by Susannah Tarbush
Israel's 23-day Operation Cast Lead offensive on Gaza, which lasted from 27 December 2008 to 18 January 2009, caused massive destruction and killed more than 1,400 people in Gaza. Another 5,000 were injured. It was a particularly brutal chapter in the seemingly never-ending ordeals facing the people of Gaza.
Now Just World Books of Charlottesville, Virginia, has published a groundbreaking collection of fiction, Gaza Writes Back: Short Stories from Young Writers in Gaza, Palestine, edited by Refaat Alareer. In their stories the young authors explore the lives of Gazans during and after Operation Cast Lead.
The book's international launch in London, on the evening of Wednesday of last week, coincided with the fifth anniversary of the ending of Operation Cast Lead. The launch was held at a packed-out event in the P21 Gallery, with sponsorship from Middle East Monitor (MEMO) and the Arab British Centre. In the chair was author and former associate foreign editor of the Guardian newspaper Victoria Brittain.
The book's cover says: "These stories take us into the homes and hearts of moms, dads, students, children, and elders striving to live lives of dignity in one of the world's most embattled communities."
Gazans have constantly sought ways of overcoming their difficulties and isolation, and writing has played an increasingly vital role in this. Gazans have been adept in using social media, through blogs, Facebook, Twitter and online publications. And as Gaza Writes Back demonstrates, they are also increasingly writing fiction.
Gaza Writes Back brings together 23 stories by 15 young authors, all but three of them women. The number of stories was chosen so as to match the number of days Operation Cast Lead lasted. The Gaza Writes Back Facebook page has been posting daily extracts from the stories. The blockade of Gaza means that copies of Gaza Writes Back may not reach Gaza, where most of its writers are currently located.
In addition to the 23 stories, the book includes a photograph and one or two-page biography of each of the 15 contributors, with their personal statements on writing. Elham Hilles, for example, writes: "Writing is way of resistance through which I attempt to highlight the distress and agony of the Palestinian refugees in the wretched camps around my city."
'telling stories is an act of life and resistance'
Refaat Alareer has an MA in Comparative Literature from University College, London University, and teaches at the Islamic University of Gaza. He is at present doing a PhD in Malaysia. His role in the book project was much more than that of editor: he is a creative writing teacher and a mentor to young Gaza writers, and was the prime mover in getting the book off the ground. In his introduction to the book he says: "Gaza Writes Back provides conclusive evidence that telling stories is an act of life, that telling stories is resistance, and that telling stories shapes our memories." He is already planning further books of Gazan writing.
Refaat was able to take part in the P21 Gallery launch thanks to a Skype link to Malaysia, in which he was joined by one of the contributors to the book, Yousef Aljamal, who is like him pursuing university studies in Malaysia. The London launch was followed last Saturday by a launch in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur which Refaat attended in person.
Given the blockade of Gaza and the travel restrictions on its inhabitants Just World Books was unable to bring authors directly from there to London for the launch. But two contributors - Rawan Yaghi and Jehan Alfarra - are currently studying in Oxford, and they attended the event in person to read from their stories and to take part in a Q and A session with the audience.
In addition, a pre-recorded video of another contributor, Mohammed Suliman - who has three stories in the collection - was screened. Suliman has a BA in English Literature from the Islamic University of Gaza and a Master's degree in Human Rights from the London School of Economics. In the video he reads from his story "One War Day."
Ain Media has posted this video and those of two other Gaza Writes Back authors on YouTube. The videos can be viewed in a 14-minute compilation, or as separate segments on the individual writers, Hanan Habashi, Mohammed Suliman and Samiha Elwan. Victoria Brittain thanked Gaza video maker Rushdi Sarraj for his help in making the videos.
Refaat prefaced his remarks to the London launch with two quotes from the great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, "a source of inspiration to all Palestinian young writers". The first quote was: “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” The second quote is: “Storytellers are a threat. They threaten all champions of control, they frighten usurpers of the right-to-freedom of the human spirit.”
'pure Palestinian voices'
Refaat said: "This basically is what Gaza Writes Back is about." The collection "attempts to testify with pure Palestinian voices against one of the most brutal occupations the world has ever known." Its stories "endeavour to educate both ourselves as Palestinians, and the whole world. The young writers in the book strongly believe that there is a lot to learn because we believe that it is our moral obligation to educate ourselves to improve personally, individually, locally and globally in order to achieve peace and better understanding."
The book carries on its back cover and inside pages acclaim from prominent Palestinian and other activists and writers: Dr Ghada Karmi, Victoria Brittain, Ramzy Baroud, Jean Said Makdisi, Susan Abulhawa, Samah Sabawi and Michelle Cohen Corasanti.
The 23 stories are diverse in theme, setting, form, type, and experimentation, Refaat notes in his introduction. Although the stories try to trace how young writers in Gaza reached to Operation Cast Lead, they include "Palestine as a whole as an attempt to refuse any kind of division. Among Palestinians, no matter where they are, there is an emphasis on the Right of Return. Some stories are about West Bank issues, such as the Separation wall, settlements, or Jerusalem. Some do not have a particular setting, to suggest that the story could happen anywhere in occupied Palestine, or even any people under occupation."
(L to R): Victoria Brittain, Rawan Yaghi, Jehan Alfarra
Rawan Yaghi is in her first year studying Italian and linguistics at Jesus College, Oxford University. "Rawan has a very unique situation," Brittain said. "Her scholarship has been largely paid for by all the students in the college." Rawan is the first recipient of the Junior Members' Scholarship set up by Jesus students. In April the BBC News website carried a report of Rawan's achievement: Gazan heads to Oxford University on unusual scholarship.
a child's-eye view
Rawan often writes her short stories from the child's point of view. At the launch she read "From Beneath", one of her three stories in the collection. After an Israeli attack the first person child narrator is trapped by rubble, alone and unable to move. A horrible realisation gradually dawns: "No one was coming to help me. There was no movement anywhere in the house. I wept even harder." Her other two stories in the anthology are "A Wall" - focusing on the Separation wall - and "Spared".
Jehan Alfarra is at Oxford Brookes University doing an MSc in Computing. In her story "Please Shoot to Kill" medical student Leila recalls how two years earlier her family's home was invaded by Israeli soldiers who beat up and shoot at her father. The home is then wrecked by an explosion. Her badly injured father needs to be sent to Cairo for a kidney operation in Cairo, and the family then faces an agonising dilemma.
Rawan Yaghi (L) and Jehan Alfarra
Just World Books, founded by Helena Cobban , has quite a track record in giving voices to Gazans, particularly women. Last summer it published the remarkable cookbook The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey by Laila El-Haddad, and Maggie Schmitt. In 2010 it published the blog of El-Haddad, who is a journalist, under the title Gaza Mom: Palestine, Politics, Parenting, and Everything In Between.
In his introduction to Gaza Writes Back Refaat Alareer writes that almost half its stories began as class assignments in his Creative Writing or Fiction classes. "Many of the writers started as bloggers, and many had never written fiction before. Working closely with many young talents in Gaza has proven to me that all they need is proper encouragement, practical training, and close attention in order to blossom".
Jehan Alfarra reads her story
At the launch Refaat explained the thinking behind Gaza Writes Back, and the importance of "going fiction". When he was first approached by Helena Cobban rather more than a year ago, "I strongly suggested having a collection of short fiction rather than say a collection of articles, because in so many ways fiction is universal and 'going fiction' is going global, 'going fiction' is transcending the rigid facts, numbers and statistics we usually have in the news." Fiction addresses the human aspect, "giving a face to the victims here and there in Palestine, especially in Gaza during the Israeli attack called Operation Cast Lead."
Refaat described preparing the anthology as "the most fascinating and productive year of my life. The peak was not only the book itself, but rather working with these amazing talents in Gaza." The book has 15 writers, but there are "many more writers out there in Gaza. Future book projects with Helena Cobban, or any other publisher, can bring these voices to the light.
"The writers have an excellent command of English, they have their belief in their right, they have the enthusiasm and the motivation, and most importantly understanding that writing back to Israel's long occupation and constant aggression is a moral obligation and a duty they are paying back to Palestine and to a bleeding yet resilient Gaza.
Looking to future developments for Gaza Writes Back, Refaat said: "We have been approached by people from as far as Japan, Turkey, Malaysia, to translate the book into their languages and we have been approached by people from South Africa, Canada, New Zealand, Australia to go for a book tour, to talk about Palestine and about Gaza, and about the book, and to promote the Palestinian cause and the cause of peace."
He added: "I always say to my friends that sometimes a homeland becomes a story. We love the story because it is about our homeland, and we love our homeland even more because of the story. Therefore I do hope that Gaza Writes Back brings us Palestinians closer to each other and closer to a free Palestine. I also hope the book will be a bridge towards more understanding, a bridge towards dialogue, so that we all work together to end Israel's apartheid and live in peace."
'stories may be turned into movies or documentaries'
During the Q and A session with the audience, Refaat was asked why the stories were mostly written in English rather than being translated from Arabic. He explained the importance of reaching the English-reading audience beyond Gaza, but said he is sure that given the buzz around Gaza Writes Back, and the attention it is attracting, it will be translated into Arabic.
He also spoke of future possible book projects. "We are planning other books to include more talents, more writers from Gaza, in poetry, in children's stories - again mainly written in English. Maybe we are going to go for non-fiction in the future, and for longer stories - maybe a novella or a novel.
"Beyond that we're hoping to have some of these stories turned into movies or even documentaries."
Refaat Alareer at the Kuala Lumpur launch of Gaza Writes Back
Asked how the contributors and stories had been selected from the huge pool of talented young people, Refaat said choosing the stories had been "one of the most painful things I did in the past year and a half." After first announcing the book project to his students and friends on Facebook and Twitter he had received close to 100 stories. With the help of some of the contributors the pieces were read and the number successively reduced until the target of 23 stories was reached.
"It doesn't mean that these are the only good stories; there are other stories that we sadly couldn't include... Since we announced Gaza Writes Back I was told that other people got involved in publishing books of short stories from Gaza. Some of the stories that didn't make it to Gaza Writes Back made it to other books. And hopefully if we go for a Gaza Writes Back:Two we can include stories we had to leave out."
Refaat said the situation in Gaza is "the worst ever", and is aggravated by the terrible situation in Syria and in Egypt. There are "endless layers of pain" in Gaza. "We have political division, which is causing all sorts of crazy things to the people in Gaza and the West Bank; the occupation;, how our neighbouring countries are helping the occupation to tighten the siege. These things attempt to suffocate our determination to live, to go on in life, and you know they succeed - but there is always this ray of hope." People see light at the end of the tunnel, "but hopefully not like the light at the end of the tunnel in the story written by Nour al-Sousi 'Will I Ever Get Out?' because sometimes the light can be deceiving." (Al-Sousi's chilling story depicts a medical student trapped and alone in one of the tunnels from Gaza.)