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Gaza Writes Back: Refaat Alareer passes torch to Gazan youth

Gaza Writes Back: Refaat Alareer passes torch to Gazan youth
6 min read
28 February, 2024
Book Club: Edited by Refaat Alareer, 'Gaza Writes Back' is a 2014 collection of powerful short stories offering timely insights into the lives of Gazans.
Gaza Writes Back is a compelling anthology of short stories from fifteen young writers in Gaza, members of a generation that has suffered immensely under Israel's siege and blockade [Just World Books]

Gaza Writes Back is a collection of 23 short stories edited by Refaat Alareer, a prominent Gazan professor of Comparative Literature at the Islamic University of Gaza (IUG).

This collection, published in 2014, is the first of its kind as it features young Gazan writers sharing fiction written entirely in English – removing the need for translation and, by extension, the possibility of what they want to say being lost to English readers around the world who are unfamiliar with the Gazan experience.

Gaza Writes Back is also unique in that it records and commemorates Operation Cast Lead, the full-scale military assault that Israel launched on Gaza between December 27, 2008 and January 18, 2009. 

As it's now well into the fourth month since the ongoing Israeli assault in Gaza that has left over 29,000 people dead, 69,000+ injured, and 7000+ missing, the stories in this anthology help readers further put into perspective the horrific implications of this war on Gazans, in ways that visual media might not.

Who was the 'voice of Gaza', Refaat Alareer?

15 Gazan writers contributed to this collection, including Refaat Alareer, who contributed three of the 23 stories.

Almost all contributors attend (or are alums of) IUG, with only one writer (Aya Rabah) attending Al-Azhar University in Gaza. As most of IUG is now in ruins, I highlight the fact above to drill home the impact of the destruction of IUG on Gazan education – and, by extension, Gazan identity.

Additionally, most of the contributors are women and were in their 20s – with the youngest, Tasnim Hammouda, being nineteen years old – at the time of contributing.

I am once again reminded of al-hakawati as a means of preserving Palestinian identity and how Palestinian women are often depicted in literature as staunch upholders of this culture.

Even Alareer noted in the editor’s note that while “young women are not included at the expense of young men…”, there are more female writers in the collection because “more young female writers in Gaza use social media and write literature, particularly in English, than their male counterparts”.

The central theme in all the stories is the Palestinian experience. Each entry found a way to honour their unwavering resilience without romanticising their sufferings. Most are set squarely in Gaza; some, like House and On a Drop of Rain by Refaat Alareer, are set in the West Bank.

Intriguingly, some stories attempt to reach into the psyches of Israeli soldiers – like Canary by Nour Al-Sousi and A Wish for Insomnia by Nour El Borno – which shows both literary prowess and a remarkable empathy to wonder how the violence one suffers at the hand of an oppressor, affects that oppressor!

Stories like From Beneath by Rawan Yaghi give a first-person account of what it is like to be stuck underneath the rubbles of structures destroyed by bombs. Yaghi’s writing vividly paints her protagonist’s experience that it is nearly impossible not to feel everything this protagonist feels. There is also It’s My Loaf of Bread by Tasnim Hamouda, which uses a compelling and clever analogy to describe the occupation of Palestine and the absurdity of the occupiers’ justifications.

Live Story

Some of the stories in Gaza Writes Back are brilliant reminders that on top of the constant violence they experience from Israel, Gazans go through everyday issues that do not “pause” to accommodate that violence.

In Toothache in Gaza by Sameeha Elwan, the main character wakes up with a terrible toothache that hinders her daily activities. Her only hope for relief is at a UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) health centre – where people have to arrive very early in the morning to stand in a queue to be seen before the facility becomes jam-packed.

With this story, Elwan emphasises the importance of UNRWA to the daily survival of displaced Palestinians. Her characters also highlight the emotional baggage that comes with being a refugee, in how the “refugee card was and continues to be an insult to remind us of the little the refugees get in comparison with what they have really lost”.

Similarly, in Lost at Once by Elham Hilles, readers get a compelling look at a common societal ism: classism. The main character, Eman, may not marry her love interest because he is a refugee. Years later, she ponders over her current conditions and that first love.

It is not news that Palestinians are attached to their land, so, unsurprisingly, this attachment is reflected in the characters in Gaza Writes Back. In The Old Man and the Stone by Refaat Alareer, a man’s heart breaks when he learns the true origin of the stone he has long thought to be from the holy grounds of Jerusalem. Sarah Ali’s The Story of the Land follows a daughter describing her father’s heartache after Israeli bulldozers destroy his land and its beautiful olives.

On December 7, 2023, Alareer – along with other members of his extended family – was killed in Shajaiya, northern Gaza, in an Israeli strike. His last literary work, a poem titled If I Must Die, has been translated into over 40 languages and shared widely.

Even in death, Alareer’s belief in “telling our own tales” as a form of resistance “to forgetfulness and to occupation” holds.

Live Story

Naturally, as I read Gaza Writes Back, I wondered how many of the 14 other contributors have also been killed since the beginning of the current Israeli offensive – or how many of them have died in the many random Israeli bombings of Gaza since this anthology was published in 2014.

While I only highlighted a handful, all of the stories in Gaza Writes Back are timeless literary gems that, in Alareer’s words, “show the world that despite Israel’s continuous attempts to kill steadfastness in [us], Palestinians keep going on, never surrendering to pain or death”.

This collection reinforces the hope that Palestinians exist in the future, and in a free Palestine that will give them ample room to commemorate their experiences (and those of their martyred loved ones) as stories we will never forget.

Aisha Yusuff is a book reviewer with a focus on African and Muslim literature. Her work can be found on @thatothernigeriangirl as well as in digital magazines like Rewrite London

Follow her on Twitter: @allthingsaeesha