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 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”.
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.
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: