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Powerful fiction: An interview with the writers of "Gaza Writes Back"
Yousef reading his short story in "Gaza Writes Back" during an event earlier this month at Friends' Center.Photo: AFSC / Tony Heriza
Reading the short stories from the new book, “Gaza Writes Back: Short stories from Young Writers in Gaza, Palestine,” I was struck by the stories’ deep humanity.
The fictional pieces connect the reader not only to the daily threat of violence, dispossession and oppression experienced daily in the Gaza strip—they connect the reader to the minds and hearts of the Palestinian people, full of passion, humility and power, despite the odds.
I was reminded that this struggle for justice in Palestine is not just the struggle of some foreign people—it is our struggle; it is our human calling to treat all life with respect and dignity.
Last week, I had the unique honor of interviewing the book's editor, Refaat Alareer, along with two of the contributors to “Gaza Writes Back,” published by Just World Books, while they tour across the country to help share and promote the book. Their candid answers in the videos and written interviews below are a powerful testament to their commitment to the Palestinian cause for justice.
Madeline Schaefer (MS): You mention the tradition of naming in your story “Omar X.” Talk about that tradition. Where did your name come from?
Yousef Aljamal (YA): Usually the first son born to the family is named after the grandfather, and I am named after my grandfather. I am not the eldest son, but still, it’s there. Sometimes if parents do not want to name their kids after their fathers or mothers the first time, they wait until the second or third kid. Now things are changing, but back then when I was born in the eighties, nineties, this was the habit.
MS: Tell me about this story. What inspired you to write it and what is its significance to you?
YA: Actually it’s a personal story; it’s my brother’s story.
In March the sixth 2004, around 50 Israeli military vehicles invaded our refugee camp, in the middle of the Gaza strip and shot 14 Palestinians dead including my eldest brother who was less than 18 years old then. Omar was shot, along with his friends, and he was left bleeding for four hours. Israelis didn’t allow medics to transfer them to the hospital, and as a result, they passed away.
The next day, I rushed to the site of the killing. I found some of Omar’s belongings including his cell phone, which was full of blood. I checked the numbers he tried to dial just before he was killed as he was bleeding, and my family’s land line came first. Omar was probably trying to reach us to say a goodbye, a last goodbye, but he couldn’t, probably because of the Israeli military tank in the area.
So this story is a token of appreciation to Omar who was trying to reach us—even in the last moments in his life he was trying to say goodbye; we were in his mind until the very last moments in his life. This is to pay respect to him and to remember him and to immortalize him in fiction and writing so other people know about him and about other people who were killed that day.
This was not the end of the story. Two years later, my mother delivered another baby boy and named him after my eldest brother, so I ended up with two brothers named Omar. That is why the story is called Omar X; my eldest brother Omar and my youngest brother Omar—one who used to take care of me when I was young, and the other one who is being looked after by me. It is quite ironic and sad.
MS: There seems to be the memories of people—friends, family who have been killed—surrounding many of these stories.
YA: Some stories are real like the story of my brother, though there is a bit of fiction in it. But all of these stories happened to someone in Palestine; thousands of people had their houses destroyed and they probably didn’t have the proper command of English to tell their stories. These stories probably happened to many people in Palestine, and writers try to convey these stories and document the experiences of their neighbors, of their friends, their families.
MS: So now you’re studying in Malaysia. What has your experience been like speaking with people there about growing up in Gaza?
YA: People in Malaysia are very supportive of Palestine, but still they do not know too much about what is going on. There are many international students where I stay in my college. When I tell them about my experience they are shocked.
The other day we displayed “Five Broken Cameras,” and there was a huge crowd, mostly international students. Many of them cried watching the movie. So people react, but we need to raise awareness and educate them on what is going on because many of them don’t know.
Watch this video of Yousef talking about his personal connection to the story "Omar X":
MS: Talk a little bit about your story, “The Wall.”
Rawan Yaghi (RY): The story came from a video I actually watched on YouTube. It was, I think, a report about the separation wall in the West Bank, and the camera was moving in the street, and there was a sidewalk right next to the wall. I was wondering, “Why is there a sidewalk right next to the wall and who would want to walk there even if it is a street and there are cars going and coming?”
I just thought how frustrated young people living there must be, getting up every day and being confronted with this huge cement wall blocking their view wherever they go. And I thought a story like this would represent how frustrated young people can be in the West Bank, just having this catastrophe in front of them every day.
MS: I’ve noticed that your writing focuses on young people’s lack of control of their environment. What was your experience in Gaza with space and freedom?
RY: As you know, and everyone knows, Gaza is a very small place and it’s closed from all areas. As a young person who always wanted to explore more and see more, I felt desperate most of the time to just widen my horizons, see more, meet more people. Being in Gaza didn’t prevent it, but it limited it, you know, because I still could talk to many people through the internet, for example, by blogging and reaching out to a lot of different people.
MS: Have you always been a writer?
RY: I wrote really childish poems when I was a kid that were about Palestine, mainly. I then forgot about it, and between the ages of 10 and 16 I didn’t write anything. But then the 2008, 2009 attack happened, and I started writing during that in colloquial Arabic. I didn’t show that to anyone because it wasn’t good at all. But it was the only thing I could do then.
Then someone wrote something about Gaza and I thought, “I can write something similar in English.” So I wrote a piece. I got encouragement from Refaat, the editor, and everyone really started doing the same—writing different pieces about Gaza, about the war. Then Rafaat started a creative writing class in IUG [Islamic University of Gaza] and that was when I started writing short fiction.
MS: Was there a community of young people writing on the internet?
RY: Yes, in the era before Facebook and all of that we had a forum called “Iron Palestine,” and everyone would share their writings, comment on other people’s writings. We’d talk about different pieces of literature and some people would translate.
MS: So it was an important outlet for all of you, I’d imagine. Has the writing grown since then?
RY: It has. Everyone started their own blog so everyone continued to write. And with Facebook and Twitter and everything else, everyone expanded to more than just the forum.
Watch this short clip of Rawan on how she connected to the frustration of her character in her story, "The Wall":
MS: What is the significance of featuring stories of young people rather than short stories by adults?
RA: The majority of the activism for Palestine now is done by young people—they are leading the struggle over the internet on Facebook on twitter on blogs, they are also leading this by organizing BDS campaigns, boycotting events— rather than the old generation.
Those people are mature enough to have their say; they have their own world views, their own opinions of how this conflict and this occupation can come to an end. And the absence of these voices even in Palestine and in Gaza and in the West Bank was one reason I insisted on focusing more on the young people rather than on adults already famous in their circles or in the official main stream media or literature in Palestine.
MS: Could you talk about the power of fiction as opposed to nonfiction?
RA: When Helena Cobban, the publisher and owner of Just World Books, first approached me, we spoke for two months discussing whether to collect articles or short stories.
I believed and still do believe in the power of literature and especially short story. It doesn’t mean that non-fiction or articles aren’t important—they’re very important—but they tend to have a short lived influence on people—you wouldn’t want to read an article written, for example, two months or three months ago because it happened and it was news. But literature transcends the news into human experience— it transcends times, transcends beliefs and ideologies.
And this is one thing we want from Gaza writes Back—we want the book to go to all corners of the world, to go to Japan to American to the UK to Africa. And it’s actually going everywhere. We are now receiving feedback from almost every country in the world.
MS: What was the response of the young people you approached about writing these stories?
RA: When I announced the book over Facebook and other several media outlooks, looking for submissions, there was a very positive response from my friends, from my students, from people who I didn’t teach before, and people who I didn’t know started contacting me, saying “I have these stories, I wrote this piece and that piece.”
And then I had this problem of choosing 23 stories from almost a hundred short stories. The process was painful but it was at the same time rewarding. I had some of my students and friends and contributors like Yussef and Sara Ali—who sadly can’t be here because Israel doesn’t want to give her the permission to travel –help me in this process of reading and reading. We chose 23 in order to counter attack the 23 days of Israeli aggression in 2008, a story for every day of aggression.
MS: What are you hoping for this tour?
RA: Writing in general is an obligation to ourselves and to humanity and to the future generations because it’s usually the most important thing that we leave behind. And writing is the most important sort of understanding— when you speak to people you usually chose words randomly but when you write you think carefully what message you want to convey.
I’m hoping this tour to the United States will be very fruitful; I’m hoping it will achieve more understanding. We are hoping more people will be reading this book and other books, and more people will be interested in supporting the cause of Palestine by putting an end to the Israeli apartheid of Palestinians.
Watch Refaat speak on the power of fiction: