A Review of Gaza Writes Back: Short Stories from Young Writers in Gaza, Palestine. Edited by Refaat Alareer. Just World Books, Charlottesville, VA, 2014. 205 pages.
Reviewed by Gary Corseri
I think I was in the first grade when I first heard about “war.” It was the Korean War the adults were talking about. The new president was going to go to Korea and “bring the boys home.” I could not understand then, and I do not understand now, how people could kill strangers because other strangers told them to do so. This “human race” baffled, and baffles, me!
I have sometimes thought that if wars could be shown in slow-motion, we could put an end to this barbarism that gives the lie to all claims of “civilization” and “humanity.”
GAZA WRITES BACK is one of those very rare books that depicts war in slow motion. The 23 stories here, written by 15 young authors (from late teens to early 30s, all but three female) were compiled to commemorate the 5-year anniversary of “Operation Cast Lead”—the name Israel gave to its 2008-2009 campaign to once more (but not finally) “mow the lawn” in Occupied Palestine—mostly, in this case, in Gaza. It is a book that vivifies and personalizes the horrors, but also adumbrates the gnawing losses, the indelible memories.
“Storytellers are a threat,” Editor Refaat Alareer quotes Chinua Achebe in his Introduction. “They threaten all champions of control, they frighten usurpers of the right-to-freedom of the human spirit.” Alareer continues in his own words: “Telling stories is an act of life… is resistance.” Sameeha Elwan, a contributor to this collection adds that “Cyberspace, as a newly centralized space in which the act of storytelling is constantly in process, provides scattered Palestinians with a place which holds new possibilities of forging new ways of belonging or place-making.”
Two other remarkable facts about this anthology is that many of the stories originated as blogs, and that all of them were written in English by non-native speakers! No mis-interpolations by well-meaning and not-so-well-meaning translators. Every story is at least well-written and worthy of anthologizing, and some are as brilliant and unforgettable as a short story by Hemingway, Katherine Mansfield or Frank O’Hara.
The stories range in style and texture from stark, almost reportorial, to strangely lyrical. In “One War Day,” Mohammed Sulliman depicts a man trying to escape into books (when there is no escape.) The protagonist is sketched, he hardly seems to exist, but there is enough “placement” for us to feel the dreadful emptiness when life is bomb-shattered. Aya Rabah’s “Scars” is a poetic pastiche of life-events wound around wars. “What is massacre, Mom,” young Salam (meaning “peace”) asks in “Scars.” “All that I can tell you is that nothing can justify it, not even the most sacred ends in the world, not even peace itself, understand me?” “Yes, Mom. Nothing can justify our scars.” “I could not explain why I saw death in my son’s eyes at that moment.”
All the stories here are really fragments of life longing to be lived. Prisms of glass, easily shattered by bombs and bullets, but casting, momentarily, rainbow colors when the sun strikes just right.
A fine feature of this collection is the snapshot pictures and bios of the authors at the end of the book. “Why, they are people just like us!” the uninitiated might conclude. “They dress differently, look different, but they are young men and women who study English in universities, hoping to advance to Medical School, or teach English, or become home-makers themselves….”
“Wars never end,” Rabah writes in “Scars.” “I came to agree with my teacher that history is always repeating itself, not necessarily in the same form, but it brings the same deformity to us.”
Now 21, in her bio-note Rawan Yaghi writes: “I believe in literature’s power to cross borders and walls. I have experienced fiction’s ability to erase mental boundaries of nationalities and prejudices, and its ability to reach the human core of people….”
In her bio-note, Elham Hilles notes that “Writing is a way of resistance….” And Hanan Habashi specifies the resistance in hers: “Because many people around the world think they have the right to speak on their behalf, Palestinians are suffering two opposing stereotypical images that are equally disturbing and doing the just cause injustice: the Palestinian as a helpless victim, a mere object of sympathy, or as a bloodthirsty savage. Palestinians are neither.”
Then, what are Palestinians? A people longing for their place; land-hungry; with synaptic and genetic identities and memories as deep-rooted as the olive groves that fill their imaginations. They are a home-sick people who have maintained their identity– in spite of the Nakba (“catastrophe” or forced expulsion from their homeland “as a result of the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948 and the seizure of Palestinian lands”) They are not a “rootless” people as so many in the meandering “Western” world are. In spite of wars and endless hardships, family ties remain bedrocks on which the sacred ground of future generations are seeded and flourish.
Palestine is “our incomplete story,” Hanan Habashi tells us in “L for Life.” “Life is about second chances,” Habashi declares. “You hardly ever deserve them, but at some point we all need them.”
In these stories, the dead and dying have a second chance to live again. They are stories in slow motion—and with context! Stories that provide the heart-context that articles—even by gifted writers—cannot provide… by their generic nature.
Here are stories of resistance, and terrible loneliness, too. “I realized that I will be all alone after your and your father’s martyrdom. You are alone, and I am alone. You will stay alone. I will stay alone. You died alone, and I will die alone. That night, I missed your warm breaths, harmonic heartbeats, and charming smile. That night, I lost my son,” writes Shahd Awadallah.
You cannot uproot an idea! Palestine has been a vibrant idea for thousands of years, a living land with generations renewing the promise decade after decade. Nour Al Sousi, Sarah Ali, Nour El Borno, Jehan Alfarra, Yousef Aljamal, Wafaa Abu Al-Qomboz, Tasnim Hamouda and the others mentioned above have invited us into their homes, to sit at their tables, to be nourished with their stories and their lives. To share with us — their guests…, their kin.
Gary Corseri has performed his work at the Carter Presidential Library, and his dramas have been produced on PBS-Atlanta and elsewhere. He has published novels and collections of poetry, has taught in public schools, prisons and universities, has published work at Pressenza, The New York Times and hundreds of publications and websites worldwide. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.