What will it take for Palestinians to be heard?

What will it take for Palestinians to be heard?
Opinion: Randa Abdel-Fattah sets about recording an oral family history as an act of resistance against the apparent inaudibility of Palestine.
7 min read
18 May, 2021
'All I have is an oral history' writes the author, Randa Abdel-Fattah [AP/Getty]

It hit me one day last year. Time is running out.  

My plans to travel to Palestine in 2020 with my father and children were cancelled. I had to face the reality that my father will never enter a free Palestine in his lifetime, nor likely walk the streets of his village with my children holding his aged, calloused hands, listening to him narrate the stories of his childhood as he did for me 10 years ago. 

All I have is an oral history sealed in the body of a man dispossessed and denied his homeland.   

So, I showed up at dad's house with my iPhone. 

We sat in his backyard, nursing cups of murky Nescafe - the only coffee he will drink - and I said I want to interview you and he said about what and I said your life and he said okay but you ask the questions, and I said okay, and then I went blank because how do you record a life? How do you decide what questions matter? How do you repress the panic that you might forget a detail, a piece of family history that will be buried when your father dies and that you'll never be able to find out about? Cut off as you are, from homeland, from family, from the yellowed papers and documents rotting in an empty house in a village to which you are denied the right of return. 

I decided to start with names; to record my family tree. Tell me their names I asked. And he started hesitantly, self-consciously, sitting with Aussie Nescafe in his hand and his baseball cap on his head because it was a hot, sunny day, until suddenly I saw him cross the threshold of suburban Sydney.  

He was in Palestine, in his village of Burqa, in a grey limestone house with an arched green front door nestled on a huge block of olive trees. He's three years old, sitting on his mother's lap, crying because a kid hit him in the alley.

And then comes a torrent of memories: coming first in a class of 70 and being rewarded with a ballpoint pen - the first person in his village school to ever own one - a pen that cost my grandfather half a month's income; a younger baby brother who died of typhoid and whose giggle dad can still remember; receiving a scholarship with the UNRWA to study in Egypt…on and on he went.

We sat for hours. The sun retreated, the baseball cap came off, and dad would not stop talking, knowing that his oral encyclopedia is the one thing Israel cannot destroy. We moved through 1945 to 1975. By then, we were drained, chasing fragments of a diasporic life: Palestine, Kuwait Egypt, Australia. It's only part one, I told him. I'll be back for more.  

Dad would not stop talking, knowing that his oral encyclopedia is the one thing Israel cannot destroy

I arranged for the interview to be transcribed with an online company. When it arrived, I delayed opening it. I wanted to savour the transcript, wait for the right time. 

I ended up opening it after an especially painful week in July 2020. With two other Palestinian activists, we organised a historic statement of solidarity for Palestinian people signed by over 900 academics and artists in response to Australia shamefully being one of only two countries to vote against a UN Human Rights Council resolution condemning Israel's intention to illegally annex significant parts of the occupied West Bank. 

Mainstream Australian media ignored the statement and silenced us, flatly refusing to publish the open letter. 

We speak, but we are not heard.   

I was exhausted. I opened the transcript, seeking comfort in my father's voice.   

Speaker 1: It's the 19th of July 2020. Okay dad, we're going to start right from the beginning. Can you tell me the full name of your mom and dad and how far back you can remember the family tree? Can you tell me their names? 

Speaker 2:  Well let's start with mom and dad.  

Speaker 1:  Okay. 

Speaker 2:  My mother's name [inaudible] 

My father, [Mahmud] [inaudible]. 

Speaker 1: And your grandparents?  

Speaker 2: [Inaudible]. [Inaudible]  

Speaker 1: What were your sibling's names?   

Speaker 2: I had five. [Inaudible] [Inaudible] [Inaudible] [Inaudible] [Inaudible] 


I am a writer. I can't help myself. I see metaphors everywhere.  

What will it take to be heard? How is our suffering, oppression, ethnic cleansing to be translated and transcribed? We say 750,000 in 1948 and they transcribe "Israel has a right to exist". We say "military occupation, illegal settlements, annexation," and they transcribe "Israel has a right to security." We say "apartheid" and they say "the only democracy in the Middle East." We say "boycott, divestment, sanctions," and they translate "anti-Semitic."

What is the audibility of justice for Palestine? I ask this not of the proud Zionists, but of the so-called "progressive left". I spent Ramadan and Eid watching videos on social media documenting ethnic cleansing, pogroms and bombs. There is noise; perfectly audible noise: the chants of "death to Arabs"; settlers pounding down doors of Palestinian homes; the cry "you are stealing my house"; the sound of teargas and stun grenades in al Aqsa mosque; the sound of rocket fire, buildings collapsing, haunting, terrified screams.

I can hear it all, so loud it's as if I'm at a concert, but instead of being turned inside out by the music, the tremors of Israeli terror violently reverberate in my chest, my head, my throat, my mouth. The terror is so audible I can feel it in every part of my body, all the way here in Australia.

But the silence of establishment media, of so-called progressive journalists, artists, activists and academics who five minutes ago were all "decolonisation, intersectionality, anti-racism!" is deafening. For silence in response to the cries of a brutalised, besieged population is excruciatingly audible. It's a soundscape of signals that suffocates voices, effaces testimony. The acoustics of silence over the slaughter of Palestinians rely on the melody of dehumanisation.   

Silence in response to the cries of a brutalised, besieged population is excruciatingly audible

What will it take to be heard above this melody? The frenzied, shrieking and pogroms by Jewish mobs in Tel Aviv, Lodd, Acre have not been heard. Nor have the buildings and homes exploding into ear-splitting smithereens in Gaza.  

This is not a question of apathy. Would that it was. Apathy at least, can encompass an acknowledgment of the moral legitimacy, while tuning out as background noise a people's screams for help. No, for Palestinians, the soundscape of silence questions the very right of Palestinians to scream, to demand to be heard. The clear audibility of a liberation struggle is drowned out by the booming chorus of "two sides, conflict, clashes, balance, but what about Hamas?" and "Israeli security".

And so, here I am, in 2021, flipping through a folder of my articles and interviews dating since 1998, calling for justice, accountability, solidarity. I have a confession to make:

I feel broken. I do not know how to face the fact that 73 years of settler colonial violence and ethnic cleansing does not vibrate in people's ears, heads, hearts and chests so loudly that they will do everything in their power to stop it. 

I no longer know what it will take for the sound of a Palestinian family being ripped apart by a bomb, or pleading to remain in their homes, to ring in people's ears. I do not know how to face the fact that acquaintances who profess to be progressive, human-rights loving, anti-racist, decolonial, intersectional, and open-minded, refuse to so much as whisper one word: Palestinian.   

Our names, our lives, our dreams, our aspirations, our trauma, our rights are transcribed over and over again: inaudible, inaudible, inaudible.  

What will it take for you to hear us? 


Randa Abdel-Fattah is a DECRA Research Fellow in the Department of Sociology at Macquarie University researching the generational impact of the war on terror on post 9/11 youth and the award winning author of over 11 novels.

Follow her on Twitter: @RandaAFattah

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.