'All revolutions started with the written word': Fikra magazine, a platform for Palestinians by Palestinians
It’s an undeniably powerful image: Mariam Barghouti, a known Palestinian writer and commentator from Ramallah, who on a stage in her hometown, recreates an interview she did with CNN, but, instead of the answer she then gave to a question about “coexistence” – some things are not allowed to be said out loud when you’re Palestinian, no matter how true they or, rather, especially because of how true they are – she punches a pillow until there’s nothing left of it while repeating the word “coexistence.”
“Not everyone in the audience felt comfortable with what unfolded on stage,” says Aisha Hamed, co-founder of Fikra, “but that’s exactly what we intend to do with our magazine. We want to create a space where Palestinians no longer feel forced to hold in their anger but can express it. When you let artists experiment with new forms of expression, you create an interaction between artist and audience, writer and reader, and that’s what we want to stimulate.”
"Our goal with Fikra is to stand on the shoulders of literary giants like Kanafani and Said but update it to the world we live in now by experimenting with form... All revolutions started with a pamphlet or some version of the written word"
Anti-Palestinian rhetoric grew by 10 percent across social media platforms in 2022 – the deadliest year in the West Bank since the end of the Second Intifada, likely to be surpassed in 2023 – according to a report published in March by civil society organisation 7amleh, which advocates for Palestinians digital rights and tracks the ways in which, and by whom, they are being violated.
One of London's most prominent arts and culture venues, the Barbican Centre, abruptly cancelled an event in June hosting the co-creator of a Palestinian radio station, asking speakers "not to talk about free Palestine at length", for which it later apologised after considerable backlash.
And, as Barghouti once wrote in an op-ed for Middle East Eye, even foreigners who claim to advocate for Palestine and Palestinians took advantage of them instead. “For far too long, our voices have been treated as secondary sources to bolster careers, rather than actually empower us.”
However, Aisha Hamed and Kevin Kruiter, partners and co-founders of Fikra want to make one thing very clear: this platform was not created for a Global North audience. “With all due respect, we don’t care what Western readers think of our content and artists, we created Fikra for Palestinians and by Palestinians,” they tell The New Arab from their home in Ramallah, with the gentle purring of a cat in the background.
Connected through loneliness
The couple, who, in their former career as Dutch diplomats realised that many international initiatives in Occupied Palestine had the opposite effect and found themselves losing faith in the system “despite quite a few well-meaning people being part of it,” Aisha says.
They had been meaning to move to Palestine and do something meaningful for a while.
Not wanting to blindly jump into an adventure, they did a lot of research and noticed a gap in the contemporary Palestinian literary ecosystem – a bilingual magazine that only includes Palestinian voices and isn’t afraid to tackle sensitive topics, despite a rich legacy of resistance literature.
“Our goal with Fikra is to stand on the shoulders of literary giants like Kanafani and Said but update it to the world we live in now by experimenting with form,” Kevin adds. “All revolutions started with a pamphlet or some version of the written word.”
The most important thing Aisha and Kevin aim to do by facilitating a platform like Fikra is to create a safe space for Palestinians to share their experiences, talk about things openly, and make connections they normally wouldn’t make because of the boundaries that “have been forced upon them."
And this doesn’t merely mean the physical ones – as some contributors from Gaza weren’t even able to attend the launch -- but also all the boundaries that are a result of those physical ones.
A united front
"Palestinians always carry around some type of guilt which tends to make them trivialize or deny their own trauma and emotions because others have it worse than them,” Aisha continues.
“Whether it’s a diaspora Palestinian comparing themselves with someone in ’48, a ’48 with a West Banker, a West Banker with a Gazan, or a Gazan with those living in the camps. We also tend to judge each other for it, which shouldn’t be the case,” she adds.
“That feeling of guilt and its implications are not just horizontal and linear. Like everything else concerning Palestine, this aspect is also very nuanced. Guilt exists between groups, occasionally vertically and unexpectedly, and intergenerationally.”
What Fikra aims to do is to connect all these Palestinian voices, through different forms of literary and visual arts – to create a better understanding among themselves and form a more united front.
A common theme Aisha noticed in Fikra's contributions is loneliness. “I saw so many variations on the ways in which we all feel lonely. It’s important for others to read that and recognise themselves in it and to know that they’re not alone. And then to actually be able to get in touch with those who inspire them.”
That inspiration goes in many directions.
Kevin recalls how award-winning Palestinian writer Mahmoud Shukair wrote a satirical story exclusively for Fikra called Letters to Shakira for the first print issue and how he wouldn’t leave the launch event despite his family’s frequent pleas to do so because he had just had an operation.
“He just wanted to connect with everyone, especially the younger generation, who he says inspires him,” Kevin explained. “He even asked us to set up an Instagram account for him so he could stay up to date on Fikra and other writers. That really made us feel proud.
"Mahmoud Shukair is such a beloved and respected writer that he can basically get away with writing anything," Kevin adds, "and in Letters to Shakira, he doesn’t shy away from tackling issues like conservatism, the patriarchy, and religion."
But, while many young writers working with Fikra are shocked to be mentored by such a literary giant, Mahmoud Shoukair says he wants to learn from the new generation of Palestinian writers and continues to be inspired by them.
However, Fikra doesn’t want to be a frictionless, kumbaya, let’s-hug-it-out platform. Just agreeing for the sake of cohesion would defeat its very purpose.
“There’s also this strong feeling of getting together, whether online or at an event, and seeing where we clash – where we can confront each other, It’s a healthy way of expressing ourselves," Aisha says.
"Fikra is also about coexistence between Palestinians themselves. We often get asked if we also publish left-wing Israelis, to which the answer is a firm no, with clear reason, because for us those kinds of coexistence projects, however well-intentioned, are really no good"
And where the outside world further dehumanizes Palestinians by assuming they all think and want the same, the reality is that, as is the case everywhere else in the world, the Palestinian people are diverse and dynamic. Differences exist between different generations and within the same neighbourhoods.
“It’s dangerous to stay in our comfort zone, which is what the occupier wants – to try and lull us to sleep, which often occurs because we are tired of constantly being in fighting mode,” Aisha tells The New Arab. “And where do we even put all those emotions? In ’48, where I’m from, you can't go anywhere with that, you can't adhere to an ideology, you can't express it, because everyone around you, your employer, your professor, your neighbour, your therapist, everyone is your enemy, you are forced to coexist there."
Kevin continues, “In a way, Fikra is also about coexistence between Palestinians themselves. We often get asked if we publish left-wing Israelis, to which the answer is a firm no, with clear reason – for us those kinds of coexistence projects, however well-intentioned, are really no good because of the fact that there is still occupation. You can't put someone who is occupied at the table with the occupier and simply say: “And now you must coexist,” no matter how sweet the occupier is.
“First get rid of the occupation and then we can talk about what has happened. I think that perspective inspires confidence in our writers like I can talk to my fellow people, you know?"
Cultural BDS or bust
Fikra does not accept funding from governments or politically affiliated donors to ensure complete editorial independence and thoroughly vets any NGO or other local and international partners that ask to collaborate with them.
“The most important thing for us and the Palestinian context is that we adhere fairly strictly to cultural BDS which, in our relationship management, works very well, because Palestinians usually agree with that,” Kevin explains.
“However, for prospective international partners, it’s difficult because we ask a lot — if you want to work with us, we expect you to align with that way of running your platform and most have never heard of [BDS] or do not agree with it. In which case, they’re not for us because we’d very quickly be moving towards something that Palestinians might see as normalisation or a way of preserving the status quo. We check every single detail of whoever we work with because it’s a minefield.”
Aside from believing in cultural BDS themselves, Aisha and Kevin need to be careful to ensure that their contributors continue to trust them — one wrong step could erase all the trust that they have managed to build in communities all over Palestine over the past year and a half.
In fact, before officially launching Fikra, they spoke to around “150 to 200” artists, organisations, institutions, foundations, writers, publishers and bookstores all over Palestine to understand what was missing in the cultural ecosystem, while still wary of reinventing the wheel.
“Even now, we take every chance we get to visit new places and people, to get out of our Ramallah bubble, and ensure we both include and reach as many different people as possible,” Aisha says.
Ultimately, although Aisha says a platform like Fikra is merely a humble tool in the face of apartheid, injustice and a 75-year-long occupation that continuously attempts to silence Palestinian voices in every way possible — whether physically, like when they murdered journalist Shireen Abu Akleh with full impunity last year, and have done so by killing hundreds of other Palestinians since, or by denying Palestinians access to each other, stifling a sense of community — she believes that the unapologetic, uncensored perspectives and the continuous dialogue that Fikra offers can contribute to “the resistance and resilience that are part and parcel of Palestine.”
But Fikra is also a place where you’re not always expected to be in perpetual fighting mode and are gently encouraged to be ferociously vulnerable instead.
“During the launch event, I wanted to be vulnerable on stage because I wanted to show that it’s not a bad thing, that we don't have to be in fighting mode all the time,” Aisha said. “Anger, frustration, anything goes, but the same goes for sadness, sensitivities and fears — there is ample room for everything.”
The platform only exists by virtue of the tenacity and courage of the people who contribute, whether by submitting their art or by honestly engaging with them, even, or especially, when that includes constructive criticism, both Aisha and Kevin emphasise.
“You just have people here who entrust us with their trauma, their deepest fears and feelings — they give them to us and allow us to turn all of that pain into something beautiful and share it with the world,” Aisha says.
“I am very proud of that, and of all our contributors. Ultimately, they are the ones on the front lines — we are not.”
Farah-Silvana Kanaan is a Beirut-based freelance journalist