Palestinians are sentenced to sadness


 

The writer (left) with his friend Ayman Shokor who was killed in an Israeli attack in Gaza.

I always wanted to meet my mother’s West Bank family, who I had not seen for more than a dozen years. Israel’s policies of separation imposed on the Palestinians in Gaza, where my father was born and where I grew up, and the West Bank, where my mother was born, made it impossible.

It took my mother twelve years to get a permit to visit her family in the West Bank.

She was only allowed to go because her eldest brother was dying in a hospital, a condition that didn’t apply to the rest of the family. No first-degree relative dying means no permit and thus more forced separation.

Our family has never been able to gather in one place. Even when my mother went to the West Bank, she could not see all her brothers and sisters. Each time, someone would be missing, someone would be displaced elsewhere.

Studying in Malaysia and having had my application for an Egyptian visa to go back to Gaza declined, I recently decided to go to Jordan instead. There I could see my relatives in Jordan and my West Bank family, who were supposed to gather to attend my cousin’s wedding.

But as Gaza was being bombed, and I suffered a grievous loss, it was hardly a celebration.

Worried on the plane

I thought it would be a golden opportunity for me to get know my family again after long years of separation by Israel.

But I felt worried as the plane approached the Jordanian capital, Amman, that I was doing something I was not ready for. I envisioned my family and tried to imagine how they looked the last time we met compared to how they might look now.

The difference brought no comfort to my heart. I was no tourist visiting the country that shelters some of my family who ended up there. I was not like the white tourists in the seats behind me planning their trip to Petra.

I was not like anyone on the plane. I was worried.

“Keep me updated, I will be waiting for you at the arrival hall,” my cousin Ahmad said to me before I took off. “Don’t come on time, I expect some delay,” I replied. I was right. I was held for an hour before I was allowed in to Jordan.

I had some expired paperwork to enter Jordan that I wanted to renew, but I was told by the Jordanian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur that I didn’t need a visa to get into Jordan, despite my repeated reminders to them that I live in Gaza. I was finally allowed in, to my delight.

“An hour is nothing,” I said to myself.

My cousins Ahmad and Abdulkarim, who I knew through Facebook, were waiting for me. We hugged each other as a sense of alienation took over the place. I felt I would need more time to get to know them again.

We last saw each other some twelve years ago. We were little kids then, and now we are young men. “Aboud,” as he is known in the family, drove us to my uncle’s house. I inspected streets and buildings on both sides of the road. I tried to recall some memories I had of Jordan when I visited so many years ago. The silence of dawn gave me comfort, but not our silence, not that sense of alienation that cousins should not feel in the first place.

My revenge: surprising visit to my aunt

In Amman, where many people of Palestinian origin live, I felt at home. It was a great chance to taste many Palestinian dishes I missed in Southeast Asia. I had mansaf, grape leaves, msakhan and sambousek, among many other dishes, thanks to the hospitality of my uncle’s family and my big Jordan family.

The day after I arrived I went to see my aunt, who didn’t know I was coming. I thought not telling her would be a sweet surprise that would be my revenge after so many years of separation. On our way to her house, I saw her son, Ismail, who I used to play cards with many years back. I recognized him. He didn’t recognize me. We hugged each other as I was still in the car and he promised to follow us minutes later.

My aunt was so happy to be surprised by me. Only nonstop hugs could convey our feelings.

The following day, I went to visit my cousin Abir who is married and normally resides in Qatar and who I have never seen before. I played with one of her kids, Abdulghani, who didn’t stop smiling. Days later, I got to see Abir’s brother, Luai, for the first time too. Both are in their thirties.

Jerusalem’s lights

My cousin Ammar arrived from Russia where he is doing graduate studies. The following day Ahmad and I drove him back to “the bridge.” It was my first time going to the Allenby Bridge, connecting Jordan with the occupied West Bank and the rest of Palestine and separating me from my family.

I saw the West Bank hills. Jerusalem’s lights could be spotted as we drove down to our destination. I thought about so many years of continuous separation. “If only Israeli occupation was not here, it would take me a few minutes to be in Palestine,” I said to myself.

I recalled the words of Mourid Barghouti in his memoir I Saw Ramallah, addressing the bridge: “How was this dark piece of wood able to distance a whole nation from its dreams? To prevent entire generations from taking their coffee in homes that were theirs? … You are near like the stars of the naive poet, far like the step of one paralyzed. What embarrassment is this? I do not forgive you, and you do not forgive me. The sounds of the wood under my feet.”

I kept repeating his words in my mind as Ammar disappeared into the gate. I felt so near to my grandparents’ graves that I never got to see, just down the road from where I was, just hundreds of meters away from where I am supposed to be.

My uncle, at whose house I stayed, arrived from Saudi Arabia with his eldest son — the groom in the wedding we were all gathering for. Time hadn’t changed him. He was still fond of shisha — water pipe — and had a sense of humor to which my mother had always attributed my repeated jokes. “Two-thirds of the boy takes after his maternal uncle,” she would say.

A few days later, my West Bank family started arriving in Jordan. I got to meet my uncle Yasir and his daughter Sarah for the first time in fifteen years. He looked different.

The youngest in the family, he had gray hair invading the image of him that had been fixed in my mind of a young man with dark black hair. He still had his sense of humor. I would repeatedly hear his famous word “mizyati” to describe someone foolish or funny.

A day later, my aunt Iman arrived along with her husband and some of her kids. The youngest among my mother’s sisters looked stylish and youthful. She smoked cigarettes and was checking her Facebook regularly. I always wanted to meet her. One time I asked a friend of mine from Gaza, who got a permit, to visit her in Bethlehem. This time it felt so different talking to her face to face.

My aunt didn’t know me

The following day, my aunt Jamila arrived in Jordan from the United Arab Emirates, where she has been living for the past three decades. The eldest among my grandparents’ children, time had made its mark on her. She still looked beautiful. We queued to greet and hug her. She knew all my cousins because of her repeated visits to Jordan. When it was my turn to hug her, she was asked by the crowd to guess who I was.

“Maybe one of the husbands of my nieces?” she said. A moment of silence that summarized the fifteen years of separation overtook the place. Time stopped for a second before they told her who I am. She looked at me in disbelief, trying to discern my features and hugged me for so long. My feelings were mixed, that I finally got to see her and that she didn’t know me. A sense of alienation took over again.

My childhood friend Ayman killed in Gaza

I was in the car with my uncle visiting relatives and distributing wedding invitations when my sister from Gaza texted me, saying, “Your friend Ayman Shokor just got killed in Israeli artillery shelling.”

It took me a while to comprehend and accept another shock. My memory flashed so quickly in front of my eyes. I remembered Ayman as a child in our neighborhood playing our traditional games. I remembered him as the best goalkeeper in the school in our refugee camp. A graduate of Arabic literature, Ayman loved language and painting. He loved birds like no one else did. One day he gave me a pair of doves as a gift.

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Ayman Shokor “loved birds like no one else did.”

(Yousef M. Aljamal)

Now, for a fact, Ayman has gone, and his smile will be remembered forever. Days after he was killed, his younger brother’s wife gave birth to his first baby boy and they named him after Ayman.

Another Ayman X, just like my youngest brother Omar, named after his dead older brother, also killed by Israel and who he had never seen.

The happiness of the wedding was never felt, for Palestinians are sentenced to sadness, the sadness of loss, the sadness of having a family in Gaza which was under constant airstrikes for 51 days by Israel. It is the sadness of Ayman’s grieving mother who lost her son, who had her sweet heart torn out by Israel.

A very beautiful wedding took place. A very beautiful friend was lost, once and forever.

 

Published by electronic Intifada

http://electronicintifada.net/content/palestinians-are-sentenced-sadness/13822

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“By destroying houses and killing children, Israel aims at erasing memories”


Salem Intez, 29 years old, is seen through a hole in the wall made by an Israeli shell in the home of his extended family in Shujaiya, east of Gaza City, on 18 July. The attack, which took place the day before, killed his two-year-old son, Muhammed Salem Intez, his 23-year-old brother-in-law, Abd al-Ali Intez, and his twelve-year-old brother, Muhammed Ibrahim Intez. Salem Intez explained that his family had fled their home in the neighborhood of Jabal al-Sourani along the boundary with Israel the night before because they were worried that their tin roof would not protect them from the Israeli shelling and thought they would be safer in the concrete house of their uncle in Shujaiya. (Anne Paq / ActiveStills)

I asked a friend of mine in Gaza to write an article about targeting Palestinian houses in Gaza. The next day he wrote to me: “The Israelis targeted my brother’s house. It is located next to us. The whole neighborhood was turned into a mess.”

By targeting Palestinians’ houses, Israel aims at erasing memories and disconnecting Palestinians from their past so that they live in a lost present that starts at no point. A house means many things to Palestinians. It gives the sense of home and family. It is the place where Palestinians share their tiny daily life details. It is where they laugh and cry. It is where they exist to resist Israel’s never-ending oppression.

Building a house takes a long time in Palestine. Targeting a house means targeting decades of hard work. The possibility of being able to restart all over again is largely less likely. It all starts there and ends there too. By destroying houses, Israel practices collective punishment against Palestinians in an attempt to make them surrender. Knocking Palestinians’ roofs aims, too, at spreading fear amongst Palestinians that they are not secure in their own home, that Israel is there, making them displaced and homeless again and again.

Israel uses different techniques to push Palestinians out of their homes, including calling families and asking them to leave when there is a massive attack like Protective Edge offensive, which claimed the lives of 230 Palestinians, including four children who were shelled by the seaport trying to make their living. By killing children and destroying houses, Israel wants to create a gap between generations that cannot be bridged. But this never proved successful. Gaza kids and houses will always serve as a reminder to all of us, not to forget, not to forgive.

Israel must be brought to be accountable for its crimes in Palestine. Supporting justice in Palestine nerve lacked evidence. The acts of destroying houses and killing the Baker family four boys on the beach were recorded on cameras, but mainstream media is still ignoring Palestinians’ loss of lives. This has to stop so that when I ask my youngest brother Omar about the situation he does not tell me “I am still alive, it is a war like the other two wars.”

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Gaza Writes Back- Omar X


 

Yousef Aljamal discusses Omar X, a story about the death of his brother, featured in a collection of short stories by Gazan writers -   April 29, 14

Gaza Writes Back

Transcript

Gaza Writes Back

YOUSEF ALJAMAL, WRITER, BLOGGER, AND TRANSLATOR: “Omar X”. The night was silent. The moon hid behind some summer clouds. His smile revealed his young age. His steps beat the ground slowly, looking for the path. The thump thump sound of a helicopter was getting closer, penetrating the peace of the crowded refugee camp his family had lived in since 1948, and the familiar noise of tanks rolling in violated the silence of the night and decreed that he would never sleep again.
He got into his cocky uniform hastily, grabbed his gun, and rubbing its dusty barrel he stormed out of the house. As he waited a little at the doorstep of their house to make sure no one was watching, his eyes wandered right and left and, finally, met the eyes of his best friend, who was murdered three months ago and is now immortalized in posters stuck on the walls of the camp. Those honey eyes of his best friend always brought him comfort. As the helicopter moved away for a while, silence prevailed again. PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. That was Yousef Aljamal reading from his story “Omar X”. That story is included in a collection of short stories titled Gaza Writes Back: Short Stories from Young Writers in Gaza, Palestine. And Yousef now joins us in the studio.

Yousef Aljamal graduated from the Islamic University in Gaza in 2011. Aljamal is a blogger who’s committed to promoting the Palestinian narrative in the west through translation and has organized, participated in, and attended dozens of lectures and courses on translation and creative writing. He’s the cotranslator of The Prisoners Diaries: Palestinian Voices from the Israeli Gulag and contributor toGaza Writes Back. Yousef is currently doing his MA in international relations at the University of Malaya in Malaysia. Thanks for joining us.

ALJAMAL: Thank you for having me.

JAY: So this short story is about Omar, who–as one reads the story, one discovers that Omar is shot and dies in the course of these few pages. As you told me off-camera, Omar is not a fictional character. Omar was your brother.

ALJAMAL: Right.

In 2004, March 7, around 50 military vehicles, Israeli military vehicles, invaded our refugee camp, the Nuseirat Refugee Camp, and killed 14 Palestinians, including my oldest brother. He was trying to get inside an orange orchard, which was full of Israeli snipers. He didn’t know that. They shot at him, and he bled for four hours. Israeli snipers didn’t allow paramedics, who were very close to the site of the killing, to transfer him to the hospital, and as a result he passed away.

The following day, I rushed to the site of the killing with some of my friends and I found some of Omar’s belongings on the ground, including his cell phone. So when I checked the numbers he was trying to dial as he bled, the number of my parents’ land line came first. So Omar was trying to reach us, to reach the family, probably to say a last goodbye, but he couldn’t.

So this story is to immortalize him and to remember him through fiction.

Killing Omar was not the end of the story. Two years later, my mother delivered another baby boy and, as expected, named him after my oldest brother. So I ended up with two brothers named Omar. One is the youngest and one is the oldest, one who used to take care of me when I was young, and one who is now being looked after by me. So the story’s also about my youngest brother.

JAY: Why were the Israelis attacking the refugee camp that day?

ALJAMAL: This was in 2004, a year before they withdrew from the Gaza Strip. So every week, every two weeks, they would invade one of the refugee camps and kill ten, eight, 14 Palestinians and leave. And this was their habit–destroy houses and farmlands and leave and shoot as many Palestinians as they can.

JAY: In the story, Omar dons a kind of uniform and picks up a gun. There was some kind of defense force for the refugee camp?

ALJAMAL: Right. He was part of militants who used to guard the refugee camp at night to defend the refugee camp in case Israel invades the refugee camp. And that night, Israeli snipers penetrated into the refugee camp and occupied one of the buildings, and then military vehicles and helicopters followed. So he was trying to defend the refugee camp, and he was with two of his friends. One was killed with him and the other survived, and he told us the story.

JAY: So this is during the occupation of Gaza. You grew up under that occupation.

ALJAMAL: Right. I was born in 1989 in the Gaza Strip, and I have stayed my entire life in Nuseirat Refugee Camp. And I left Gaza six months ago for my education.

JAY: How many people lived in the camp, or do?

ALJAMAL: The camp is home for 85,000 Palestinians, nine square kilometers inhabited by 85,000 Palestinians. The refugee camp is very crowded.

I live in Block A. It used to be a British prison during the British Mandate of Palestine. And there is one way to get out of the block where we live. It’s very crowded. Streets are narrow. Electricity goes off sometimes ten, 12 hours a day. Ninety percent of Gaza water is unfit for human consumption. For a long time, especially after 2007, when the siege was imposed, people depended on tunnels, smuggling food into the Gaza Strip, because Israel would close most of the crossings connecting Gaza with present-day Israel.

The situation is miserable. Israel attacks Gaza every time [crosstalk]

JAY: But it’s worse now. Those tunnels have been mostly closed down by the Egyptians, haven’t they?

ALJAMAL: Yes. The Egyptian military closed, according to the UN, more than 80 percent of the tunnels. And so now people have very, very little to [afford].

JAY: How old was Omar when he died?

ALJAMAL: He was 18 years old.

JAY: How old were you?

ALJAMAL: I was 15.

JAY: And, as you describe, he was your best friend.

ALJAMAL: Yeah, he was.

JAY: Many young men have died that way in your camp.

ALJAMAL: Right. Hundreds of people, at least in Nuseirat Refugee Camp, were killed that way, shot by Israeli soldiers either at checkpoints when there were settlements in Gaza or when Israel would invade the refugee camps. But also many other people, thousands of people, civilians, also died by Israeli air strikes. And others were prevented from seeking medical attention by Israel, and they were denied permits and passed away as a result–since 2007, more than 500 Palestinians, including my oldest sister, who was 26 years old, who passed away because of the Israeli siege and lack of medication.

JAY: What happened? She was trying to get–to find care?

ALJAMAL: Right. She fell sick, and she was newly married, and she applied–she needed a minor surgery. Because of the siege, the equipment were not available in the Gaza Strip. So she applied to get a permit to travel to Jerusalem (and by the way, my mother is originally from the West Bank), and she was denied a permit by Israel. As a result, she passed away. She managed to travel to Egypt, but it was too late. She spent a week waiting for the Israeli permit, and then Israel decided to deny her a permit. And as a result, her health deteriorated, which led, later, to her death.

And this is applicable to all Palestinians who want to travel to the West Bank, patients and ordinary people. My mother is originally from the West Bank, and she was denied a permit to visit her family for 12 years. Her parents passed away in 2003 and 2008, and she was denied a permit to participate in the funeral procession. And her family lives just two-hour drive away from us, which is ridiculous.

JAY: It’s not that long ago that both your brother and your sister died. I’m not feeling from you a sense of fury. And I don’t know–is it–how deep beneath the surface is your anger at this?

ALJAMAL: Loss is loss everywhere. And I still feel angry and I still feel sorry, but I believe in writing as a way, the only way to reveal anger and to educate people around the world so that this tragedy stops, so that this doesn’t happen to my other brothers and probably children in the future, so that this doesn’t happen to my people, to my friends back home.

JAY: How do you see the future unfolding? And what role do you think artists can play in this?

ALJAMAL: The Gaza Strip and the West Bank are the two remaining paths of historical Palestine. And if we look at the West Bank, now Israel is confiscating more lands. And if we look at Gaza, Gaza is under Israeli–tightened Israeli siege. Israel is going on with its settlement construction in the West Bank. The West Bank and Gaza are divided geographically, in the first place, by Israel, which had brought about the political division.

I think the only way out is to impose a comprehensive boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel as an occupying power to force it to end its siege and military occupation and allow Palestinian refugees to go back to their homes. I don’t think that the two-state solution is applicable now, given the facts on the grounds, the wall in the West Bank, the almost 500 checkpoints, half a million of settlers, and increasing land theft and natural resources by Israel. This is impossible. The two-state solution is dead, and the only way out is one-state solution imposed by the international community.

JAY: That is a long and difficult, tortuous path, in the sense that the international community–and I put quotation marks around that–is the United States and its allies primarily, and right now they don’t seem inclined to do anything to push Israel in any direction.

ALJAMAL: This is very true. This happened in South Africa, and the United States and Israel supported the apartheid regime until the very end.

JAY: And this is even more strategic for U.S. interests.

ALJAMAL: That’s right, keeping in mind that the U.S. interests in the Middle East and Israel being the closest U.S. ally in the Middle East. But I think if this has to come, it will come from the grassroots level.

JAY: I’ve been in the West Bank, I’ve been in Ramallah, and I was in Israel a couple of years ago, and one thing that struck me–and I hadn’t been–I’d been to Israel maybe ten years or so before that–the right shift in public opinion in Israel, the overt level of racism in the discourse, just in a day-to-day way. You could hear people say things against Palestinians that you wouldn’t even hear in the American South now about African Americans, the level of overt racism. But there is a section of Israeli public opinion that, it seems to me, may not have to be so consolidated in such a right-wing position.

What I’m getting at is: do you see any role for Palestinian artists–writers, particularly–to try to speak to Israeli Jews and kind of humanize all this? Because right now it’s–the dehumanization of Palestinians in Israeli culture is hard to grasp, how far that’s gone.

ALJAMAL: I think Palestinian writers, academics, artists play an important role. And the last few years, and especially with this book, Gaza Writes Back, I think Palestinians are doing more and more to speak to all people all over the world about the plight of Palestinians, including Israelis.

JAY: Yeah, but the way you phrase it is kind of what I’m getting at–“including Israelis.” But I mean really try to talk to Israelis, not at the level of the state, but people to people, to try to humanize the Palestinian voice, ’cause, you know, to the extent that one could get it to Israelis (but I think one could), that seemed to be missing, from what I could see.

ALJAMAL: Some of the stories in the book try to get into the psyche of Israeli soldiers, to get into their beds, bedrooms, and kitchens, and houses. This book is to educate all people, including Israelis. And for a long time, Palestinians have been talking to Israelis and Israeli officials, since I was born, and this didn’t bring about any tangible solution. We are ready to work with all people, including Israelis, if this path will lead to justice and equal rights, because nowadays Israel uses these programs, bringing Palestinians and Israelis together, and at the same time, nothing is going on on the ground–more, you know, land confiscation, checkpoints, killings, imprisonment. So if we come to agree on a common ground, Palestinians and Israelis, and especially Israelis, if they recognize Palestinians’ rights to return to their homes in 1948 in what is today Israel and give equal rights to all Palestinians, then Palestinians will have no problem talking to the Israelis.

JAY: Okay. Thanks very much for joining us.

ALJAMAL: You’re welcome.

JAY: So, once again, the book is Gaza Writes Back: Short Stories from Young Writers in Gaza, Palestine. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

 

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“Writing is an act of courage,” say storytellers from Gaza


 

Israel’s attacks on Gaza in 2008-09 killed more than 1,400 Palestinians and destroyed thousands of homes and buildings.

(Ashraf Amra / APA images)

This week on The Electronic Intifada podcast:

The Electronic Intifada podcast is available on iTunes! Click here to view the podcast archive, or subscribe via the iTunes interface (search for The Electronic Intifada).

Listen to the entire Electronic Intifada podcast:

Gaza Writes Back

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From left, Yousef Aljamal, Refaat Alareer and Rawan Yaghi joined Ali Abunimah at an event in Berkeley last week.

(Nora Barrows-Friedman)

Refaat Alareer: My name is Refaat Alareer. I am a Palestinian from Gaza. Gaza Writes Back is one of the most important projects I have worked on as a Palestinian academic. The Gaza Writes Back book came to mark the fifth anniversary of Operation Cast Lead, when Israel ruthlessly murdered more than 1,400 Palestinians and injured thousands and made homeless more than 20,000 Palestinians.

At that time, as a young Palestinian living in Gaza, I realized there was more I can do to resist the Israeli operations, Israeli racism and humiliation inflicted on Palestinians. We started writing on our blogs and publishing articles on Mondoweiss and on The Electronic Intifada. And basically after the war, everybody was writing but mainly writing personal reflections and experiences.

Later on, we realized that there was a very important step we must take, which is to upgrade what we write into fiction in order to take the whole Palestine issue, cause, globally by fiction — because fiction is timeless and universal. And then my friends and I started holding and conducting some workshops and writing courses on creative writing and short story writing, poetry writing, and everybody started writing wonderful pieces — because we live the pain, we live the experience, and writing about Palestine was not difficult. Because at the same time, we realized how important it was.

So Gaza Writes Back came from these beliefs of the importance of writing back, in order to bring the Palestinian voices, the Palestinian narrative out there. The book contains 23 short stories written in English by young people, and 12 of these young people are female.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Can you talk a little bit about the process of working with these writers? In short fiction and poetry there’s a lot of creative liberty that you can take — a lot of these stories are inspired … not all of them, but a lot of them — are inspired by Operation Cast Lead. So what was it like being able to work with these writers and being able to cultivate these voices of creativity?

RA: As a teacher of creative writing, I always believe — I still do, actually — that there’s always a writer inside every one of us. All you need to so is some poking. And that writing is an act of courage. You have to be courageous in order to believe that you can write. For these Palestinians, they had the very good command of English and the understanding of the importance of their role as young Palestinians who have to do something for the struggle against oppression and racism.

So every time we had, for example, a course on creative writing, we would have twenty students or twenty people joining from different universities and sometimes I would invite people who I know can write. And we would usually start by reading samples of poetry or short stories and talk about them, discuss them, and take it from there, instead of being on the recipient part where we just receive literature — we had to produce literature because that’s what we intended to do from the first place.

The other thing is that I decided to take this thing to my own classes at the Islamic University [of Gaza] where I teach. I started assigning my students to write fiction instead of research papers. And I usually had students coming to me and complaining that they had never written anything before, let alone write fiction.

But, again, with the discussions we would have in the class, in the samples and the training sessions we would hold, basically everybody started writing. Even the first story in Gaza Writes Back, called “L for Life” by Hanan Habashi, in my opinion it’s the best story in the book. And Hanan Habashi came to me at the beginning of the term saying she hasn’t written anything before, and it’s not easy for her to write. And I said, you have to start believing in yourself. As a Palestinian, you have the talent, you have the experience, you live the pain, all you need to do is just to put your pen on the paper, and then words and ideas are going to flow naturally.

And from these classes, we had so many amazing pieces that I collected and kept somewhere, and later on when Helena Cobban of Just World Books contacted me, we discussed the idea of having a book from Gaza to mark the fifth anniversary of Operation Cast Lead. I announced this on my Facebook [page] and elsewhere that I was working on a book of short stories, and if you have ever written a short story, if you can write a short story, please send me whatever you have. And if you are willing to adapt, to develop and try to write short stories, we will be holding a training course where Yousef [Aljamal] works, to train young people who want to write short stories. And we started to receive tens and tens of pieces.

NBF: Rawan, could you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about yourself?

Rawan Yaghi: My name is Rawan Yaghi, I’m 20 years old. I’m currently studying in the UK. I used to study at the Islamic University of Gaza. I did English literature there, and now I’m doing linguistics.

NBF: And had you ever written short fiction before?

RY: Yes. I started writing short fiction when I was 17, and most of my pieces were about children and their point of view when they experience loss and war and destruction.

NBF: And you have several pieces in Gaza Writes Back that are written from the perspective of young people, of children, especially during the attacks in 2008-2009. Can you talk about why it’s important for you to pick a child as the narrator in your stories?

RY: Because during Operation Cast Lead, I would stay at home with my family like everyone else. And we heard about stories of children going through really difficult situations, like being trapped under rubble or losing their relatives or witnessing the death of their parents. And I was always afraid of having to go through that myself, and I wasn’t even that young. I was 16. And I felt that if it’s so terrifying for me, how would it feel for a child?

So I thought a child’s experience must be talked about, must be exposed, so that it doesn’t happen to more children in the world.

NBF: Could I ask you to read one of your pieces from Gaza Writes Back?

RY: Sure. “A Wall” is a short story about the separation wall in the West Bank, and it talks about a young person just walking next to the wall and thinking to himself or herself.

A Wall

It’s funny there’s a sidewalk here. I walked with my fingertips touching the huge blocks of the great wall built to scare me. I didn’t look at the graffiti; I know it very well. The sky was half eaten by the wall, and the sun was no better. I tripped on a stone, probably thrown by some of my friends yesterday. I sat down where I stumbled and grabbed the stone, started at it for a minute, and threw it over the wall. I listened for an “ouch,” a curse word, footsteps, a call, a whisper, or a gunshot. Nothing. I kept on walking. It didn’t seem to end. My fingertips were now stained with all the graffiti colors. I stopped. I turned my face to the wall. I put both my hands on it. I pushed. I kept pushing, my arms straight, my teeth clenched, my legs rooted to the ground, the smell of the spray-paint going through my nostrils to my lungs. A man walking past me stopped to see what would come of this. My feet started backing the other way. A sound from inside me broke out into a scream. I collapsed to the ground crying. The man laughed and went on walking.

NBF: Rawan, thank you so much. And Yousef Aljamal, you’re no stranger to The Electronic Intifada. Tell us a little about yourself, and where you’ve been the last nine months — and why you wanted to contribute to Gaza Writes Back.

Yousef Aljamal: My name is Yousef Aljamal, I’m a Palestinian refugee from the Gaza Strip, from Nuseirat refugee camp, a contributor to Gaza Writes Back. Currently I’m doing a master’s in international relations in Malaysia.

“Omar X,” my story that I contributed to Gaza Writes Back, is deeply rooted in my family’s reality. It’s the story of my oldest brother who was shot dead in 2004 by Israeli soldiers who invaded our refugee camp and shot 14 Palestinians dead, including my oldest brother and his friend. The story tries to capture the last moments in Omar’s life when he was bleeding, because the following day when he was shot, I rushed to the site of the killing and I found some of Omar’s belongings on the ground, including his cell phone.

And when I checked the call history, I found out that he was trying to call the family, probably to say a last goodbye. But he couldn’t because of the advanced Israeli military [technology] that cut off all communication in that area. Israeli snipers didn’t allow, of course, the paramedics to transfer him to the hospital — as a result, he passed away.

So I tried to imagine what he was thinking of, the things that he wanted to tell the family when he was bleeding, and since we were on his mind until the very last moments of his life, this story is to immortalize him through fiction. To remember him, to make him memorable. To educate people all over the world about him and the 13 Palestinians who were killed that day in Nuseirat refugee camp.

This was not the end of the story. The story is entitled “Omar X” because two years later, my mother delivered another baby boy, and, as expected, named him after my oldest brother. So I ended up with two brothers named Omar — one is the oldest, and one is the youngest. So this story is also about my youngest brother, who had to live in the shadow of my oldest brother who was murdered by Israel.

NBF: And you’ve been a journalist for many years. How was it switching gears and diving into fiction?

YA: This was the first time I wrote fiction ever. I have written many articles, non-fiction, about the personal experience of my family and the personal experience of other people under occupation. I think [writing] fiction is not that different, however, it’s completely different because I write about personal experiences, and I feel very much involved in writing whether I write fiction or non-fiction, because I talk about my personal experience.

When I write fiction, I have to make a few changes, add new characters, but still the story is there — the same story, the truth is there. It doesn’t change.

Omar X

The night was silent. The moon hid behind some summer clouds. His smile revealed his young age. His steps beat the ground slowly, looking for the path. The thump-thump sounds of a helicopter were getting closer, penetrating the peace of the crowded refugee camp his family had lived in since 1948, and the familiar noise of tanks rolling in violated the silence of the night and decreed that he will never sleep again. He got into his khaki uniform hastily, grabbed his gun, and rubbing its dusty barrel, stormed out of the house. As he waited a little at the doorstep of their house to make sure no one was watching, his eyes wandered right and left, and finally met the eyes of his friend, who was murdered three months ago and is now immortalized in posters stuck on walls of the camp. Those honey eyes of his best friend always brought him comfort. As the helicopter moved away for a while, silence prevailed again.

Soon after, Saad joined him, and together they entered an orange orchard. Saad insisted on going in first. Omar followed after Saad made sure no soldiers were around. “The place must be safe. Let’s get closer to that building in the middle. We can see things clearer from there,” Omar suggested in a whisper.

The grass under their feet was fresh. The only noise they could hear was that of the branches rubbing against them as they went further. Saad stopped to check his gun. Omar did the same. They stood still for a second. Silence was heard again, this time even clearer. It all made sense now. That silence was artificial. Omar and Saad did not have time to communicate, except for some glances. Bullets poured from the building into them. Omar fell down, shot. “Watch out! Crawl on the ground!” Saad, still in disbelief, shouted. More bullets whizzed by.

Despite her love for her first son, Omar’s mother could do nothing to stop him. She wanted him to study hard to pass his high school final exams. “Just study hard this year, then you can put off your education for a few years,” Um Omar suggested, urging him to focus on his school. “I will bring you a certificate that will make you raise your head proudly high in the sky,” Omar would say to comfort his increasingly worried mother.

As he bled, a song he loved and always sang jumped to his mind: “My mother prepared me a comfortable bed. She made me a leather pillow and wished me eternal happiness. This is your bride, shining like a diamond …”

Omar was too fragile to take out his mobile and make a last call to his family. He kept bleeding, and the bullets kept coming. He swung his head to his right. Face down, Saad was lying lifeless next to him. He gathered enough strength and extended his hand over Saad’s body. And before he could do anything, his hand fell down.

NBF: Thank you, Yousef. Refaat, finally, how has it been touring the US, and what kind of response has this book and these fabulous writers gotten so far?

RA: It’s been fantastic so far. We’ve been to all sorts of places, university campuses, churches, synagogues, all sorts of gatherings, we’ve met all sorts of people. And the reaction to people who we spoke to was really amazing all the time, we heard from people who read the book and reacted positively to it, recommending it to their friends and family.

But most importantly, we’ve met wonderful people from all walks of life, mainly Palestinians born and raised here, very active for Palestine, for BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions]; we’ve met wonderful people like Ali Abunimah and others. We also — and this is very important to me, personally — we met so many Jewish people working for justice for Palestine. It’s something Israel doesn’t want us to know as Palestinians — that there are many Jewish people who work for Palestine.

For us, Gaza Writes Back is only one project, one drop, we’re hoping that many other books from us and from other Palestinians and pro-Palestinians would follow because we believe in the power of the word. We believe in the power of the word, how it mobilizes for the just cause of Palestine. We believe that writing more is going to bring more people around us Palestinians, to bring equal rights, to end Israeli racism and occupation and guarantee the right of return to all Palestinians.

NBF: And the book is called Gaza Writes Back, it’s published by Just World Books.

End transcript.

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Powerful fiction: An interview with the writers of “Gaza Writes Back”


BY MADELINE SCHAEFER
PUBLISHED: APRIL 10, 2014

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.

Learn more about the book and the book tour, and attend an event in your area, and watch this recent Google hangout featuring a conversation with the writers.

-Madeline

Yousef Aljamal

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.

Yussef, Rawan and Refaat presenting at a local book tour event.

Yussef, Rawan and Refaat presenting at a local book tour event.

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”:

 

Rawan Yaghi

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?

 

Rawan reading an excerpt from "Gaza Writes Back" at the Friends Center book tour event.

Rawan reading an excerpt from “Gaza Writes Back” at the Friends Center book tour event.

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”:

Refaat Alareer

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.

Yussef, Rawan and Refaat at the Friends Center book tour event.

Yussef, Rawan and Refaat at the Friends Center book tour event.

 

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:

 

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A Message from Gaza: ‘Palestinian Refugees Will Never Give Up Their Right To Return’


 

“Palestinian refugees will never give up their right to return,” said Yousef Aljamal, a 24-year-old Palestinian writer from the Gaza Strip.

On this week’s episode of Unauthorized Disclosure I spoke with Yousef while he was in Washington, DC, as part of the book tour for Gaza Writes Back, a collection of stories written by young Palestinians from Gaza in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli military assault that killed killed 1,400 people including over 300 children in December 2008 and January 2009.

The only way to end the conflict, says Yousef, is to “Give equal rights to all and allow Palestinian refugees to go back to their homes.”

It’s not often that we hear directly from people who live in Gaza due to the Israeli siege by land, air and sea that cuts Gaza off from the outside world with the help of Egypt and the United States, which has turned Gaza into an open-air prison. Many of the Palestinians who contributed to Gaza Writes Back can’t even access a copy of the book because, like most basic everyday items, the book is prevented from entering the strip. The same goes for people. Despite securing a visa from the US embassy to accompany Yousef and two other writers on the book tour, contributer Sarah Ali was prevented from leaving Gaza by Israel. Such is life for those in the tiny coastal enclave, where Israel controls everything, even the number of calories Palestinians eat.

Yousef is a remarkable person who has lived a difficult life. Israel has taken the lives of two of his siblings, which he talks about in the interview.

Like 80 percent of the 1.7 million Palestinians living in Gaza, Yousef is a refugee. His family was expelled from the village Aqir in 1948 as part of a massive campaign of ethnic cleansing of indigenous Palestinians by Zionist colonizers. He and his family, like all Palestinian refugees, are banned from ever returning to their village simply because they’re not Jewish.

“I think [boycott, divestment and santions (BDS)] is the best way to help Palestinians,” he told me. “We are calling for equal rights for all people, Muslims, Christians and Jews. And I don’t think that anyone here in [Washington, DC] has a problem with equal rights. The problem is that we have some Israeli leaders who have a problem with equal rights. They don’t want to give Palestinians equal rights.”

Yousef has zero faith that the peace process can bring about a just end to the conflict.

“The peace process is used by Israel to further advance its colonial project and land confiscation and house demolitions and killings, airstrikes,” he said.

To keep up with Yousef’s work, check out his website (here) and follow him on twitter@YousefAljamal.

In the discussion portion of the show my co-host Kevin Gosztola and I talk about the white nationalist who shot and killed three people at a Jewish community center and an assisted living community in Kansas last week, the Bundy Ranch saga, Edward Snowden’s question to Putin and more.

You can download the episode here or subscribe for free on iTunes here.

Below is a transcript of my interview with Yousef.

RANIA KHALEK: You’re in DC right now as a part of the book tour for Gaza Writes Back. Can you tell me about the book?

YOUSEF ALJAMAL: Gaza Writes Back is a collection of 23 stories written by 15 young Palestinians from Gaza, Palestine, about occupation, life in Gaza, daily life in Gaza struggles, society, politics, love, hope and everything in between.

KHALEK: And how old are you?

AlJAMAL: I am 24.

KHALEK: And all these essays were inspired by Operation Cast Lead, right?

ALJAMAL: Right. Soon after the Cast Lead operation, the editor of the book, who was my teacher and who taught almost every single writer either at the university he teaches, the Islamic University of Gaza, or at other institutions creative writing, and he encouraged them to write about their reaction to Cast Lead operation 2008-2009. So students started writing.

I wrote a story about my oldest brother who was killed by Israel. Rawan Yaghi wrote about stories of children, a child stuck under the rubble of the destroyed house. Other students wrote about Israeli soldiers, they tried to get into the psyche of Israeli soldiers. Others wrote about Jerusalem and the West Bank and the wall. So the stories are from Gaza but they tell the story of Palestine from the river to the sea.

KHALEK: Your older brother was killed in Cast Lead?

ALJAMAL: No, my oldest brother was killed in 2004 when Israel invaded Nuseirat refugee camp on March the 7th. But I decided to write later on because I was a little kid then and I wanted to document the personal experience of my family under occupation.

I wrote about my oldest brother who was shot by Israel. I wrote about my older sister who was denied a permit by Israel to receive medical attention in the West Bank and passed away as a result. This was in 2007. And I wrote about other issues, for example I lost my cousin in the Cast Lead operation. He was found under the rubble of one of the buildings with his head cut off. I wrote about travel restrictions and how it took my mother 12 years to get a permit to visit her hometown in the West Bank and how her parents passed away in 2003 and 2008 but she was denied a permit to participate in the funeral procession in Jericho, which is just two hours drive away from our refugee camp.

I’m still writing but I focus on the personal experience of people who are struggling.

KHALEK: Is writing a form of resistance for you?

ALJAMAL: It’s resistance and it’s education and it’s therapy. Hopefully it will bring about change for those who read and learn about the situation in Palestine.

KHALEK: Where is your family originally from?

ALJAMAL: My family’s originally from Aqir village.

KHALEK: Where’s that?

ALJAMAL: Aqir is to the south of Ramle just to the middle of the coast of Palestine next to Jaffa. And the village was ethnically cleansed in 1948. Nowadays there is an Israeli colony called Kiryat Ekron.

KHALEK: And you can’t go back and visit there obviously. I mean, 80 percent of the people of Gaza are refugees.

ALJAMAL: I cannot visit. I cannot go back to this village. I even cannot go back to the other side of Palestine, to the West Bank, where my mother was born.

KHALEK: In the US I’m sure you’re aware there’s been several high profile academic organizations in the past several months who’ve come out in support of the academic and cultural boycott of Israel. And a lot of Zionists, what they say is that this is a violation of the academic freedom of Israelis. So you as a student and scholar, can you talk about what kind of academic freedom you have or don’t have in Gaza?

ALJAMAL: Palestinian students are denied the basic human rights. For example I cannot study in the West Bank universities and Palestinians in the West Bank cannot study in Gaza universities because Israel’s policy is to divide, to split Gaza from the West Bank.

Students in the West Bank have to go through unlimited number of checkpoints when they go to their school every day and they get humiliated and sometimes Israel sends them back and sometimes they do not arrive on time and miss their classes.

In 2008-2009, Israel destroyed one of the main buildings in my university, Islamic University of Gaza. And they destroyed dozens of schools and killed hundreds of Palestinian students and hundreds of Palestinian students are arrested. Israel also destroyed the [American International School] in Gaza in 2008-2009.

So academic boycott of Israel, cultural boycott of Israel, economic boycott of Israel, political boycott of Israel is extremely important to bring Israel accountable and force it to give Palestinians equal rights in historical Palestine.

KHALEK: In terms of Operation Cast Lead, which killed 1,400 people and over 300 were children—obviously there was life before Cast Lead. How have things changed for you personally since that military operation?

ALJAMAL: Probably this was the largest military operation I have witnessed in my life. I was preparing to sit for my final exams and all the sudden hell broke out in Gaza. Almost 60 F16s attacked governmental buildings, police stations, some facilities here and there at the same time. When students were getting out of their schools—we have two shifts in Gaza so some students were going to their schools and some students were leaving their schools—the intensity of attacks, the number of people killed, seeing all these horrible massacres, losing friends, relatives, neighbors, having to be there under attack and waiting to what might happen next, you might be the next target, was really a horrible experience. But again, as Palestinians we never give up and this is our right.

For example my cousin back in November 2012 when Israel attacked again he was in Egypt but he chose to come to Gaza to stay with his family under attack. We seek life but when it comes to challenge occupation we are ready to be there and fight until the very end with the very little little support and hope we have.

KHALEK: After Cast Lead and since then there’s been other assaults, but also there’s a fuel crisis in Gaza where Israel won’t let fuel in and Egypt is helping, Egypt won’t let fuel in. And there’s others things too like shortages of medical supplies. Can you talk a little bit about those things and what it’s like to live in a place where you can’t access basic things like that?

ALJAMAL: In 2007, my older sister passed away because of the lack of medical equipment in the Gaza Strip. She was denied a permit by Israel. She applied to go to Jerusalem for surgery and she was denied a permit.

KHALEK: Why did they deny it, what did they say?

ALJAMAL: Security threat. And this was the same reason given to my 7-year-old sister when my mother applied to travel to the West Bank.

The siege makes it very difficult. Lack of medical equipment, lack of food, lack of gas, there is a gas crisis, fuel crisis.

I still remember when I left Gaza six months ago I used to spend sometimes an hour waiting for a taxi to go to my office. Imagine thousands of Palestinian students do the same.

KHALEK: And there’s no electricity either, right?

ALJAMAL: Well this is another issue. In 2006 Israel attacked the only power plant in the Gaza Strip, which is located less than two kilometers away from my parent’s house in Nuseirat refugee camp. And since then we have been suffering.

Sometimes we have eight hours of electricity shortage, sometimes 12 hours, sometimes 16 hours. And this is terrible to students, this is terrible to everyone, to social life, to economy, even sometimes patients die in hospitals because there is no fuel and they cannot run the generators.

So the situation in Gaza is terrible. People always look for alternatives and do their best to survive.

We have almost 1,500 tunnels dug between Gaza and Egypt and they were used mainly to smuggle food and raw materials to the Gaza Strip after long years of Israeli siege. But sadly most of these tunnels were destroyed by the Egyptian military recently, just last year.

It is sad that Palestinians depend on tunnels to get access to their basic human rights. But again this is the only option and the responsibility of all people all over the world and all governments to end this cruel siege.

KHALEK: I also wanted to ask you about the political situation in Gaza. With Egypt right now things are really tough because like you said they destroyed the tunnels. I don’t agree with this opinion but people who are pro-Israel, Zionists, say that “Well, they elected Hamas and Hamas is a terrorist organization.” And you actually just showed me, you had your first academic article published and the title was about Hamas, specifically, is it a terrorist or liberation organization? So can you talk a little bit about that, what that means? Don’t the people of Gaza have a right to resist even if that means a violent resistance?

ALJAMAL: According to the UN resolutions all people who are subjected to military occupation have the right to resist the occupation by all possible means, by all means possible, including so-called violent resistance, so resistance with its forms.

Israel used to call Yasser Arafat a terrorist and later we have seen Yasser Arafat coming to the United States and signing peace agreement with Israel. Israel has always accused Palestinians of being terrorists.

Even in the ‘50s, those Palestinian refugees trying to go back to their original villages, they were killed, captured and they were called infiltrators and terrorists by them. And now again the same story happens with Hamas. The US designated Hamas as a terrorist organization. So does Israel. We have seen that Israel had to talk to Hamas to release its captured soldier in Gaza and they had to talk to Hamas indirectly through Egypt to reach an agreement.

So Israel labels any Palestinian “terrorists” just because he’s calling for his rights.

And the United States’ Jimmy Carter was in Gaza and the West Bank and he has said that the 2006 election were more than perfect and Hamas was elected and this is democracy. And according to democracy we should accept the results of democracy. If we want to change the elected leadership we have to wait four years and the only way to do this is elections not supporting militias and giving them weapons to topple the government as the US and Israel did.

KHALEK: People who are listening to this who want to help but don’t know how, how can people outside of Gaza help?

ALJAMAL: Well nowadays we have seen the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. I think this is the best way to help Palestinians. We are calling for equal rights for all people, Muslims, Christians and Jews. And I don’t think that anyone here in this city has a problem with equal rights. The problem is that we have some Israeli leaders who have a problem with equal rights. They don’t want to give Palestinians equal rights.

In Gaza we have different ID, West Bank different ID, segregated cities, towns. And Palestinians in Israel who have Israeli passport are treated as second-class citizens. Even some Jewish groups in Israel are being discriminated against. So the only way is to give equal rights to all people and to allow Palestinian refugees to go back to their homes. Otherwise the agreement, the conflict will not come to an end.

As a Palestinian refugee I live in a refugee camp, which is home to 85,000 Palestinians. And we have eight refugee camps in the Gaza Strip. Palestinian refugees will never give up their right to return. And if they talk about being practical, this is the best way to solve the conflict. Give equal rights to all and allow Palestinian refugees to go back to their homes.

KHALEK: When you see the US and Israel talking about the peace process and the two-state solution, what is your response?

ALJAMAL: Kerry accused Israel and Netanyahu and blamed him for the collapse of peace talks. But, as a Palestinian, this doesn’t mean anything to me. This means that Israel will continue land confiscation in the West Bank and building more settlements and killing more Palestinians and erecting more checkpoints. The peace process is used by Israel to further advance its colonial project and land confiscation and house demolitions and killings, airstrikes. Just two days ago, the day before yesterday, Israel was targeting the Gaza Strip.

Again this is the only way to get out of this endless saga of violence, end the occupation.

KHALEK: Do you feel hopeful?

ALJAMAL: Yes of course. When I see people coming to support Palestine and I see many non-Palestinians involved in this justice battle here in the US and elsewhere in the world I feel more hopeful and I always have hope that our day will come as our Irish friends say.

KHALAK: Lastly I want to ask, have you received any media attention from big US publications? Have any reporters from the Washington Post or the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times spoken to you?

ALJAMAL: We have talked to the Philadelphia Inquirer. We have talked to Real News, Huffington Post. The problem is that mainstream media in the US is controlled by this Zionist narrative that doesn’t allow Palestinian voices to get there. But I think with the rise in social media and alternative media this narrative is being debunked every day and more Palestinian voices get out and this book Gaza Writes Back is just an example.

 

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A tragic life that mirrors Palestine’s history


 

28 February 2014

Palestinian refugees in Syria in 1948. Many Palestinians have faced multiple displacements since their families’ first exile from their homeland.

(UN Photo)

Muhammad is a second generation Palestinian refugee with a very tragic story of displacement and alienation.

He was born and grew up in Iraq to a displaced Palestinian family from the village of Aqir in historic Palestine.

On 4 May 1948, Aqir was invaded by a Zionist militia that killed and kidnapped residents and destroyed homes. The majority of the villagers fled and the remainder were expelled a few weeks later.

By December, desperate to halt the return of the expelled Palestinians, the nascent Israeli army had already settled newly arrived Jews into the villagers’ homes, as the historianBenny Morris documented in his book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited.

Today, Aqir is known by Israelis as Kiryat Ekron.

Listening to Muhammad, who asked that his full identity not be revealed for safety reasons, brought the words of the Palestinian novelist Ibrahim Nasrallah to my mind: “We should have had bigger hearts to contain all this tragedy.”

The story of Palestine starting from 1948 until now is contained in Muhammad’s story.

“Dying in the desert”

After the United States led the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Muhammad moved to Jordan. There, he got stuck in the desert for four months at al-Rweished refugee camp on the Iraqi-Jordanian border.

This slim man, apparently in his forties, lost his eldest son who suffered from leukemia while in the refugee camp. Muhammad eventually managed to get into Jordan since he is married to a Palestinian-Jordanian.

“The story created a great fuss in the media and media outlets started talking about a kid of a Jordanian dying in the desert,” the man recalled.

Under Jordanian law, the non-Jordanian male spouses of Jordanian women do not acquire citizenship and the residency rights that come with it, however, Palestinians in the camp married to Jordanians were given a royal exception and allowed into the country, while other Palestinians were left stranded in the desert for four years.

Most of the refugees were eventually exiled to Brazil.   The situation in Jordan was not good and Muhammad had to struggle to find a job to feed his family. Going back to Iraq was his only option — yet it was not a good one.

Sectarian infighting in the wake of the US-led invasion made it impossible for him to work and live in Iraq. In 2006 Muhammad and his family moved to Syria.

Yet the Syrian crisis that began in March 2011 displaced his family once again.

In November 2013, as Muhammad was looking for food, he was stopped at a checkpoint and apprehended by the Syrian army.

Tortured in prison

Muhammad was tortured for forty days and he lost 30 kilograms (65 pounds) of his bodyweight.

When I met him in, Muhammad described this critical period in prison. He spoke of great misery and extremely cramped conditions: “We would squeeze ourselves to give more space to injured inmates.”

After forty days, Muhammad was given two options: to be sent to an Iraqi prison, since he was born there, or to be deported to any country that would accept him.

His wife had to sell her gold to purchase a plane ticket in addition to paying some bribes to security officers. Egypt refused to allow him into Gaza because he does not hold a Palestinian ID number (such numbers are issued by Israel, via the Palestinian Authority), although he holds a Palestinian passport issued by the PA.

A call from Gaza

Hisham, a Palestinian student in Kuala Lumpur received a call from his Gaza family telling him about a Palestinian travelling from Syria whose mother happened to be living next to the student’s family’s house in Gaza, who was expected to arrive in Malaysia the next day.

Hisham rushed to the airport the next day with a banner on which he wrote Muhammad’s full name. As they waited at the arrival hall, a man waved to them. It was Muhammad.

He stayed with a group of Palestinians and it is in Malaysia that I met him. Once Muhammad settled in, he called his family in Syria, Palestine and Iraq. Then he started making calls to embassies all over the world to give him a visa. None offered him one.

He overstayed in Malaysia and had to pay a heavy fine. He was denied entry into Malaysia for two years and given one week to leave the country. Meanwhile, his brothers in Iraq managed to get him a visitor’s permit.

Bitterness

Muhammad spoke of the situation of Palestinians with bitterness: “When the crisis began in Syria, Palestinians paid dearly. Part of the Syrian people accused us of supporting the Syrian regime, and another group accused us of treason and betraying the regime.”

With help, Muhammad booked his flight to Iraq and arrived there in February.

Thinking of his family in Syria, his future, his options, his displacement and his destiny as a Palestinian, Muhammad understands it all.

His dad was kicked out of his original village in Palestine by Zionist gangs and he was born in exile.

He knows about the reality of displacement, the guilt of being Palestinian, his son dying in the desert, his family stranded in Syria, torture in a Syrian prison. He knows about passports, a lost homeland.

He knows about what it is like to have nowhere on earth to go.

Meanwhile, his family will remain separated, with him and his brothers in Iraq, his kids and wife in Syria and his mum and heart in Palestine.

Yousef M. Aljamal is a Gaza-based translator and blogger. He co-translated The Prisoners’ Diaries: Palestinian Voices from the Israeli Gulag. His website iswww.yeljamal.wordpress.com. He can be followed on Twitter: @YousefAljamal.

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