re hoping that many other books from us and from other Palestinians and pro-Palestinians would follow because we believe in the power of the word. We believe in the power of the word, how it mobilizes for the just cause of Palestine. We believe that writing more is going to bring more people around us Palestinians, to bring equal rights, to end Israeli racism and occupation and guarantee the right of return to all Palestinians.

NBF: And the book is called Gaza Writes Back, it’s published by Just World Books.

End transcript.




Israel defines itself as a Jewish state, a racist state, and will never accept a non apartheid democracy with a Jewish minority. Continuing illegal annexations, settlement expansion and ethnic cleansing have also precluded any negotiated two state solution. Justice may now be served only by imposing resolution just as involuntary, disruptive and humiliating to Israel as Israel has wreaked upon occupied Palestine for generations. The Jewish State must be forced, by whatever means necessary, to recognize an armed Palestine with externally enforced autonomy, eviction of all settlers, true contiguity encompassing Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem together, neither pinched nor parceled, and pay punitive reparations. American foreign policy may then again serve American interests, not the Jewish state's paranoid pursuit of invulnerability, territorial conquest and racist empire in and beyond the Mideast.

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).