Books Reviewed: A Rebel in Gaza: Behind the Lines of the Arab Spring, One Woman’s Story, by Asmaa al-Ghoul and Selim Nassib, and Pay No Heed to the Rockets: Life in Contemporary Palestine, by Marcello Di Cintio; A Rebel in Gaza Format, Price, and Publisher: 208 pp., $18.95 (paperback), DoppelHouse Press; Pay No Heed to the Rockets Format, Price, and Publisher: 256 pages, $26 (hardcover), Counterpoint; Both Books: Explore the predicament of the Palestinian writer in the face of Israel’s matrix of repression and the politico-centric view of life espoused by movements combatting this phenomenon.
Central Question: Do national resistance movements have a mandate to shape culture in their image?
Liberal and leftist Israelis who bemoan the pernicious effect on their country’s politics and culture caused by its occupation of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and its siege of the Gaza Strip are often criticized as self-absorbed by supporters of the beleaguered Palestinians. Surely the damage done to Palestinian bodies and even the Palestinian landscape is greater than that visited upon Israel’s psyche, pro-Palestinian voices argue. Their indignation is palpable: A merciless sanctions regime and repeated wide-scale military assaults on densely populated Gaza (of which Israel technically remains an occupier), as well as construction and expansion of Jewish settlements on expropriated land in the West Bank even as Palestinians are barred from building in 61 percent of that territory, and you want to talk to me about Israel’s tortured soul?
Point taken. Yet the two issues aren’t mutually exclusive. Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza since its occupation of those territories during a war with its Arab neighbors in 1967 has been atrocious. But one manner in which the occupation and military rule manifest themselves is indeed a rise in chauvinism that has infected much of Israeli Jewish life. That some Israeli writers and intellectuals lament such a development is understandable, and even commendable.
Somewhere between the damage to the bodies and landscape of Palestine wreaked by the occupation and the far less destructive effect it has on the Israeli soul is what it does to Palestinian culture, upon which it has impinged in the most drastic of ways. How so? Well, occupation—logically enough—spawns resistance. And when the occupation is of lengthy duration, so is the resistance; more often than not, a warping of culture and literature results.
Two recent books delve into this phenomenon—and its discontents. A Rebel in Gaza: Behind the Lines of the Arab Spring, One Woman’s Story, by Asmaa al-Ghoul (and Selim Nassib), revolves around the author’s attempts to break free of the tightening vise around her native Gaza, where she has had to contend with two tormentors: Israel and Hamas. Al-Ghoul, who recalls being labeled “too strong-minded” in her childhood, adds: “It’s a description that has followed me my whole life.” In recent years, translations of al-Ghoul’s Arabic-language journalism and political commentary have come to the attention of the international media. Yet A Rebel in Gaza, her first book, traveled an unusual path to publication. The reason it is credited to al-Ghoul “and Selim Nassib” is because the latter, a well-known Lebanese-French (and Jewish, as it happens) journalist and novelist, served as her interlocutor. As he explains in the preface: “She speaks in Arabic, I write it down in French—then she gets me to translate it all back.” A Rebel in Gaza appeared in French in 2016 and now comes to us in a serviceable though at times oddly unidiomatic English translation, courtesy of Mike Mitchell.
Pay No Heed to the Rockets: Life in Contemporary Palestine, by Marcello Di Cintio, was published earlier this year in his native Canada (and has its origins as a much shorter Ebook with a different title). Di Cintio, a journalist and essayist best known for the award-winning Walls: Travels Along the Barricades, recounts his experiences with Palestinian fiction writers and poets in the West Bank, Israel, and Gaza whose work steers clear of patriotic pieties. People such as the poet Ghassan Zaqtan, who “believes Palestinians need to stop seeking inspiration from their leaders of the past, however iconic, and instead look to those who populate their daily lives”—from taxi drivers to physical therapists. In fact, Pay No Heed to the Rockets marks the successful culmination of a personal journey in which Di Cintio strove “to see Palestinians as a people unto themselves, not merely as one half of a warring binary. Not in opposition but in situ.” This took some doing; for a long time, despite repeated visits to Palestine and interaction with aspiring writers, he “found it difficult not to see the conflict lurking between each line of verse and hiding behind each metaphor.”
As both al-Ghoul and Di Cintio readily point out, Palestinian writers trying to keep their work free of ever-encroaching nationalist tropes is not something new. Di Cintio’s Pay No Heed to the Rockets derives its title from “a long meditation about brewing coffee during Israel’s siege of Beirut in the summer of 1982,” by the Palestinians’ poet laureate, the late Mahmoud Darwish, in his Memory for Forgetfulness. Al-Ghoul, who met Darwish in South Korea, where she lived on a writer’s residency for six months in 2007, found a man fully aware of the restrictive nature of his unasked-for role. So long as his people were trampled underfoot by Israel, Darwish felt obliged to shoulder the mantle of Palestine’s poet of resistance—but he would rather have written a good deal more about other subjects.
Darwish spent much of his life in exile, whereas Di Cintio is interested in pinpointing the time when most Palestinian writers in the three entities making up their homeland—Israel, West Bank, Gaza Strip—decided they need no longer hew to “a collective national project,” one whose literature featured “blunt patriotic symbols like tricolor Palestinian flags, keffiyehs, Kalashnikovs, and the keys to village houses lost in the Nakba.” (“Nakba” is the Arabic word for “catastrophe,” with which Palestinians describe their dispossession—over 700,000 were expelled or fled—at the hands of nascent Israel in the 1947-’49 war over its founding.) The author settles on the Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1995, touted far and wide as the terminator of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
Yet Di Cintio’s choice of Oslo turns on a dual explanation of which—it seems to have escaped him—only one half can be true. At first, the author argues that it was Oslo’s failure to secure the Palestinians anything approaching an independent and sovereign state that shifted many writers’ focus. “They had wasted their time and talents waving the flag,” he observes, “only to have politicians sign away their country.” But later he signals his agreement with an Israeli Palestinian novelist, Ala Hlehel, who claims that it was the promise embodied by Oslo before it was revealed to be a sham that caused the change: “We thought, we can have a Palestinian state now, so let’s stop writing about Palestine. Let’s start writing about sex.”
At any rate, the empty outcome of the whole Oslo saga, in which the Palestinians were represented by the umbrella-like Palestine Liberation Organization, naturally meant that resistance would continue. Oslo’s demise allows us to consider an overlooked way in which the oppression-resistance tango unto death and yet more death can shape culture along the way. If resistance fails to achieve tangible results, changing its form makes for the logical next step on the part of its practitioners. Ironically, however, the temptation to alter its ideological underpinnings often proves stronger. That’s what happened in Palestine, where resistance, for so long the preserve of the nationalist and secular PLO, increasingly came to be couched in Islamic terms.
Growing evidence of the PLO’s capitulation at Oslo, along with the Islamists’ emergence as the new resistance to Israel, hastened the process. Hamas and its ilk received a major boost at the expense of the now discredited PLO and its nationalist (and leftist) constituent elements—the largest of which is Fatah.
This almost inevitably had repercussions on culture. Look no further than the Islamization of Palestinian society—especially in Gaza, which is ruled by Hamas. Women and girls have had to contend with pervasive and severe discrimination, and sometimes even violence, sex segregation has become the norm, and censorship has been tightened. If you think that’s bad, combine it with the merciless siege of the territory by Israel (and its sometime partner Egypt), and see what you get: a major economic downturn and a spike in unemployment, of course, but also a younger generation beset by depression, drug use, and suicide.
For al-Ghoul, Gaza has become suffocating; today, the author, who grew up in Gaza and the United Arab Emirates, makes her home in southern France. Her run-ins with Hamas—including getting detained for no good reason and beaten by the group’s female prison staff—began as soon as it seized control of the territory. During al-Ghoul’s sojourn in South Korea back in 2007, Hamas, which had won a majority of seats in recent parliamentary elections, accused its rival Fatah of plotting against it and violently wrested control of Gaza from the historically dominant PLO faction. (In the West Bank, the situation turned out differently; Fatah is the main force within the Palestinian local governing apparatus that, with Israel’s permission, holds sway over parts of the Israeli-occupied territory, and it suppressed the Islamist group.) One of al-Ghoul’s uncles, a figure of some importance in Hamas, commandeered her childhood home in Rafah, now inhabited by relatives, and turned it into a makeshift jail/torture chamber for Fatah activists. When she heard about this, al-Ghoul addressed an angry letter to him.
That wasn’t the half of it. A friend to whom she sent a copy of the letter posted it on the web and it quickly went viral. “Put to fire and the sword by Hamas, Gaza submitted and I threw the bomb from the antipodes,” al-Ghoul recalls (somewhat sensationalistically, given that she didn’t intend for the letter to be made public). Her uncle responded by publicly characterizing her ideas and those of her father and siblings as falling outside the pale of Islam—loaded language for those who believe that Muslim apostates deserve death—while others took matters a step further and threatened to kill her. Needless to say, al-Ghoul’s return to Gaza a few months later was not the warm homecoming it should have been.
Tellingly, both al-Ghoul and Di Cintio make much of literature’s ability to subvert doctrinaire conceptual frameworks. Maya Abu-Alhayyat, a West Bank novelist, children’s author, and television actress, sought sanctuary in Islam following her boyfriend’s death at the hands of the Israeli military during a demonstration in 2000. But catharsis didn’t come until she took to working on her first novel, Grains of Sugar, which is about her late companion, and, in Di Cintio’s words, “discovered that writing granted her everything religion had failed to provide.” For her part, al-Ghoul arrived at the liberal ideas wedded to her strong-mindedness in large measure through books she read and films she watched while growing up—with the encouragement of her father and a maternal uncle. As she realized years later when listening to a cousin describe what weaned him off Hamas’s ideology, these “are the things that can transform people, just as they transformed me.” Ultimately, “[a]ll that this territory needs,” al-Ghoul remarks of Gaza, “is to be opened up to the world, and it’s the siege imposed by Israel, Hamas, Fatah and Egypt that forbids it—while the United States and Europe look the other way.”
Despite her professed secularism and opposition to Islamism, al-Ghoul isn’t much of a rebel when it comes to Islam itself. She claims that Hamas’s actions serve to drive Muslims away from Islam, yet a seemingly lingering attachment to the religion of her upbringing prevents her from trying to generate political capital out of this purported phenomenon—say, by rallying support for marginalizing Islam’s obtrusively public role in Gaza. Instead, she contents herself with parroting the line, simplistic and safe, that the war on personal freedoms waged with such assiduity by Hamas is un-Islamic.
Otherwise, it’s not just when standing up to Hamas that al-Ghoul reveals her strong-mindedness. Indeed, she never loses sight of the fact that Israel is the Palestinians’ chief oppressor, and, for some, their exterminator. In the 2014 war, the Israeli air force fired two missiles at al-Ghoul’s previously mentioned childhood home in Rafah. Several of her close relatives were living in the apartment, with their numbers augmented by the arrival of family members fleeing heavily bombarded areas. Nine of them (none of whom were Hamas militants, the flat having long since reverted to residential use) perished in this senseless attack, in reaction to which al-Ghoul penned a now famous article titled “Never ask me about peace again.”
Even as the author refuses to allow her anger at Israel to steer her toward Hamas, neither does she permit her antipathy toward the latter to turn her into a supporter of Fatah. Al-Ghoul claims that Fatah’s track record when it comes to so-called “honor crimes” is worse than that of Hamas, and states bluntly of both parties: “Don’t think that the one is more progressive than the other. As soon as women are concerned, the pair of them agree.”
For his part, Di Cintio does not neglect to visit Gaza and meet those of its writers with a nonconformist streak. He even arranges a rendezvous with al-Ghoul, though his focus—as we’ve seen—is on fiction writers who resist the encumbrance of political orthodoxy, not authors of anti-establishment nonfiction. (Al-Ghoul, who has had short stories published, bristles at his suggestion that she has become a political activist with a knack for earning publicity. “I want to be a writer,” she tells him. “I don’t want to be a topic.”) In Gaza, Di Cintio finds himself in a place that’s very different not only from Palestinian enclaves in Haifa and Jaffa (majority-Jewish cities in Israel), but also from Ramallah or anywhere else in the heavily Palestinian West Bank. There are several reasons for this, the most salient of which is that the inhabitants of Gaza have suffered more than any other Palestinians both from repeated large-scale Israeli military onslaughts and from Hamas’s repression. The dismal situation does not look as though it’s going to change in the near future.
Meanwhile, cultural and literary life tries its best to keep on keepin’ on. That itself qualifies as a form of “sumud,” doesn’t it? Sumud is the Arabic word for “steadfastness,” and is often used by Palestinians to describe a third way of dealing with the Israeli occupation—one between confrontation and submission. Yet it also lends itself to the struggle Di Cintio writes about, particularly when it comes to Gaza. At one point, he asks Jamal Abu al-Qumsan, proprietor of the Gallery Café, a meeting place for artists and the artistically inclined where men and women mingle freely, why the establishment means so much to him. Hamas, which has arrested and beaten him in the past, recently went so far as to shutter Gallery. “He told me Gaza’s creative and intellectual community need a place of comfort and release,” recounts Di Cintio, “especially in the face of Hamas oppression and the Israeli blockade.”
What to make of everything al-Ghoul and Di Cintio tell us? Well, occupations and blockades breed resistance, but the latter can assume various forms. And since people are responsible for their actions even in mitigating circumstances, those Palestinians who choose terrorism as their means of resisting Israel are rightly denounced. What receives less attention is certain Palestinians’ conscription of resistance in the service of molding culture and literature. Pushing back against such overreach, as the writers in Pay No Heed to the Rockets and the author of A Rebel in Gaza are doing, enables Palestinian society to retain a measure of psychological health.
Nothing could be more important, as the sad truth is that the occupation shows no sign of coming to an end. Nor will Israel reckon with its history of dispossessing Palestinians anytime soon. “The Nakba is an unfinished novel—three generations long, and counting, with no denouement,” observes Di Cintio soberingly. “It is the poem that never ends, persisting and pressing forward.” Since this means that resistance will undoubtedly continue, all the more reason to guard against allowing it to monopolize Palestinian life.