How do we write about Palestine? 2 collections, 2 answers

Two ostensibly similar Palestine-themed collections were released this month: Kingdoms of Olives and Ash and This is Not a Border. Both bristle and pop with the names of acclaimed writers, including two Nobel laureates, Mario Vargas Llosa in Kingdoms and J.M. Coetzee in This is Not a Border, and the likes of Dave Eggers, Pankraj Mishra, Coim Tolbin, China Mieville and Alice Walker.

The first collection’s writers were invited on an investigative trip by Breaking the Silence, a group founded by former Israeli soldiers in 2004 with the aim of speaking critically about aspects of the Occupation. The other collection’s writers were invited by the Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest), which recently wrapped up its tenth annual edition. PalFest is a working tour, which I joined in 2013, and includes the performances and writing seminars common to litfests anywhere. Yet, as with Breaking the Silence, PalFest also offers its writers side-trips, interviews and informal meetings.

There is overlap between the two lists of writers — Orwell Prize-winning Palestinian author Raja Shehadeh writes in both — and several texts in both collections refer to visits with Issa Amro, the Palestinian activist who founded Youth Against Settlements and who Forward newspaper has called “the Palestinian Gandhi.” Some essays would be at home in either collection. And yet, from their introductions, it’s clear these are two very different projects.

The introduction to Kingdoms is co-written by its award-winning co-editors, Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman. Their point of origin is Tel Aviv, which is briefly sketched as a glittering, cosmopolitan, queer-friendly city entirely separate from what’s happening in the rest of the country and the territories it occupies and administers. “One would never know,” Chabon and Waldman write, “on the streets of Tel Aviv, that an hour’s drive away, millions of people are living and dying under oppressive military rule.”

Eager to project an absence of editorial vision, they go on to declare their neutrality as editors, and make an emphatic statement that they have censored no one. Chabon and Waldman were once part of the “ambivalent middle,” they tell us, a place where they seem to expect the majority of readers to be. The reason this collection, which is indeed highly polished, took so long is because “a team of fact-checkers labored for months.” Objectivity is further promised as they tell us that, of these writers, “many acknowledged from the outset that they had never really given the subject more than a glancing consideration.”

But it’s hard to say who, among these writers, might have managed to reach adulthood without having an opinion about Israel and Palestine. It was not, for instance, Vargas Llosa, who opens his essay by noting, “In the 1970s I was quite active in the defense of Israel, getting myself involved in many polemical exchanges.” He adds that “my ideas about the need to defend its [Israel’s] existence, with secure borders, have not changed one iota.” Nor could it be Colm Toibin, who opens his essay, “In June 1991, on the night Yitzhak Rabin was reelected in Israel, I was in Jerusalem.” And while the human mind is a flexible thing, the broad sweep of Chabon and Waldman’s “one would never know” rings odd in a country where military service is compulsory.

Surely it would be more believable to begin by saying: We all have biases and opinions on this topic, which has been at the center of the world imaginary for decades, and these cannot be fact-checked away. Indeed, many sentences can pass a rigorous fact-checker without feeling true, as in the book’s opening essay, which sees Australian journalist and novelist Geraldine Brooks replay the case of the 13 and 15-year-old Palestinian cousins who stabbed and wounded two Israelis. The story unfolds in a disembodied nature-documentary style, in which Brooks doesn’t appear. The essay’s flat tone suggests a writer who has no stake in how things turn out but is merely observing behavior in the wild.

There is a moment when the essay has the 13-year-old cry out, “Haram!” which the narrative voice informs us is “the Arabic word for something unholy, forbidden.” This is just the sort of dictionary-informed sentence that passes a fact-checking without being true, ascribing a heightened religiosity to a moment at which there may well have been none. Moreover, this start to the collection clearly frames the issue as Palestinian child-terrorists threatening Israel’s children.

This is Not a Border, meanwhile, opens with a very different promise from co-editor Ahdaf Soueif. She frames her beginnings not around Tel Aviv, but around Jerusalem and the West Bank. She does not promise to rigorously fact-check, or that the writers come to the collection as blank slates. Some have come from backgrounds where they had greatly admired Israeli leaders. Although, none has “changed not one iota.” Instead of promising objectivity, Soueif quotes Edward Said, who once suggested writing should “induce a change in the moral climate whereby aggression is seen as such, the unjust punishment of peoples or individuals is either prevented or given up, and the recognition of rights and democratic freedoms is established as a norm for everyone, not invidiously for a select few.”

Soueif adds, “We hope that it is to such a change in the moral climate that This Is Not a Border might contribute.” No one could mistake her politics for the “ambivalent middle.”

The opening piece in This is Not a Border is a brief letter from poet Mahmoud Darwish, written in PalFest’s first year. We hear more about this letter later, as it also appears in the essay contributed by the book’s co-editor, Omar Robert Hamilton. It is written in a straightforward style, unlike much of Darwish’s late prose: “Being Palestinian is not a slogan, it is not a profession. The Palestinian is a human being, a tormented human being who has daily questions, national and existential, who has a love story, who contemplates a flower and a window open to the unknown.”

This is Not a Border grew out of 10 years of PalFest. Some contributions are a short paragraph, a poem, a brief letter, while others are substantial reflective essays. Some aren’t by professional authors, and some aren’t as beautiful as others. They’re of different shapes and sizes, and generally more ramshackle. While the fact-checked Kingdoms seems to be a Western Savior project, where the mere act of the professional writer’s gaze is deemed salutary, PalFest is a more passionate, rag-tag, strange and funny collection.

Why read parachute writers, even if they’re famous?

In both books, the majority of the writers aren’t Palestinian residents, and they arrived either at Ben Gurion Airport or Allenby Bridge for brief visits. The first question when considering whether to read either of them is not whether one is interested in the topic, but why read “parachute” journalists and essayists who have spent only a handful of days in historic Palestine and Israel? There are many on-the-ground, multi-identity, border-crossing voices that have spent far more time reflecting on these issues: Sayed Kashua and Suad Amiry, for those who need a dose of humor; Ala Hlehel, Adania Shibli, Atef Abu Saif, Ghassan Zaqtan, Sami Michael, and Raja Shehadeh for moving and lyrical prose; and too many poets to even attempt a list.

The two collections answer this question in different ways. This is Not a Border answers largely by reflecting on how the authors’ relationships with the idea of “Israel” and “Palestine” have changed over the years, have shaped them and others, and have been co-opted by other narratives. Jamal Mahjoub, a Sudanese-British crime writer and literary novelist, grew up in Khartoum, where he was told to finish his peanut soup because of the starving children in refugee camps. “For decades martyrdom has been the role of Palestinians in the Arab world, their suffering a cover for all its failings – nationalism, despotism, corruption.”

Many of the contributors to This is Not a Border made intellectual and moral journeys in order to see and re-see “Palestine:” When Brigid Keenan was younger, she saw Ariel Sharon as “young and handsome;” for Pankaj Mishra, “one of my earliest heroes was the Israeli general Moshe Dayan” with his “black eyepatch and mischievous grin;” when he was 18, Adam Foulds traveled to Israel on a gap-year trip as a “secular kibbutznik.” Foulds didn’t arrive at a solution as much as a challenge to himself, to find a new way to see the “complex reality of the situation.” For Mishra, the experience of PalFest helped him re-see divisions within India.

This is Not a Border highlights how the Occupation warps not only the relationship between Israel and Palestine, Israelis and Palestinians, but also contributes to — and feeds off — the way justice is warped in other contexts, as Mishra writes about the relationship between the “strong Israel” narrative and Hindu nationalism in India, or as Mahjoub writes about the way Palestine has been mis-used by Arab dictators.

The essays in Kingdoms are all over the place, and their answer to “why parachute in writers” seems to be their alleged neutrality. It does have wonderful reflections, as from Palestinian writer Ala Hlehel, whose lyrical essay was translated by Peter Theroux. Hlehel traveled along with one of the Breaking the Silence mini-delegations, and seems to be the only one among them who understands Arabic. He writes about how he stood and listened to an old man shouting about the occupation. “I realize I am a little bored. This discovery kills me. Is it possible for one to feel boredom from hearing the story of a man in his seventies whose home was demolished just days ago, for the . . . no one knows, how many times?” This essay is certainly worth one’s time: a genuine reflection capable of bringing the reader to a fresh understanding of how humans relate to the suffering of others.

Vargos Llosa’s argument, translated by John King, largely rests on his experience of his Israeli friends. He notes that there are “writers like David Grossman and Amos Oz, who sign manifestos and demand that human and civil rights violations stop.” Lars Saabye Christensen, whose essay is translated from the Norwegian by Dana Caspi, flings out his anger in sentences that cohere around the idea that “words bludgeon words.” He writes furiously about the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, and how Israeli oranges were removed from a Norwegian grocery, and then asks: “What about the advance of Islamic fundamentalism, not just in Arab countries, but even in Europe?” He doesn’t explain what a rise in Islamic fundamentalism in Europe might have to do with Israel but continues: “In this context Israel isn’t Goliath anymore, but David. What about ISIS ravaging the neighborhood, raising passionate zealotry to a new, historic level?” One might ask, reasonably, if the fact-checker slept through that sentence.

Colum McCann valorizes the act of saying anything. He quotes a son of a Holocaust survivor: “[W]e can break, once and for all, this endless cycle of violence and revenge and retaliation. And the only way to do it is simply by talking to each other.”

Ultimately, the idea holding together Kingdom of Olives and Ash seems to be that, if only world-class writers were to visit cities in and around historic Palestine, write about what they saw, and publish their writings in a collection — like superhero Objective Observer-mans — then this in itself might move us toward a more peaceful and just world. Yet, in the collection as it stands, “words bludgeon words” to the point where it would be reasonable for a reader to throw up their hands and say, “It’s too complex, it’s been going on forever, but at least I read a book.”

The book titles themselves also make clear how they stake these very different positions: This is Not a Border is a declaration on the sort of future the authors collectively want and demand. Kingdoms of Olives and Ash has the feel of an ancient discussion that has always gone on and will, perhaps, always continue.

Co-editor Ayelet Waldman’s own essay in Kingdoms crafts a sympathetic and warm portrait of the Hebron-based Youth Against Settlements and its founder Issa Amro. None of the essays in either collection mention that Amro is facing a long prison sentence, as the 18 criminal charges levied against him — many of which, Amnesty International notes, are “are not internationally recognizable criminal offences” — are too recent. But in the Kingdom of Olives and Ash it’s hard to imagine Amro being persecuted, while in This is Not a Border his arrest and potential jail sentence seem, unfortunately, like a natural consequence of the unequal Occupation and its desire — and ability — to silence a narrative of opposition.

Marcia Lynx Qualey 

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