Remembering Refaat Alareer, one month on

Tributes have been paid to Refaat at many Palestine solidarity events. 

Maureen Clare Murphy

Israel’s assassination of Dr. Refaat Alareer on 6 December shocked people who care about justice throughout the world.

One month on from that horrific crime, Refaat’s friends share their memories of a remarkable teacher and writer. They recall how Refaat’s commitment to the truth touched everyone around him.

Pam Bailey

Learning English is a priority for many youth in Gaza, since some of the best-paying jobs are with international NGOs [non-governmental organizations]. But I heard so many complaints about the teachers there because they often teach strictly from the book.

The one teacher who I uniformly heard praises about, however, was Refaat Alareer. He was a tough critic, no doubt about it.

But it was because he was so committed to his students and because he was so passionate about both the language and its literature. That’s why when I co-founded We Are Not Numbers, I knew we had to recruit him to teach our developing writers.

And he became my mentor as well, in the process. There was a time when I became a target of a vicious online attack just as he recently experienced for being so honest in his views, and he was my counselor and confidant during those tough times.

I will miss you, Refaat.

Pam Bailey is a co-founder of We Are Not Numbers

Norma Hashim

Refaat was doing his Ph.D. in Malaysia when I met him in 2013. I organized the launch of the book Gaza Writes Back [which he edited] in Kuala Lumpur, he was really pleased about how it went.

The book was groundbreaking in that it presented to the world the voices of young Palestinians living under occupation. Refaat told me he called it “resistance through fiction.”

I remember he finished his Ph.D. just in time to rush home before Eid in 2017. We kept in touch regularly and during 2022 I invited him to be a non-resident scholar at my newly established Centre for Palestine Studies. He said he was honored and joined us online for the first meeting.

Refaat was gentle, kind and dignified. He left a great legacy of empowering young Palestinians to use writing as a form of resistance.

Norma Hashim founded the Hashim Sani Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Malaya.

Ra Page

As a publisher I have met many writers in my time but Refaat was perhaps the clearest thinking, clearest seeing of them all. He had an honesty to him, a generosity, a simple kindness that you don’t often see.

When I arrived in Gaza in 2022, his was the first friendly face I met who wasn’t a relative of my wife or a friend of the family. He pulled up outside my mother-in-law’s place in his funny little car, opened the door and said, “Get in, let’s go.”

He showed me Gaza City, its heart, its warmth, its fierce intellectual bravery. He took me to the university, to cafés, falafel shops, restaurants, bookshops.

He showed me its richness, its sincerity.

He showed me how brave a city it was, as well as how funny its people were, and how it didn’t take any shit. Above all he was just fun.

Playing [the board game] Pun Intended, translating hilarious rhyming idioms, talking about his latest favorite shows – Ted Lasso at that instance. His fellow academics and ex-students flocked around him. He was adored.

He had clearly changed all their lives. I can’t imagine how devastated they must be right now.

But they have the gift of having been his friend to keep them strong. Refaat’s clarity of vision stands as a bulwark to the doublespeak of the West, a world where we allow and enable real-time genocide at the same time as telling ourselves we’re avoiding moral pitfalls.

He showed us that by “performing” our hollow charade of morality, we’re being truly immoral.

And how did he cut through all that? With the most unlikely of tools.

With a love of poetry and the power of words, with an appreciation of John Donne and William Shakespeare, with a capacity for rhyme, scansion, rhythm, metaphor. We need Refaat now more than ever.

And though he is no longer with us, his example is. That is all we have to go on, going forward.

May his example guide me, guide you, guide all of us.

Ra Page is founder of Comma Press.

susan abulhawa

My first contact with Refaat, as far as I can tell from emails, was in early 2011. He was basing part of his master’s thesis on a chapter from my first novel Mornings in Jenin, called As They Left.

He wanted to treat that particular chapter as a standalone short story. After some back and forth, he decided to use it simply as it was, one piece of a larger whole, a single chapter of a much larger tale.

I didn’t know then who Refaat was or what he would mean to me over the years, or indeed what he would mean to our nation.

At that time, he was a student who reached out to me for guidance and collaboration. We stayed in touch over the years, especially when he became a professor.

He would invite me to take part in his classes where he taught my work to his students. We talked about literature a lot – its transformative power.

About his plans and dreams for our society.

We collaborated on projects and workshops with We Are Not Numbers. When we had the first Palestine Writes Literature Festival, he was one of the first people I wanted on the list of speakers, and for the second Palestine Writes festival that was held in person in September.

Unfortunately, he was not allowed to travel out of Gaza, so we had to remove him from the list of speakers, even though we kept his name and profile in our program book, and we kept the book Light in Gaza [to which Refaat contributed] as one of our featured books.

I was in touch with him over the weeks of Israel’s bombing of Gaza that began in October. Our last communication was two days before he was killed.

He sent me a video of him walking through the rubble of his bombed home, picking up a few of his books from the rubble. In his final days he told me that he was volunteering with the local municipality, and he was trying to find food to feed the very few animals who hadn’t starved to death at the Gaza zoo.

There was a lonely lion in a cage, barely clinging to life. He was worried it would die if he couldn’t find food for it.

Refaat himself and his family had barely eaten that day.

susan abulhawa is executive director of the Palestine Writes Literature Festival.

Lora Lucero

Refaat was my son’s age. When I met his mother in their home in Shujayia [a neighborhood of Gaza City] in 2012, our maternal connection was unspoken but understood.

A few days before Israel killed him, Refaat told me “my mother sends you her best wishes.”

Many people will remember and honor Refaat as the preeminent storyteller of Gaza. I certainly agree but I believe his passion for sharing Palestine with the world came from the respect, honor and love he had for his mother and family.

My heart is broken for her, for his wife and for his children. But my heart rejoices for Refaat whose words and wisdom will be with us forever.

Lora Lucero is a grandmother, retired lawyer and writer.

Julie Webb-Pullman

I first met Refaat in 2011 at the Centre for Political and Development Studies (CPDS) in Gaza City.

He was already a leading figure in the English-speaking world of Gaza, not only helping young Palestinians improve their language and media skills but also exposing them to many different political, social and intellectual ideas and movements. This was an incredibly important thing for youth with very few chances for in-person contacts with the outside world because of the blockade.

The seminars and workshops he organized were always overflowing, both with eager young people, and ideas.

Most important of these to Refaat was language, and the work he and others at CPDS did in making young Palestinians aware of how their reality was being falsely and misleadingly constructed by the language and framing of Palestinian but especially Gaza issues, cannot be overstated. The following 12 years saw an exponential flourishing of young Gazans naming their causes, naming their concerns and naming themselves.

The We Are Not Numbers project was probably the most influential revolutionary media transformation for the Palestinian cause of the last 50 years, for which Refaat and co-founding American Pam Bailey will go down in history. I was honored to present poems about Gaza, written by my sister Mercedes, to Refaat’s English students at the Islamic University of Gaza, and she welcomed the opportunity for Gazans to hear them.

Mercedes died in July as she was working on completing a book of poetry about Palestine. I like to imagine her and Refaat in Jannah discussing meter and syntax, which poems should go where, and sending their love of language and life down with the rain as it falls, out on the rays of the sun as it rises and sets, and their laughter in the twinkling of the stars in the night sky.

Refaat’s message is still there in the feel of a drop of rain on the skin, the warmth of the sun, the light in the night sky. Like Refaat, they will never die as long as there is a Palestinian left to feel, see and imagine.

Julie Webb-Pullman is a New Zealander who has worked as a journalist in Gaza.

Yousef M. Aljamal

Refaat was our teacher and mentor. He planted in us the love of storytelling and he wanted everyone in Gaza to tell their story.

He always encouraged us to write and get our voice and story out because for him storytelling was an act of keeping the memory alive when there are attempts to erase it. He was universal in his classroom, teaching us world literature and urging us to see humanity in others.

Yousef M. Aljamal is a non-resident scholar at the Hashim Sani Center for Palestine Studies, Malaysia. He has written and translated a number of books.

Refaat Alareer during a trip to Malaysia. 

Yousef M. Aljamal

Akram Habeeb

I knew Dr. Refaat Alareer for almost 27 years.

He was a student in several of my literature classes. Refaat, the student, was top of his class.

He was inspired by my courses, mainly the one on English poetry. He was an avid reader, a wonderful student with many touches of creativity.

Once he graduated, he was given the job of a teaching assistant at our department. By then, I was in the United States doing my Ph.D. degree.

In 2003 when I came back from the States, he was among the first people who came to congratulate me.

I still remember the box of sweets he brought with him. I kept being a source of inspiration to Dr. Refaat.

When he went to London to do his master’s in 2008, he sent me an email titled “thanks a million,” in which he acknowledged my style of teaching and how that style made him feel at home while doing his master’s degree.

Refaat traveled to Malaysia to do his Ph.D. Unfortunately, when he was about to graduate and get his doctoral degree, he received sad news about the killing of his brother Hamada during the 2014 war on Gaza.

When Refaat came back to Gaza, he found his small family displaced because the family house had been bombarded by the Israeli army. With a spirit of resilience, Dr. Refaat rejoined our English department.

Dr. Akram Habeeb is an associate professor of English language and literature at the Islamic University of Gaza.

Hassan Shiqaqi

I met Refaat in 1998 when we were both members of an English club at the British Council. The club had 20 distinguished students from the three universities in Gaza at that time.

We hosted British poets and novelists and met every Friday to discuss various topics to keep ourselves updated with the latest teaching methods.

Refaat was a prominent figure in this club. We also worked in a scholarship scheme, where we taught elite students in the Gaza Strip.

Refaat, known for his great sense of humor and sarcasm, used to tease everyone around but never me. We shared many funny experiences, including a seafood meal I cooked for him.

Despite his persistent requests to be invited, I kept postponing due to my busy schedule. When he finally enjoyed the meal, he praised it in our WhatsApp group, declaring it the best seafood meal he had ever had.

Refaat was always distinguished, up-to-date and eager to improve himself. His assassination is likened to the loss of the famous Palestinian novelist Ghassan Kanafani and the cartoonist Naji al-Ali.

I wasn’t surprised to observe the reactions after his murder. He was a brave freedom fighter who fought with his pen to shed light on the daily suffering, land theft, siege and myriad other challenges faced by Palestinians.

I deeply miss him. Rest in peace, dear colleague and friend.

Hassan Shiqaqi is a teacher of English, who has worked as an interpreter for The Guardian and other publications.

Fila Mangus

Refaat was a man who was incredibly strong in his principles and a remarkable force to reckon with. A magician with words, who brought to life the realities of a nation torn by the destruction of an uncaring world.

He was a man that lived, breathed, the very strength and essence of what Gaza is. He chose time and again to dedicate his brilliance for the freedom and peace of Palestine, raising the voices of others along his journey.

It has truly been an honor to have shared moments with an incredible man who continues to teach us the meaning of life, even in death. In his memory and in his name, we will continue to strive for a free Palestine.

Fila Mangus is a Malaysian human rights activist.

Azra Banu

I first met Refaat more than 10 years ago. His restrained demeanor belied a brilliant mind, a sharp tongue and a mighty pen.

I was often in awe of his prowess in the English language, envious at how he could slide into a conversation with ease and finesse, or slice it to shreds with his caustic wit.

Listening to him was a delight, but watching his interviews, hearing his pain and anguish during the attack, leading up to his murder, is something that will stay with me for a long time. Perhaps it will never leave.

It is said that one only realizes another’s full worth after they’re gone. The constant stream of tributes, ubiquitousness of [Refaat’s poem] “If I Must Die,” the mourning of his death and celebration of his life are all testimonies to the legacy he is leaving behind, not only in the Palestinian sphere but beyond.

Hosting him in our beloved home will remain a core cherished memory for me and family. Refaat Alareer will always be a true-blue Palestinian gem, to be learned about, spoken of and treasured generation after generation.

Azra Banu is a teacher and active in the organizations BDS Malaysia and Viva Palestina Malaysia.

Mike Merryman-Lotze

I first met Refaat in early 2014 when I organized a speaking tour for him and several contributors to Gaza Writes Back, a book he edited from writings by his students. I was struck by Refaat’s ability to tell the story of Palestine, evincing pain while using humor to connect with audiences who knew little about day-to-day realities in Gaza.

His belief in stories as tools of transformation and his commitment to his students were both immediately clear. We remained in touch after the tour and reconnected in Gaza in December 2014.

Refaat wasn’t supposed to be in Gaza at that time. He had come home from his Ph.D. studies in Malaysia to support his family during the 2014 Gaza war and was stuck there for an extended period due to Israeli movement restrictions.

When we met that second time Refaat was clearly reeling from the attacks and their impacts. Israel had killed over 30 members of his extended family and when we met, he was still trying to figure out how to navigate the Byzantine process of getting aid to rebuild his family’s destroyed homes.

Yet despite everything that he experienced, Refaat never lost hope in the power of language as a tool for change. He continued to teach others, building up a generation of advocates and leaders who will carry on his legacy for decades to come.

We had hoped to reconnect during the Palestine Writes Festival this year where Refaat was scheduled to present on the book we worked on together, Light in Gaza, but Refaat was blocked from leaving Gaza. After it became clear that he wouldn’t be coming to the US, Refaat sent me a picture from the 2014 tour and an invitation to coffee next time I was in Gaza.

We will never have that coffee. But his memory will be with me forever and his commitment to justice will remain an inspiration.

Mike Merryman-Lotze leads the global peacebuilding policy work of the American Friends Services Committee.

Malak Zakoutova

It was a typical afternoon until I received a phone call from Dr. Refaat telling me he had nominated me for a project coordinator position [in a university scheme] where he worked as a mentor.

I refused because I didn’t believe I could win it. But he convinced me otherwise because he believed I could and would.

I got the job and day after day, I got to see Dr. Refaat. One time he rushed into my office and I could tell he was overjoyed.

His eyes were glistening when he told me about a trainee of his who published her first article. The trainee had very weak writing skills when she joined the GoDigital project.

Her improvement made Dr. Refaat “tear up” as he told me in a low tone. He added jokingly, “I only tore up two times in my life – when my wife gave birth to my first born, and when ‘the trainee’ published her first article.”

Malak Zakoutova coordinates the GoDigital project at the Business and Technology Incubator, Islamic University of Gaza.

Basman Derawi

I got to know Dr. Refaat in 2015 when I joined the We Are Not Numbers project. He was teaching a session to help us with storytelling.

He was so passionate about telling stories and he was my introduction to the world of books. I still remember the sparkles in his eyes when he would speak about Mornings in Jenin, Sharon and My Mother-in-law [a book by Suad Amiry], Harry Potter and so on.

We met multiple times. I remember at one meeting, he smiled at me and complimented my poetry. He was generous.

He is the reason for me being the writer that I am today.

Basman Derawi is a physiotherapist and a writer.

Asem al-Nabih

I don’t know why I took this photo. He visited me that day at my workplace in the emergency committee of Gaza municipality.

Here he is sitting on my mattress where I used to spend the evening with my colleagues at work. He was talking to someone on the phone and seemed happy about it.

When the call ended, he said to me, “That was one of my students. She miraculously survived death, and I was worried about her for weeks.”

I teased him in my usual way: “Finally, someone loves you in this world other than me.”

I was wrong. It seems there are tens of thousands who love you, Refaat.

Asem al-Nabih was a close friend of Refaat and one of the last people to see him alive.

Filesteen Alareer

Whenever I met someone who heard my family’s name, they would ask me about Refaat. And I would feel great pride.

Despite his busy schedule, he helped me with translations for my daughter’s homework.

Refaat was peaceful and loved life. He did nothing but expose the brutality of the Israeli occupation with his pen.

He wrote the truth.

The occupation killed him but it will not kill his message.

Filesteen Alareer is Refaat’s cousin.

Yasser Ashour

There were two sides to Refaat for students.

Inside the university, Refaat was serious and resolute. Outside, he was another person, a friend, a brother and a father to everyone.

He was always checking on everyone’s wellbeing.

Refaat was also a friend to my family. During his visit to Istanbul, I spoke to him about my family.

I was surprised to learn that he visited my family a week after returning to Gaza. He sent me a picture with my little sister Shams and told me that the food my mom cooked was delicious, and that it would be a major reason for repeated visits to my family.

After our home was bombed in May 2021, he visited my father, stood by his side, and offered assistance. When I got engaged, he was among the first to arrive at the engagement ceremony.

Even in the current war, when the bombings intensified, he was the first to ask if my family needed help, though he was living under the same bombardment.

Our beloved Refaat is an irreplaceable loss.

Yasser Ashour is a Gazan living in Istanbul, who runs the website.

Tributes compiled by Tamer Ajrami.