The Center for Political and Development Studies in Gaza, Palestine held a launch of Biography’s Life in Occupied Palestine, a special issue highlighting the life of Palestinians under occupation. Cynthia Franklin, Morgan Cooper and Ibrahim G. Aoudé have co-edited the newly released special issue, which has 17 authors, who contributed various articles addressing aspects of life under occupation and hardships and aspirations of Palestinians and their means to resist the Israeli occupation. The stories include writers from all parts of Palestine, which makes it a particularly an important issue.
Addressing Gaza’s audience via Skype, Franklin spoke of the significance of writing as a collective as well as individual act, in addition to the importance of writing and narrating especially in the U.S, where pro-Palestine academics are being harassed, adding that “in “Life in Occupied Palestine,” contributors’ writings testify to how narrating stories about Palestinian lives becomes a political and collective act as well as a deeply personal and individual one. Life narratives can challenge as well as support the Zionist project that normalizes its practices of denying and erasing the existence of Palestinians. In the United States, as is true elsewhere, attacks on academics and public intellectuals for their alleged anti-Jewish sentiments and uncivil behavior do not only limit their civil rights and free speech. Stories about these uncivil individuals also serve to silence or distort the challenges they pose to dominant US narratives that render Palestinians as non-existent, or as terrorists. The quelling of free speech in the United States, in other words, works in tandem with Israel’s human rights violations against Palestinians.” She clarifies that the Palestinian narrative, the emergence of a new generation of Palestinians is longer in short supply, yet it is being suppressed by the mainstream channels, “both the narratives that circulate, and also those that are silenced or censored—after all, Palestinian narratives are in no short supply, they just get suppressed in mainstream channels—are key to the dehumanization of Palestinians upon which the Israeli state depends.”
Franklin stressed the necessity of being creative, when it to comes to bringing up ideas in order to win the battle for Justice in Palestine. The lecturer at the University of Hawaii quoted Palestinian activist and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, Ali Abunimah, as saying “the battle for justice in Palestine is and has always been, first and foremost, a battle of ideas” (xiv). Franklin noted that “in this battle of ideas, there are material consequences to how individual lives and deaths are represented, or not represented. That is why in addition to building its military’s arsenal of weaponry, the state of Israel invests many millions of dollars into “Brand Israel” campaigns—hasbara that, often by way of cultural ambassadors, sustains the Zionist narrative.”
The U.S academic added “that is also why Morgan Cooper, Ibrahim Aoude and I wanted to co-edit the special Biography issue, and why we were so happy to have the support of the journal, the University of Hawai‘i Press, and Project MUSE, in making the amazing work of its contributors available for free downloading.”
The battle for justice in Palestine, too, in its essence, is about allowing Palestinians to tell their stories, to be represented themselves, rather than being represented by others. As late Palestinian thinker Edward Said explained in his writings: “the one thing we have not tried in all seriousness is to rely on OURSELVES: until we do that with a full commitment to success there is no chance that we can advance towards self-determination and freedom from aggression.” Franklin stressed that contributors to the special issue have demonstrated that, the same as their voices have been silenced, they have resisted this silencing and misrepresentation: “As contributors to “Life in Occupied Palestine” demonstrate ways their voices and existence are simultaneously silenced as well as demonized, they also resist this erasure and misrepresentation. This resistance happens through accounts such as Yousef Aljamal’s “Traveling as a Palestinian,” and Lina Alsharif’s “Locked Out,” that evidence how Israel’s systemic violence impacts Palestinians as a people and in the most intimate of ways. Resistance, as Refaat Alareer’s essay makes so beautifully clear, also takes the form of telling stories that give voice to the love, joy, friendship, humor, wonder, and triumphs that offer forms of survival; and also through narratives evidencing how Palestinians’ organized political struggle, like their personal narratives, dismantle rather than simply reverse binaries that limit who counts as human and as deserving of human rights.”
Refaat Alareer, the editor of Gaza Writes Back, Short Stories from Young Writers in Gaza, Palestine talked about his contribution to the special issue titled “Gaza Writes Back: Narrating Palestine.” Alareer, a lecturer at the Islamic University of Gaza, explained how he assigned his students, soon after Israel’s Cast Lead Operation in 2008-9, to write short stories instead of writing research papers, as a means to release their tension and to give them a platform to tell their own stories, as a means of healing. “Research papers are important, but I thought of assigning them to do something new, to be creative,” he added. “I remember how my mom would tell us stories when we were young. She would tell the same stories in many different ways, by adding new elements and new characters, so that we don’t get bored,” he continued.
Storytelling is common in the Palestinian culture, where older people tell their children bed stories as well as stories of children who didn’t listen to their mother’s instructions and got in trouble, according to him. Following this path, Alareer revealed that he used to tell his little daughters “stories to get them distracted, as Israel was bombing Gaza.” He suggested that short stories make us more human, and bring us back to our humanity. They also take our narrative globally, adding that “the book is well-known now, every week I receive e-mails from people all over the world telling me they read the book. The book has been translated into Malay and will be translated into Italian.”
Lina Alsharif, a resident of Gaza, and a mother, currently based in Qatar, is a poetess and a former student of Alareer. Since she was a university student at IUG in Gaza, she has been blogging and writing. Alsharif joined the lecture via Skype as she has been unable to visit her family in Gaza for more than three years. In locked out, her contribution to Biography, Lina spoke of being away from family and how it felt. “When my friends ask me “Why are you staying behind? Why don’t you go home?,” my mind starts whirling, for how am I going to explain how I am being stripped of the very basic, the very ordinary, the very human right to be reunited with my family in Gaza-Palestine.” Alsharif spoke of her concern of having her daughter to grow up away from her family, as her little daughter joined the conversation by producing some noise, to the delight of the audience. “Living in Gaza and then diaspora makes you reflect on how miserable life is back home and how it should be. This gives you a constant sense of displacement. Writing about it is a way to tell the world but also away to release this constant frustration and longing to be with loved ones.”
Yousef Aljamal, a contributor to the special issue, told the story behind his contribution to Biography, titled “Travelling as a Palestinian.” “I wanted to travel to NZ in 2013 to attend the National Conference on Palestine, but my visa application was rejected. I applied again after providing some more documents, and I finally got it,” explained Aljamal. “When I wanted to go back home, I applied for an Egyptian visa at the Egyptian Embassy in Wellington, but they never got back to me. I had to go back to Malaysia to get the visa, as it was easier for Palestinians to get an Egyptian visa from there. The day I got it, I the border was shut down, so I was sent back to Malaysia by the Egyptian authorities. I got stuck there for two weeks, and I finally managed to go back to Gaza, hoping that I would be able to get out again in a few weeks. I was wrong, I got stuck in Gaza for three months, and it took me fives attempts to cross the border to Egypt to join my graduate school. I faced the same problem when I traveled to the U.S, my visa was rejected first. I got it later. Even when I wanted to go back to Gaza, I faced numerous problems; this is the story of every single Palestinian. This is travelling as a Palestinian.”
The launch is part of a series of events and talks organized by CPDS to further promote the Palestinian cause in the English-speaking world. A copy of Biography is available at CPDS’ Hashim Yeop Sani Library. The launch of the special issue also took place in the U.S, U.K, Malaysia and Palestine, at which various authors and editors spoke. The issue is available online for free.