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

“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.

Decca Muldowney is a PhD candidate in English at King's College, University of Cambridge. You can read more of her writing here: deccamuldowney.com.