Think about Palestine, and likely what comes to your mind is conflict. Destruction from bombs, strapped to suicidal individuals or conveyed on rockets. Stone-throwers and snipers. Blockades and boycotts.
In his book “Pay No Heed to the Rockets,” Canadian author Marcello Di Cintio decided to create a portrait of a different Palestine — the Palestine as it is experienced in daily life, as documented by writers and poets, by booksellers and publishers who bring their works to a book-loving public. This Palestine is still political, but it is politics as experienced in the every day. As Gazan author Atef Abu Saif puts it, “When a human being is made into a number, his or her story disappears.”
Di Cintio structures the book in the form of a trip through the lands that are or were once part of Palestine, starting with Ramallah on the West Bank. Relaying this setting, Di Cintio portrays a classic literary cafe society, talking with a feminist whose novels are critical of what she sees as the conservatism of Palestinian culture. Another writer collects Palestinian folk tales and tells Di Cintio that women storytellers would entertain gatherings on winter evenings, a tradition that was lost after 1948.
In Jerusalem, Di Cintio visits a library that was started by the Khalidi family, which has lived in the city since the 1100s. Eventually, one of the members began to organize the family’s books, dating back to the 12th century, into a single collection in a building in Jerusalem. The library still survives, in spite of legal struggles with the Israeli government and harassment from a group of Israeli settlers who have control of the house next door.
From Jerusalem, Di Cintio crosses over into Israel: “I wondered what it meant to be an urban Palestinian living as a minority citizen of the State of Israel, far from both the architecture of the occupation — the checkpoints, the settlements, the roadblocks — and the hills and villages of the Palestinian imagination.” He finds a more liberal atmosphere for writers in Israel; some Palestinians even receive government funding for their plays and films — as long as they called them “Israeli,” rather than “Palestinian.” On the other hand, a play by Bashar Murkus about Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails led to Murkus having his funding suspended after protestors accused him of “showing sympathy for a convicted terrorist.”
Di Cintio finds a vibrant Palestinian bar-and-cafe scene in Haifa. Poet Asmaa Azaizeh tells him she prefers living in Haifa to Ramallah, though she admits that she’s in a bit of a cultural bubble in her Arab neighborhood. She talks about her distance from trauma: “I was born in a peaceful village. I have never seen shooting in my life ... but my memory and my collective consciousness has seen all this.” Another poet, khulud khamis, makes a point of writing about Palestinian victims of Arab terrorist bombings, as well as those who are beaten by extremist Jews. She talks about the invisibility of Palestinian crime victims: “The media would always focus on the Israeli victims. Same with murdered women.”
Gaza, of course, is the part of Palestine where daily life is most constrained for Palestinians. Since the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas won elections in Gaza, and fighting broke out between Hamas and Fatah (which governs the Palestinian Authority), disillusionment with both parties is widespread. Di Cintio talks about life among the ruins, about the view from the sea, which is the only place in Gaza where one can look out to an indefinite horizon without visible walls. One writer he interviews sets her stories in Europe; she says she cannot write about Gaza at all.
Di Cintio talks with poet and children’s author Khaled Juma, who says he aims to “shine a light on the things that people can’t see.” Instead of depicting a bereft mother dancing at her martyred son’s funeral, Khaled imagines her alone at night. Instead of writing about the overt humiliations imposed by Israel’s checkpoints, Khaled describes how a closed crossing once prevented his friend’s fiancée from leaving Gaza, to his friend’s relief.
Di Cintio’s tour is a good introduction to current Palestinian literary life. He tries to take no side in the conflict; he calls suicide bombers, as well as Jews who use violence against Palestinians, terrorists. The descriptions of Palestinian life speak for themselves — the checkpoints and the wall, the rubble and, above all, the cutoff of resources to Gaza, where, except when the city is under attack, very little happens from day to day and life is mostly about survival. It may be that some people reading this book won’t get the point. Like Bashar Murkus, Di Cintio may be accused of having “sympathy for terrorists.” But the people he’s interviewing aren’t engaged in terrorism of any sort. In reality, what he’s advocating for is sympathy for human beings.
Read the full Dec. 5 - Dec. 11 issue.
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