Lessons from Refaat Alareer, storyteller

Refaat Alareer 

As I grieve and reflect on my many opportunities interacting with Refaat Alareer over the past eight years, I decided to make a list of what I have learned from him about telling one’s story.

Refaat loved the role of teacher and storyteller, and honestly, he often reminded me of my father – who also was a professor of William Shakespeare and who inspired and lifted up the work of many students to work for justice and peace. Despite their generosity and mentoring of others, both Refaat and my father enjoyed being on the stage, especially when reciting a sonnet or verse.

I am deeply sad that neither my father nor Refaat lived to see a free Palestine, but I know that their spirits live in us all as we continue their storytelling legacies.

Here begins an incomplete, yet important list of lessons I learned from Refaat. I hope after reading them, people who never had the opportunity to meet Refaat, will understand why so many of us miss him.

1. Telling your personal story may be difficult, but tell it

When we were putting together the anthology Light in Gaza: Writings Born of Fire, we asked Refaat to submit an essay about the power of young people in envisioning Gaza’s future. He seemed like the perfect person to write about his long engagement with young people in Gaza and to help bring their voices into our collection.

Instead, he asked if he might write his own story, something he had never done before. Of course we were thrilled, and said we would be eager to read his personal story.

Refaat was the last of our 11 writers to submit his story to our anthology – in fact, he missed a deadline or two. But when we read his essay, we knew we had found the perfect opening to our book.

In his chapter “Gaza Asks: When Will this Pass?” Refaat wove together moments in his life as he grew up in the Shujaiya neighborhood of Gaza City under Israeli military occupation and blockade, including his decision to resist by being a writer and a teacher.

Refaat wrote, “I recoil in horror and shudder as I write this – I am exposed, naked, and vulnerable. Reliving the horrors Israel brought on us is one thing, but disclosing your life and your most intimate moments of fear and terror, where you spill your heart out, is another. Sometimes late at night when insomnia hits, I wonder if it is all worth it, if anything will ever change.”

Over 35,000 people have downloaded or purchased copies of Light in Gaza and many resonate strongly with Refaat’s opening chapter, just as they have with the beautiful poem that he pinned on his Twitter account barely a month before his assassination.

He continued to be pleased by the reception of the book, writing me in his last weeks of life, “look how many people are reading our story!” And indeed, his story has inspired many to learn more about Palestine.

Telling your personal story may be difficult, but tell it.

2. Make a connection to people, and your story will last

In the spring of 2014, we brought Refaat on a speaking tour to the US with the publisher of Gaza Writes Back, a collection of short stories by Palestinian authors in Gaza. Refaat met people across the US and made a point of staying in touch.

Refaat often would remind me of the time he sat in my living room, a place where he said he felt as if he was in his grandmother’s house (because of all the old things I have from Palestine). After his return to Gaza, he would ask for updates from people he met at an Islamic girls’ school in Chicago, at a university or at community events that hosted him.

He was eager to remember the small details of our times together in order to help us vividly remember his, and now our, story.

He also stayed connected to the lucky few who were able to visit him in Gaza, including some of my colleagues at the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) who remember sitting on Gaza’s seashore, talking about philosophy, politics and literature with Refaat and his students.

When news of Refaat’s death reached us here in the US, hundreds of people shared fond personal stories of meeting Refaat and expressed what a great loss we collectively feel. We shared and turned to his stories and poetry for solace.

Make a connection to people, and your story will last.

3. Set high standards, for yourself and others

I love hearing from Refaat’s former students about how difficult it was to get a good mark or grade from Refaat, and how satisfying it was when they did achieve praise. (My father’s students said the same thing about him.)

I remember that on the speaking tour in 2014, Refaat would insist on evaluating each event immediately after it took place, joining in with his other two traveling companions, Yousef and Rawan.

He sometimes gave them a harsh critique. (I think they would agree now that his feedback – often given in a spirit of love – made them better speakers and stronger storytellers.)

Refaat also would seek honest feedback after his own presentations, presentations which in recent years have included a new popular way of connecting to Gaza – Zoom webinars. I always knew that if we had Refaat on a webinar, he would motivate and inspire an audience with his stories.

Set high standards, for yourself and others.

4. If you have humor and wit, don’t be afraid to share them

Even as many of Refaat’s writings were about tragic events, including the death of his brother and the challenges of parenting during an Israeli bombing attack, he used humor to engage people. Refaat delighted in the sorts of stories where young people outwit occupation soldiers or defy their elders in a mischievous way.

He had the ability to charm audiences with quotes from Hamlet on one hand, and the Seinfeld show on the other.

By now many people know how he loved to joke about the pizza rivalries between Chicago and various US East Coast cities (he didn’t even bother to mention West Coast offerings). We were always proud that he defended our Chicago deep dish to its detractors.

Even under bombardment, Refaat would joke about pizza. I remember he shared my video of a Chicago protest on Twitter this fall and tagged it with the line, “Land of the best pizza.”

If you have humor and wit, don’t be afraid to share them.

5. When you feel emotion, don’t hide it

In his writings and in his public presentations, Refaat was not shy about showing emotion – be it anger or grief. He often instructed his students to channel their feelings into their writings, making the reader contend with the powerful experience of Palestinians denied their freedom.

Refaat’s writings had a way of speaking not just to the intellect, but also to the heart.

In his New York Times op-ed published in May 2021, he wrote: “On Wednesday night, after two hours of nonstop bombardment and Israeli missiles raining down all over the Strip – some landing just a few hundred meters away from our building – we finally managed to catch some sleep. The missiles shake the whole area for several seconds. Then you hear screams. Shouting. More screams. Whole families turn out onto the street. Our kids were all sat up in bed, shaking, saying nothing.

“Then comes the intolerable indecision: I am caught between wanting to take the family outside, despite the missiles, shrapnel and falling debris, and staying at home, like sitting ducks for the American-made, Israeli-piloted planes. We stayed at home. At least we would die together, I thought.”

In his last days, Refaat was a recurring guest on The Electronic Intifada podcast. In one early episode, as the bombs could be heard exploding in the background, Refaat’s voice cracked as he said after a pause, “You don’t know if this is it. We don’t deserve this. We are not animals like the Israelis think. Our kids deserve better.”

On another episode he described how he struggled to say kind words to his children, when he needed to tell them to “drink less, eat less,” because resources are so scarce during the ongoing Israeli assaults and blockade of Gaza.

Refaat demonstrated to us not to be afraid to show our raw feelings. But also, to find ways to write because as he says in Gaza Writes Back, “our stories outlive every other experience.”

When you feel emotion, don’t hide it.

6. Be a storyteller for Palestine

May we all continue to learn from great teachers and mentors like Refaat, who devoted his life as a storyteller to bring hope in a time of such great despair. As Refaat writes in Light in Gaza, “… as Gaza keeps gasping for life, we struggle for it to pass, we have no choice but to fight back and to tell her stories. For Palestine.”

Jennifer Bing is the national director of the Palestine Activism Program at the American Friends Service Committee and the co-editor of Light in Gaza: Writings Born of Fire.