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.
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.”