‘I lived once in a grave’: Palestinian writers respond to the attack on Gaza

Decca Muldowney
August 14, 2014

“One day the war will end and I will return to my poem”.

On 2 June, I attended the London launch of The Book of Gaza (Comma  Press, 2014), a collection of short stories by writers from Gaza.  Author and editor Atef Abu Saif, despite facing visa difficulties that  prevented fellow contributor Abdallah Tayeh from leaving the Strip,  arrived to speak in jovial spirits. Gaza, he told the audience, has long  been famous in the Arab world for two exports: oranges and short  stories. The rise of the short story was as much a pragmatic development  as an aesthetic one. Writers in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s had to overcome  Israeli publishing restrictions by smuggling manuscripts out to  Jerusalem and Lebanon for printing. Nowadays, he told us, ‘to live the  life of a writer in Gaza is very difficult, because of the siege’.

Understanding the effect of the siege on the life of a writer in Gaza  requires some context. Home to 1.8 million people, Gaza is 40km  long and 10km wide, a narrow piece of land bounded by the Mediterranean  Sea, Israel and Egypt. The majority of its inhabitants are under  eighteen. Three quarters of them are refugees, dispossessed during the  creation of Israel in 1948. One of the most densely populated areas in  the world, Gaza has frequently been described as ‘the world’s largest open-air prison’.  Despite Israel’s unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005,  it retains control of airspace, territorial waters, as well as entry and  exit points. Gaza has been subject to some form of closure for over two  decades. Following the 2007 election of Hamas, designated a terrorist  group by Israel, a full blockade has been implemented. This siege has  crippled the Gazan economy, stifled development, and resulted in  widespread aid-dependency and food insecurity. There is chronic  unemployment and impoverishment. Gaza has been isolated, not only from  the outside world, but from Palestinian populations living in the West  Bank, East Jerusalem, and inside Israel.

We often hear that the siege prevents a host of essential items, from  building materials to medical supplies, from entering the Strip. But  cultural and literary life is also damaged by the blockade. Books, and  even paper, have to be carried in and out of Gaza through tunnels that  run under the Egyptian border, and Gaza has no publishing capabilities  of its own. Filmmaker Omar Robert Hamilton,  describing a visit to the Islamic University of Gaza in 2012, was  amazed at the size of the library. He was shown a sorting room ‘filled  to the ceiling with polypropylene cargo sacks covered in tunnel sand and  spilling out books’. The university, bombed in 2009 during Operation  Cast Lead, was bombed again at the beginning of August.  In recent  years, as Abu Saif put it, life in Gaza has been like being inside a  news broadcast.

A month later, as Israel began its bombardment and subsequent  invasion of the Gaza Strip, I thought of Atef Abu Saif frequently. I  kept wondering how he was, and if he and his family were safe. On 23  July, Slate published an essay  by Abu Saif, ‘I Do No Want To Be A Number’, describing his experiences  of living beneath the bombs and his fear of being reduced to yet another  figure in the long list of civilian dead. ‘Everything has turned into  numbers,’ he wrote, ‘Human beings, souls, bodies—all are converted into  numbers’.  The intense media coverage of the attack on Gaza, where  cameras ‘devour and devour’ images of death and destruction, leaves  little room for individual narrative. ‘There is a tale lost,’ he says:

Kawari—the family from Khan Younis that the drone  prevented from enjoying a meal on the roof of their small building under  the moonlight—they were not just six. They were six infinitely  rich, infinitely unknowable stories that came to an end when a missile  tore their bodies apart. Six novels that Mahfouz, Dickens, or Márquez  could not have written satisfactorily. Novels that would have needed a  miracle, a genius, to find the structure and poetry that they deserved.

Since the most recent attack began, however, Palestinians writers, in  Gaza and beyond, have been responding with work that attempts to tell  these lost tales, and to find a ‘structure and poetry’ to honour  Palestinian suffering, resilience, and resistance.

Palestinian writers living outside Gaza – whether in the West Bank,  inside Israel, or in the diaspora – have been forced to watch the  devastation from a distance. ‘Even from space Gaza is on fire’, writes  Cairo-based Jehan Bseiso in her poem ‘Gaza, from the diaspora’, published online on the blog Electronic Intifada  on 28 July. She is referencing a picture taken from the International  Space Station by German astronaut Alexander Gerst, showing the night sky  above the Strip lit up by the glowing explosions of falling bombs.  Gerst captioned the image: ‘My saddest photo yet’.  It has been retweeted over 46,000 times. Highlighting the important  role the internet has played for Palestinian writers and activists in  the diaspora Bseiso continues: ‘From Amman, from Beirut, in Chicago. /  We, online, yes. / But no 146 characters this. / 1000 killed, 4000  injured, thousands displaced no place.’ Tweets alone, limited to 146  characters, cannot possibly do justice to the horror of what is taking  place in Gaza. Yet social media remains perhaps the most invaluable tool  for young people on the ground, and in the diaspora, to communicate,  advocate, and share their stories.

Palestinian-American writer Suheir Hammad has also been circulating  work online in response to the unfolding violence. Her poem ‘an other gaza’,  published on her personal blog on 29 July, contains echoes of images  that have reappeared across news and digital media: injured children,  weeping doctors, a man carrying the remains of his child in a plastic  bag. She writes:

all is shrapnel and hunger

none is safe all are waiting

between wall and wait and sea

and wall there is no day

In Hammad’s poem the people of Gaza live in a dangerous stasis,  caught between life and death, a kind of endless present in which they  are constantly rebuilding what has already been ruined. In one couplet  she wonders, ‘what is it that remains of us now / then what is  recyclable in us’. What can be salvaged from this kind of blanket  destruction? Violence emerges here as a totalising repetition: ‘what is  destroyed again is everything’. Many recent texts from, and about, the  Gaza Strip suggest that far from seeing the violence there as a ‘cycle’,  we should rather imagine it as a constant. Joe Sacco, in Footnotes in Gaza,  his accomplished graphic novel, argues that in Gaza ‘events are  continuous’. For an entrapped population composed mainly of refugees,  dispossession is a daily reality, not a hazy historical memory. Equally,  as Judith Butler  noted, in a lecture on Klaus Klich’s photographs of the destruction  left after Operation Cast Lead in 2008, living in the present requires  the possibility of a future, something the people of Gaza do not  currently have. She riffs on the idea of ‘killing time’, of a people  forced to exist in a continuously vulnerable present. Hammad ends her  poem with a vision of a people caught between such impossibilities:

the people run into themselves for refuge

they catch up to their ghosts

between devastate and displace

what is destroyed again is everything

what is created is a hole

an other

What has been created in Gaza, what this ‘other’ will look like, we  shall have to wait and see. What remains certain is that, at the time of  writing, 1,965 people are dead, 459 of them children, and 9,886 have  been injured.

At the very beginning of the attack, Raji Sourani, a human rights lawyer and founder of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights,  warned that many Gazans felt their lives were worth nothing to the  international community: ‘If you are in this situation, you see the  world is just watching and you are just a part of the news. The most  important feeling is when you feel your soul and the souls of the people  you love are so cheap.’ A seven year old child still living in Gaza  today will have already survived three major bombing campaigns and a  ground invasion. Under such circumstances, it is understandable that to  some, it appears as if the population of Gaza has already been sentenced  to death by the inaction of the international community. Nathalie  Handal encapsulated at least some of this sentiment in her short poem ‘The Gazans’, published on 29 July on World Literature Today:

I died before I lived

I lived once in a grave

now I’m told it’s not big enough

to hold all of my deaths

In Handal’s poem, Gaza itself seems transformed into a mass grave,  where the dead reside alongside the soon-to-be-dead. Yet the speaker  still retains their first person ‘I’, asserting an identity in the face  of destruction. The statement ‘I lived once in a grave’ also suggests  survival, and resilience, against all odds.

In a similar spirit, Jerusalem-based playwright Amir Nizar Zuabi  published an allegorical, dream-like prose piece in Israeli newspaper  Ha’aretz on 4 August, called ‘The Underground Ghetto of City of Gaza’.  In it he imagines a future vision of Gaza in which the population,  forgotten and abandoned by the outside world, have fled the surface and  taken refuge into the infamous tunnel system.‘Having despaired of the  world, of the fear, of the blood, the only refuge left to us was the  earth,’ he writes, ‘We buried ourselves alive.’ Digging down further and  further, the journey beneath the earth is also a voyage back in time.  They encounter an archaeological palimpsest of Gaza’s long biblical and  cultural history, finding ‘Samson’s long braid and Delilah’s thighbone’.  Reaching the river Styx, the underground Gazan population are turned  away by the old boatman, but resolutely keep digging. They hope to  ‘perforate the land like a honeycomb’, to force it to collapse in upon  itself:

And we’ll be able to say with a sigh of relief: Here is a  piece of sky mixed with a cracked piece of sea; here is Shujaiyeh mixed  with Sderot; here is Zeitoun mixed with the Mount of Olives; here is  compassion mixed with relief; here is one human being mixed with  another.

Zuabi envisages the long lost inhabitants of Gaza rising to the  surface, saved from ‘living death’, hoping for a world in which old  divisions have been destroyed. What they see is the opposite; an empty  land, devoid of either hope or humanity. ‘While we were finding refuge  in subterranean Gaza,’ Zuabi writes, ‘the land above took its own life,  was left behind and emptied out.’ In Zuabi’s depiction, the world cannot  separate its own fate from that of the Palestinians. If we abandon the  people of Gaza, the suggestion is, then we abandon our own humanity.


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Decca Muldowney