By: Yazan al-Saadi
Published Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Generations of Palestinians living in Gaza have suffered massacres, occupation, a tightening Egyptian-Israeli blockade, and continuous military attacks by Israel. In the face of this, a group of young Palestinian writers have chosen to resist through the power of writing.
“Writing is a form of resistance; [a] refusal to surrender,” said Refaat Alareer, the brain-child, editor, and one of the contributors of the recently published “Gaza Writes Back: Short Stories from Young Writers in Gaza, Palestine.”
Fifteen young writers, between the ages of 18 and 30, five of whom never wrote fiction before, contributed 23 short fiction stories to the final collection. Only four were able to attend the book’s launch in packed rooms in London and Malaysia on January; the rest unable to leave Gaza.
For these writers, the stories within “Gaza Writes Back” symbolized their own personal struggles, as well as societal challenges they witnessed around them. It was an opportunity for them to give voice to the voiceless.
“As a Palestinian living in Gaza City, I have always believed that every Palestinian life is a story worth telling,” said Tasnim Nabil Hammouda, a 19-year-old English and literature student at the Gaza university and author of two short stories in the book.
“Every Palestinian is a potential storyteller, for the story is always there, but putting it into words is the real challenge,” echoed Hanan Habashi, 23-year-old teacher and another story contributor.
Stories Reflecting Realities
“My story is personal. It’s about my eldest brother Omar who was killed by Israel in Gaza in 2004…[and] about my other brother who was named after him too,” Yousef Aljamal, a Palestinian blogger currently studying a master’s in International Relations at the University of Malaysia, told Al-Akhbar.
Initially, “Omar X” was an article written by Aljamal entitled, “Why I Have Two Brothers Called Omar,” that was reworked and re-edited through Alareer’s guidance, and eventual was transformed into a fictionalized short story that was incorporated into the collection.
“The story is a token of appreciation to my eldest brother in which I try to describe his last moments in life as he bled and tried to call us, but he could not,” Aljamal explained.
The Gaza Strip, a small sliver of land, populated with almost 1.7 million people, has been under total blockade, cutting land, sea, and air routes, by Israel since 2007, a dire situation that has had an enormous influence on the writers’ stories.
The siege, a form of collective punishment and a crime against humanity, denies Palestinians in Gaza the ability to import basic goods including construction material, certain food products, and even books. It has significantly decimated agriculture, manufacturing, and the fishing industry that many of Gaza’s people rely to sustain a living.Movement is completely curtailed, in effect forcing the population to exist in an open-air prison.
The noose continues to tightened over time.
According to a report released by Oxfam late last year, more than 80 percent of Gaza’s inhabitants are in need of humanitarian aid and 65 percent of families are expected to be food insecure.
“The situation in Gaza has deteriorated substantially – and I repeat, substantially – in the last few months,” the former Commissioner General of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), Filippo Grandi, warned during the opening session of UNRWA’s Advisory Commission in Jordon last November.
“UNRWA has a major responsibility for the welfare of two thirds of the population [in Gaza], and from that perspective I must remind you, once more, that Gaza is quickly becoming uninhabitable,” he added.
Since the summer of 2012, the Egyptian military, crucial in maintaining the siege with Israel from its beginnings, furthered the population’s strangulation by indefinitely closing the Rafah crossing – the only exit out of Gaza – and intensified a campaign to destroy hundreds of underground tunnels that are the strip’s economic and social life-line.
“My story is set in Gaza and many aspects of it reflect the daily distress Gazans have to endure,” said Habashi, whose short story “L for Life,” kicks off the collection.
“Gaza is the home of electricity cut-offs, UNRWA refugee cards and the miserable camps. Those weren’t things I had to imagine to write, I just needed to look around and go forward with my story,” Habashi said.
In Hammouda’s case, she tackled the medical and humanitarian crisis arising from the blockade in one of her two stories called “Neverland.” The plot centers around a nurse working with children who suffer from cancer.
“The theme is universal. Yet, it saddens me to realize that the painful fact of Gaza having remarkably high rates of patients with cancer stands behind my inspiration of this story,” she said.
“Gaza being under siege for several years means limited medical assistance to these patients who don’t get the attention they deserve. Through writing ‘Neverland,’ I wanted to bring their agony into spotlight in one way or another.”
“Gaza Writes Back” blossomed three years ago during Alareer’s tenure teaching English and creative writing courses in Islamic University of Gaza. During that time, he commonly met students that he felt handled and wrote English very well, but were not being prodded into more creative directions.
Alareer decided that his students should produce their own stories rather than solely examining and deconstructing works by famous writers.
It was a teaching style that from the start was opposed by many of the university’s faculty, including a few students in his own classroom.
“I guess where I come from, and this is probably true in the Arab world, being young facing older generations resulted in some resistance. [Many] didn’t believe that students could write fiction. The difference with me is that I believe that students can be better than their teachers,” the 35-year-old father of five explained to Al Akhbar.
Working mainly in secret, he encouraged his students to create their own stories about their surroundings. This meant, of course, that many wrote about the blockade and it’s unavoidable effect on them and their society.
But beyond the blockade, the 2008-2009 war, called “Operation Cast Lead,” on Gaza by Israel, which killed and wounded thousands of civilians, was another influential source for the students.
“It doesn’t sound right that wars inspire, but it did in our case. In a way or another, the war was behind most of the Gaza Writes Back stories,” Habashi noted.
“Recognizing the vulnerability of our own lives in the face of the Israeli war machines, helplessness took hold of us, and writing pain down helped us realize the might of our word,” she added.
Alareer further tested the waters by sharing these home-grown short stories in his classes with other students, side-by-side with prominent English writers like Edgar Allan Poe. The feedback was immediately positive.
By October 2012 Alareer was approached by Helena Cobban, founder and owner of Just World Books, who was keen in publishing works by Gazan writers. It was decided that a collection of short story books should be complied and published, and soon after, Alareer contacted former and current students to form a workshop to develop such a book.
A call for submissions spread on the university’s campus and throughout social media like wildfire, and 70 short stories were amassed, a bulk way beyond what was expected.
During the process the writers dealt with a range of obstacles. From frustrations over continual power-cuts at their homes to intimate personal fears that the stories would be rejected. Fiction, as a medium unto itself, was unruly and uncomfortable to work with for some.
“[W]riting fiction for the first time wasn’t the easiest thing to do,” Habashi said, “But at the end of the day, Palestinians are armed with provoking memories of theirs or of people they knew or heard of. We definitely have the raw materials for the story.”
The final book of 23 short stories was completed and released by Just World Books mid-January of this year, and already generated favorable reviews.
The book, available in North America, Europe and elsewhere, has also not been released in Gaza as of yet.
“The situation in Gaza has become more horrible because of Egypt. It is sad to talk about how Egypt is making your life terrible,” Alareer said. “People are suffocating.”
“[But] I managed to smuggle one book in my friend’s suitcase,” he added with a light chuckle.
Despite the various obstacles, plans are already in motion to translate the book from English into Arabic, Malay, Japanese, and other languages, a testament to “Gaza Writes Back’s” wide-spread appreciation and growing success.
“Writing Is Resistance”
“Everybody is encouraging. It’s very humbling, especially because its the first time for [some of] these young writers,” Alareer said. “They lacked experience, lacked practice, and yet we have five great stories in the collection from them.”
“From day one they were amazing and very cooperative. They knew and felt that it was a good project for Palestine and Gaza,” he said.
As Alareer noted, these Palestinian writers discovered that they have a means to freely express themselves, and sentiments of their society, to others beyond massive barriers that surround them. It was an important revelation, which left a massive mark on them.
“Having been a tiny part of Gaza Writes Back, I came to realize the power of the written word and the importance of having our voices heard,” Habashi said. “At this point, writing [about] Palestine grew out of the ‘writing as healing’ shell and became more of a moral duty towards our just cause.”
“Seeing my ideas in front of me on papers and being creative never fail to set me free in a country where life is all about freedom,” Hammouda asserted.
For Aljamal: “Writing became a part and parcel of my life. Writing is resistance, one form of it. I will keep writing and resisting.”