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Palestinian writers bring Gaza’s hardships to American audience

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The Gaza Writes Back speaking tour

The contributors to Gaza Writes Back didn’t have to say a word for the New York audience to sense that the tour promoting the book had hit a snag. Before the April 4th event at New York University kicked off, attendees saw a drawing of a person beside Rawan Yaghi, a writer and student from Gaza.  The words “Sarah Ali should be here” were written on the drawing.

As Lora Lucero reported for Mondoweiss, Ali, another contributor to the new book Gaza Writes Back, was barred from traveling out of Gaza to Jordan to fly to the U.S.–despite the fact that Israel had allowed her to travel to Jerusalem to obtain a U.S. visa.  Like many other Gazans, Ali’s freedom of movement is severely restricted by Israel, which has implemented a policy of separating Gaza from the West Bank and rarely allows travel between the two territories.

But three writers did make it to the U.S.: Yaghi, Yousef Aljamal and editor of the book Refaat Alareer. They obtained American visas and traveled from the Malaysian and English universities they are studying at.  They’ve hit New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Georgia and more.

In New York, the contributors to the book delivered a presentation that touched on how the book came into being, the realities of life in Gaza and the impact of Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s attack on Gaza at the end of 2008. And Yaghi brought Ali’s words into the room, even if Ali was not there, saying that her lack of a visa shouldn’t impede the audience from hearing her work.  (All four are contributors to Mondoweiss.)

Ali’s story is one of 23– one for each day of the 2008-09 Israeli assault on Gaza– contained in the book, which is a compilation of heartfelt fiction about life in occupied Palestine. The stories written by Ali and Yaghi, as Alareer emphasized, are testament to the presence of female voices in the book.  12 out of 15 of the writers are women.

In explaining the genesis of the book, Alareer told the standing room only audience that he thought it was important for Palestinians “to do something, in order to counter attack, to defend ourselves, in new ways, in different ways, in creative ways. We Palestinians probably have to be more creative than ever because we can never beat Israel when it comes to arms…This act of writing is an act of life, an act of resistance.”  It was the attack on Gaza in late 2008 that planted the seeds of the project, which was executed and published by Just World Books’ Helena Cobban.

The book’s stories–of death, of resistance, of love, of travel–are rooted in the lived experiences of Palestinians from Gaza.  But they are fiction–a deliberate choice made by Alareer, who teaches creative writing at the Islamic University of Gaza.  “We decided to go for fiction because fiction is universal. Fiction transcends the borders, the numbers, the statistics, religion, of ideology, of everything and brings us back to our humanity, ” said Alareer.

The type of fiction in the book was highlighted by Yousef Aljamal. The story he read from at New York University, “Omar X,” is about his brother–one of two siblings who died because of Israeli actions.  His sister Zeinab died, as Aljamal wrote in the Electronic Intifada, because she fell ill and was denied the necessary permit to travel to Jerusalem; she was trying to reach a hospital in the city to undergo an operation with equipment not found in Gaza.

The other sibling, the subject of Aljamal’s story and a member of Hamas’ Qassam Brigades, was killed by Israeli forces as he went out to fight the army occupying the Gaza Strip in 2004. Aljamal said his brother was left bleeding for hours.

Aljamal wrote about his brother Omar’s death for Mondoweiss.  But the fictional take on it in Gaza Writes Back imagines how Omar died, and his last breaths.

Before the night was over, Alareer brought the audience’s attention to restrictions on academic freedom for those in Gaza–and the fact that Gaza Writes Back cannot get into the Gaza Strip because of the Israeli/Egyptian closure.

The tour is ongoing, with a string of dates taking place on the West Coast this week and next.  But even when the tour ends, Alareer expects the book to live on.

As he told the blog Arabic Literature in December, “I am hoping the stories will get the attention of film producers. I know at least a couple of the stories can be made into great movies, or at least short movies…At the same time we will work on translating the book into Arabic, French, Spanish, Malay, among other languages.”

Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist who focuses on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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14 Responses

  1. pabelmont on April 15, 2014, 9:13 am

    Israel’s policies of allowing/disallowing travel are a disgrace. Perhaps there is a sort of silver lining.

    Before 1948, Gaza and West Bank and Jerusalem were part of one country, one state, Mandatory Palestine. One government (not democratic), one currency, one postage stamp, one passport.

    Then came 1948 and then came 1967. Now Israel treats Gaza and West Bank/Jerusalem as separate somethings, separate states, separate nations, whatever. This seems to give Israeli legal cognizance to the fact that Gaza was controlled by Egypt and WB/J was controlled by Jordan after 1948 and until 1967. SO THEREFORE Israel recognizes that they are now occupied! Cognizance has been given to the 1948-1967 control of those territories by OTHER states.

    Of course, Israel likes to pretend that these territories are not occupied (a legal concept as to the application of which within the former Mandatory Palestine the world has no question) but merely (what?) recovered and “disputed” with disreputable people who have no business disputing anything with a super-power like Israel. But this keeping G and WB/J separate speaks to me a recognition that the occupation(s) are seen as such by Israel.

  2. Citizen on April 15, 2014, 9:38 am

    Interesting, how one changes perceptions of reality by replacing the word “occupied” with “disputed” territory. The South Koreans seem to think this pen is mightier than the sword, which is why they have their children gathering means by reading The Talmud.

    What is the difference between Talmudic studies and the study of common law in US law schools? The case method.

  3. James Canning on April 15, 2014, 1:55 pm

    Bravo. More Americans simply need to know what Israel gets up to in Gaza. Slaughtering civilians, etc etc.

  4. mondonut on April 15, 2014, 3:05 pm

    Barred (understandably) from entry to Israel to travel to Jordan. No comment on whether Egypt barred entry to fly to Jordan.

  5. Woody Tanaka on April 15, 2014, 3:43 pm

    “Barred (understandably) from entry to Israel to travel to Jordan. ”

    Nothing understandable about it. Destroying the Gazans’ airport (and doing to the runway the equivalent of painting a swastika on a synagogue) and them locking them in an open air prison is a crime against humanity.

    “No comment on whether Egypt barred entry to fly to Jordan.”

    LMAO. Yeah, no comment.

    • mondonut on April 15, 2014, 6:39 pm


      Of course it is understandable, Gaza is a territory that is extremely hostile to Israel and its people, there are no reasons other than humanitarian to permit entry to Israel.

      And I apologize for the Egypt comment, I should have been more clear so it would not go over your head. What I meant to communicate is that the essay above has nothing to say about Ali’s attempts to leave Gaza through Egypt.

      • merlot on April 15, 2014, 9:34 pm

        You seem to have missed the part where Sarah was granted a permit by Israel to travel to Jerusalem to get a visa to the US one month prior to being denied a similar permit so that she could travel to use her permit. This is a level of pettiness that is despicable.

        Egypt has closed its borders but please don’t place this on Egypt if you are going to defend Israel. Even after the Israeli redeployment in 2005 Egypt’s treaty obligations were to respect its agreements with Israel which was the party through the EU that maintained control of the border. Egypt respected this even after Hamas took over. If you defend Israel you must also defend Egypt which is acting to keep in force its agreements with Israel. Many of us see this as despicable given the suffering they are causing but the siege is first and foremost an Israeli action and it is Israel as the occupying power in Gaza which has legal responsibility for ensuring the rights of people like Sarah.

      • Woody Tanaka on April 16, 2014, 9:27 am

        “Of course it is understandable, Gaza is a territory that is extremely hostile to Israel and its people, there are no reasons other than humanitarian to permit entry to Israel.”

        Nope. Not understandable at all. First, the reason that there is that hostility is because of Israel and its’ people’s acts. So if they have an issue with the hostility that they have created, then the solution is to stop creating it.

        Second, if Israel and its people decided to destroy the Gaza’s airport and illegally blockade it’s port, then I’d say on general principles it has an obligation to permit transit through Israeli terroritory on a combination of the principle of “you broke it, you bought it” and “it’s immoral to create a 21st century version of a Warsaw Ghetto/open-air prison.”

        “And I apologize for the Egypt comment, I should have been more clear so it would not go over your head. What I meant to communicate is that the essay above has nothing to say about Ali’s attempts to leave Gaza through Egypt.”

        No, it didn’t go over my head. I think I was trying to be too clever in my response. Look, pointing to Egypt only relocates the issue, it doesn’t resolve it, because Egypt has become an indirect vassal state of Israel, though the US.

  6. Pamela Olson on April 15, 2014, 7:15 pm

    Hi, Rawan! Wish I was still on the east coast so I could meet you :)

  7. Kay24 on April 15, 2014, 10:10 pm

    Anything that will bring attention to the plight of these poor people, living under a brutal occupation, and who has no support in the zionist media, is a very good thing.
    Anyway they can tell their story, and show their suffering, would be helpful to their plight, since the zionist media, never, ever, tell it from their side of the apartheid fence. Good luck to all. Hope others will be able to follow, and be able to get out of nazi like restrictions imposed on them, to make it difficult to get out of the occupied territories.

  8. bilal a on April 15, 2014, 10:56 pm

    bring the hardships, but not the refugees? Ann Coulter turns on the foreign allegiances of the new establishment:

    “Israel Today has trumpeted the success of the 15-foot razor-wire fence along Israel’s 140-mile border with Egypt, triumphantly noting last August that, for the first time, “no infiltrations were recorded from the Egyptian border, compared to 193 from the same month last year.”

    Adelson himself had suggested just such a policy to the Los Angeles Times last year, saying he wanted to “Put a big fence around our country.”

    By “our country,” he, of course, meant Israel. In America, he wants illegal immigrants pouring across the border to provide him with an endless supply of cheap labor.

  9. annie on April 16, 2014, 2:50 am

    thank you alex. i’m so excited, on friday they will be here in the bay area. they are in seattle tomorrow…

    here’s their tour schedule. it will be the last chance…for awhile:

  10. lojane on April 16, 2014, 3:53 am

    Useful information shared..I am very happy to read this article..thanks for giving us nice info.Fantastic walk-through. I appreciate this post.

  11. weareone on April 16, 2014, 7:54 am

    Excellent interview: “Abunimah: Justice in Palestine Is Fundamental to Global Struggle Against Racial, Economic Domination” by Rania Khalek in Truthout on April 13.

    MW is also referenced: “Also, publications like the Electronic Intifada, like Mondoweiss, like many others in independent media, get through to young people who are really where this sea change is happening.”

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