Gaza Writers’ U.S. tour gets off to great start!

AFSC's Mike Merryman-Lotze introduces the speakers at the friends Center event

AFSC’s Mike Merryman-Lotze introduces the speakers at the friends Center event

Three contributors to Gaza Writes Back held an American audience spellbound at the launch event for their U.S.-wide tour in central Philadelphia, April 1st! The three were Refaat Alareer, Yousef Aljamal, and Rawan Yaghi. They were speaking at Friends Center, the home of the American Friends Service Committee, co-sponsors of the tour along with Just World Books.

The chair and sign representing Sarah Ali

The chair and sign representing Sarah Ali

The Gaza Writers’ group actually also includes a fourth participant, Sarah Ali. However, even though Sarah has a U.S. visa (and was allowed by Israelis to exit Gaza in order to apply for it in Jeruslame), now that she has it, they won’t let her out of Gaza in order to use it.

Sarah’s participation in the tour events will be represented in many ways, including by the placement of the sign shown at left (and just visible, above.)

Yesterday’s event was opened by Mike Merryman-Lotze, director of AFSC’s Israel-Palestine Program. Refaat Alarrer spoke first, describing how the project of the Gaza Writes Back came about and explaining how he and the book’s contributors felt it was important that Palestinians speak for themselves with the kind of world audience that an English-language publication allows. He also said he thought that well-written fiction could have a wider reach and a more lasting impact than most non-fiction writing.

Next up was Yousef Aljamal. He described for a rapt audience how his eldest brother Omar had been killed during an Israeli military incursion into their home refugee camp; and his sister had later died from a gall bladder condition after being denied access to continuing treatment by the Israeli occupation authorities. Yousef explained how, after writing non-fiction essays about those painful matters, he decided to write a fictionalized account of his brother’s death. Then, he read some excerpts from the story that resulted, “Omar X”, which is included in the book.

Rawan Yaghi spoke last. Before speaking on her own behalf she shared with the audience some excerpts from Sarah Ali’s story, “The Story of the Land”, a story about a Palestinian farmer who returns to his olive groves and orchards after the end of Israel’s devastating “Operation Cast Lead”, to see if there has been any damage– only to discover that the Israeli military bulldozers had uprooted every single tree with the exception of one bent-over tree. As Rawan explained, Sarah’s story eloquently demonstrates the close link between Palestinians and their land.

Rawan, who is the youngest of the tour participants, then spoke a little about her own writing, saying that in her fiction she likes to adopt the point-of-view of  small children. She read her deeply moving story “From Beneath”, written from the POV of a young girl trapped in the rubble of her own home during “Operation Cast Lead”.

Audience members engaging in the Q&A

Audience members engaging in the Q&A

Members of the audience followed every word of the writers’ presentations with close attention– and once the Q&A period opened up there was a long stream of questions. They sparked a series of excellent discussions– touching topics like the strong role played by young women activists in Gaza, the role that writing plays in these writers’ activism, the benefits of writing in English, the inspiration the writers have in their work, and so on.

Yousef Al-Jamal, JWB head Helena Cobban, Refaat Alareer, and Rawan Yaghi in Philadelphia

Yousef Al-Jamal, JWB head Helena Cobban, Refaat Alareer, and Rawan Yaghi in Philadelphia

Just on a final note: During their time in Philadelphia so far, the writers have had several good chances to interact with Americans, including at the Friends of Sabeel conference that was held here over the weekend. They also got the chance to see a few of the sights in the city. Yousef and Refaat were particularly taken by the design of the International Arrivals Hall at Philadelphia International Airport, which is decorated with some very meaningful language from the U.S. Declaration of Independence:

Yousef and Refaat at Philadelphia Airport

Yousef and Refaat at Philadelphia Airport

Five Years After the Cast Lead Operation: ‘Gaza Writes Back’

Arabic Literature (in English)

It was five years ago that Cast Lead began. Now a book of short stories, Gaza Writes Back, marks the anniversary. The book’s editor, Refaat Alareer, answers questions about the collection: 

gazaArabLit: How did the idea for this collection come about? How did you put out the call for submissions? Did you tell the writers it was to commemorate Cast Lead?

Refaat Alareer: I’ve been teaching World Literature and Creative Writing at the Islamic University-Gaza (IUG), and at other Gaza training centres, ever since I finished my MA in Comparative Literature from UCL, UK in 2007. And I always had the idea of collecting the best pieces written by my students in a book. Going global became a necessity after the hateful Israeli Offensive of 2008-09. I met Helena Cobban in Gaza and threw the idea of a book of young talents into her lap, and later, thanks…

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23 Stories

“Gaza Writes Back”

Gaza Writes Back: Short Stories from Young Writers in Gaza, Palestine

Edited by Refaat Alareer

The book contains 23 short stories written by 15 young writers from Palestine, Gaza. Only three of those writers are males.

L for Life, by Hanan Habashi
One War Day, by Mohammed Suliman
Spared, by Rawan Yaghi
Canary, by Nour Al-Sousi
The Story of the Land, by Sarah Ali
Toothache in Gaza, by Sameeha Elwan
Will I Ever Get Out?, by Nour Al-Sousi
A Wall, by Rawan Yaghi
A Wish for Insomnia, by Nour El Borno
Bundles, by Mohammed Suliman
On a Drop of Rain, by Refaat Alareer
Please Shoot to Kill, by Jehan Alfarra
Omar X, by Yousef Aljamal
We Shall Return, by Mohammed Suliman
From Beneath, by Rawan Yaghi
Just Fifteen Minutes, by Wafaa Abu Al-Qomboz
House, by Refaat Alareer
Neverland, by Tasnim Hamouda
Lost at Once, by Elham Hilles
It’s My Loaf of Bread, by Tasnim Hamouda
Once Upon a Dawn, by Shahd Awadallah
The Old Man and the Stone, by Refaat Alareer
Scars, by Aya Rabah

 

“Gaza Writes Back”, paperback

GWB cover tweak #1

Gaza Writes Back: Short Stories from Young Writers in Gaza, Palestine, edited by Refaat Alareer is a compelling collection of short stories from fifteen young writers in Gaza, members of a generation that has suffered immensely under Israel’s siege and blockade. Their experiences, especially during and following Israel’s 2008-2009 offensive known as “Operation Cast Lead”, have fundamentally impacted their lives and their writing. Indeed, many of these writers saw the war as a catalyst for their writing, as they sought an outlet and a voice in its aftermath. They view the book as a means of preserving Palestinian memories and presenting their own narratives to the world without filters. Their words take us into the homes and hearts of moms, dads, students, children, and elders striving to live lives of dignity, compassion, and meaning in one of the world’s most embattled communities. (Some of the stories also take us with courage and empathy into the imagined world of Israelis living just on the other side of the great barriers Israel has built in and around Gaza and the West Bank to wall the Palestinians in.)

These stories are acts of resistance and defiance, proclaiming the endurance of Palestinians and the continuing resilience and creativity of their culture in the face of ongoing obstacles and attempts to silence them.

Whether tackling the tragedy that surrounds missile strikes and home raids, or the everyday indignities encountered by Palestinian refugees, Gaza Writes Back brings to life the real issues that the people of Gaza face. One prominent theme in many of the stories is the value placed on the wisdom of parents and grandparents. A sense of longing pervades the book, as the characters in the stories reveal desires ranging from the mundane to the complex—including, in several of the stories, a strong yearning to return to the characters’ long-cherished family homes and properties after many decades in exile from them. Social differences within Gaza are also sensitively explored. A few stories are especially difficult—but critical—to digest , for the vividness with which they depict the experiences of victims of Israeli military strikes and confront the legacy of violence and occupation, particularly on young people.

Readers will be moved by the struggles big and small that emerge from the well-crafted writing by these young people, and by the hope and courage that radiates from the authors’ biographies. The contributors are university students and recent graduates, Palestinians who have chosen to speak out in their second language, which is an “expressive way to be more creative in a world where words are significantly mighty,” according to Tasnim Hamouda. Another contributor, Nour El Borno, believes “that if a person can write effectively, it is his or her duty to get up, write, and help change this world to something better.”

Five years after Operation Cast Lead, these stories remind us that the pain lingers on and the people of Gaza will be forever scarred by the attack. Yet, the call for justice remains forceful and persistent, and these young Gazan writers refuse to let the world forget about them—their land, their people, and their story.