Writing to overcome trauma in Gaza

The Islamic University of Gaza was bombed by Israel in August.

Ashraf Amra APA images

In early August, Israeli warplanes bombed the prestigious Islamic University of Gaza (IUG), the academic home to 20,000 Palestinian students, repeating similar attacks in December 2008.

As The Electronic Intifada’s Rami Almegari — who lectures at IUG — wrote on 4 August, the American Studies Association condemned Israel’s attacks on IUG and “has correctly observed that the bombing of Palestinian universities is not only an abuse of academic freedom, it is an attempt to prevent us from enjoying the basic necessities that we need to get by.”

The start of the academic year in Gaza was heavily delayed because of the enormous destruction of infrastructure, homes, schools and universities, but classes have resumed in the last few weeks.

On 2 October, I spoke with Refaat Alareer, a professor of comparative literature and creative writing at IUG, and the editor of the recently released anthology Gaza Writes BackHe described the resumption of academic life in Gaza as students and professors deal with personal and collective loss and ongoing trauma.

Alareer is also a contributor to The Electronic Intifada, and wrote in July about his brother, Hamada, who was killed in an Israeli airstrike on his home — one of the more than 2,100 Palestinian men, women and children who were killed during Israel’s seven-week onslaught.

“No one hasn’t been touched”

“The situation is really tough for everyone in Gaza. No one hasn’t been touched by the barbarity and aggression of Israel,” Alareer said. “As for the university, as you know, my students were touched in so many ways. I can feel that in their reactions, I can see that in their eyes as a teacher.” 

He added that because of the extreme shortage of electricity — Israel bombed Gaza’s sole power plant during the summer attacks — students are unable to complete homework. Others, whose homes were completely destroyed, are still displaced and sheltering either with family or at United Nations schools, and many have lost friends and family members. 

Alareer said that for his students at the Islamic University of Gaza, it’s difficult for them to connect with their professors because portions of the administration building, including professors’ offices, were completely destroyed in Israeli attacks.

Listen to the interview via the player, or read the transcript below.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Talk about the classes you’re teaching, and what Palestinian academic life is like at the Islamic University of Gaza, after Israel destroyed parts of the campus, and as students try to resume their studies after so much destruction and personal loss over the summer.

Refaat Alareer: I’m currently teaching two classes. I’ve been back since mid-September, and I’ve started to teach short stories and English poetry. Both classes are probably the most diverse, and the most interesting at the Islamic University’s English department, because they’re not restricted to any — although we’re starting to teach English literature, these two courses really give a chance for the teacher and the students to study a variety of texts from all over the world.

For example, in my short story class, I teach Hemingway, Anton Chekov, Edgar Allen Poe, Chinua Achebe, some other Italian, French, African, Asian and of course Palestinian short story writers.

The other class is also as diverse as the first one, it’s English poetry. Again, we try to cover texts from American poetry and of course Palestinian, and Israeli poetry of course. I taught Israeli poetry before, and I’m, very excited to teach Israeli poetry after the war. I’m planning to trace the way students react to the Israeli texts after the war, and see if there is any kind of change in their attitude and their reactions to having to study texts by Israeli writers. So these are the two classes I’m teaching currently.

The situation is really tough for everyone in Gaza. No one hasn’t been touched by the barbarity and aggression of Israel. Probably children, schoolchildren especially, are the most vulnerable indeed, and they influence the young imagination. So many of them did not dare to go to school the first week, my two sons included. My sons and my daughter — it took them a week to dare to go back to school. I didn’t want to push them, I wanted them to take it easy.

The other thing — my house has been destroyed and I’ve been looking for a suitable flat to rent until our family house is rebuilt.

As for the university, as you know, my students were touched in so many ways. I can feel that in their reactions, I can see that in their eyes as a teacher. They’re constantly asking for less homework, less work to do, because we have compared to any time before, we only have a few hours of electricity. And we have many of those people with damaged houses, or destroyed houses, or family members who were injured or killed by Israel. And especially for the Islamic University students, in particular students of the … English department — the offices of the professors were completely destroyed by Israel’s targeting the Islamic University’s administration building, students, our students are suffering the most.

It’s not easy for them to track teachers for office hours, it’s not easy to pop in the office, because the office is not there, and some of the teachers, myself included, do not have a place to sit in to just meet students for office hours.

I’m trying to use — as an academic, teaching at the Islamic University, and being in touch with young Palestinians, trying to use literature to try to help my students overcome at least some of the trauma and the tragedies they’ve been through.

For example, I’m assigning them to write a short story in my short story class as a way of trying to find some way out, to release some of the anger, some of the pain, some of the hopes that they still have.

NBF: Can you give us some examples of the kinds of creative writing that your students have been producing, and what the differences have been that you’ve noticed, before the attacks and now just afterwards?

RA: So far, I assigned them to write two very short stories. We started discussing point of view and how a story could mean so many things, how to avoid being framed by first-person narration, for example, and to always look forward to examining the other narratives out there. I tried to apply this to how the all-powerful Israeli narratives are supported by the millions and millions of American dollars, and the media — how it is dominating the world and how we Palestinians have to have our say, have our word out there to raise our voices, in order not to compete with the Israeli narrative but to tell the world that this is what’s going on in our own voices.

And these two short assignments are — it could be fun exercises but they could be funny in one way or another — how for example there was a story about a housewife and how she’s trying to just get rid of her husband and her kids and get them out to work and to school and to have the house just to herself. And I think to rewrite the story from the point of view as one of the kids, or one of the neighbors, or the husband — for the first time, most of the stories, especially those from the point of view of the husband, came out as violent in a way that — I don’t know how to describe it — but it shocked me in the way how tough the other narratives are. They’re trying to release some of the anger in the form of a story where the husband is usually trying to refute his wife’s opinion of his life, of his job, et cetera.

But I can say that this is something — it’s only been two weeks, but I’ve noticed that in their writing … they’re writing a lot, or I’ll ask them to write a couple of paragraphs, and for the first time, I’m surprised that most of my students are willing to go on and on writing, like three and four and five paragraphs, rather than only sticking to what I told them to do. And finally, most of them want to speak. This is new in my classes — it’s usually only a few students. And then I have to ask them to — they’re competing to raise their hands and to speak to read aloud their story.

I think this is something that’s in a way — in the beginning, informed them about the importance of creatively and nonviolently expressing themselves and talking to them about the importance of writing, especially after the Gaza Writes Back tour of the United States and how the book has managed to change opinions and hearts about Palestine and Gaza.

NBF: As you mentioned before, your house was destroyed and you lost 26 members of your family and extended family, including your brother, Hamada, during Israel’s attacks over the summer, and this all happened while you were out of Palestine — coming back, how are you coping, personally?

RA: It’s — I can’t describe how I felt, but it was one of those moments you want to describe, coming back home without being able to recognize your house, not because it was renovated or decorated, but because it’s not there. Because your family had to relocate four times, escaping Israeli shells, because we don’t know the new area your family is now living in. It’s probably — it’s horrible. I can say seriously … I was telling my students, my friends the other day how I didn’t recognize my house … my wife was on the phone and I was a hundred meters away from where they were staying, and she was telling me directions, and I lost my sense of direction. I didn’t know whether I was going east or west.

That is something that I only thought happened in movies, where people just lose their sense of direction and sense of belonging. Coming back home to a family that lost family members, immediate family members, coming back home and not finding the house that you’d been born in, in which you’d lived all your 35 years, and which you got married in, and which you had five children in, and all your family members — all the good memories, all the bad ones. It can’t be described seriously.

But, again, it’s like what I always tell myself and others, trying to console myself — we can’t let this sadness overcome us, because we have to go on and continue. It’s something that as Palestinians we understand — it’s part of the sacrifice we have to do to Palestine, for the struggle for a free Palestine, for a Palestine where aggression and racism and apartheid do not exist. A Palestine where justice prevails, and touches everybody regardless of their beliefs or their color of skin.


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).