In Conversation with Dr Shahinamol AK – Palestinian Literature & Art
As the onslaught in Gaza continues, Maryam Firdaus talks to Dr Shahinamol, an expert on Palestinian art and literature.
MF: Thank you, Ma’am, for joining us today. Please tell us a bit about your academic background and research, particularly your focus on art and culture.
SAK: Well, as you’ve already mentioned, I’m faculty and Head of the Postgraduate and Research Department of English at Korambayil Ahamed Haji Memorial Unity Women’s College, Manjeri. It is a college situated in the district of Malappuram in Kerala state in India. Well, my teaching career started in 2008 in the same institution where I was a student Eastern in the Department of English. I am interested in global literature, in general, rather than national-level literature. So,, my interest was in Middle Eastern literature as well as Post-Colonial, African, American and Australian literature. But for my research, actually, I particularly focused on Middle East writings, especially women’s writings and my PhD is on Middle East Women’s Narratives. I had worked on women writers particularly from Palestine as well as from Israel and Lebanon. Some of the Palestinian writers are diasporic writers living in America or some other parts of the world. As you have asked something about art and literature, my research degree was particularly on the literature of women writers based in various Middle-Eastern countries and West-Asian countries, and I had focused on the narrative side, especially memoirs, tweets and blogs of women writers, focusing on their conditions and their day-to-day lives.
I had focused on women writers for my PhD but at the same time, my interest was in art, literature, culture – especially visual culture – and artistic productions of writers from these areas especially in West Asian countries. But the focus was purely given to the Palestinian writers located in various other countries, as well as in the occupied territories of Palestine- West Bank, Gaza, Ramallah, East Jerusalem, Yaffa, in all these areas- and what I have found is, as I’ve mentioned, we do tell stories, but Palestinians don’t just tell stories. They tell the stories of occupation and confrontation with Israeli military agencies and for them telling stories is a means of existence. Telling stories is a means of cultural resistance. Unlike other people all around the world, what I have found is that their art is a means of existence, resistance and essence, and they do that through the form of art, through the form of their artistic, cultural and visual productions. So,, they tell us their stories to tell us that they do exist and to preserve their memories and their original history, not the stolen or forbidden history. For them, art is a powerful vehicle of thought of their existence itself, and through that, they create their essence.
For any artist, literary person or cultural performer, their life and their experience itself is a powerful raw material for their artistic, literary and cultural productions. But there is a significant change when Palestinian women, Palestinian youth or Palestinian men present their art and cultural and literary works. The difference is that for them it is a powerful means of existence, to tell the world- “We do exist, we do resist” through their artistic work. My focus for one of the papers that I had presented at the University of Manchester for a two-day International Conference was the particularly produced artistic work called graffiti. The Palestinians are creating graffiti all over the stone and brick walls of refugee camps. My focus was on their graffiti creations on the Israeli separation walls. Israel has created a huge wall running around 708 kilometres in length and 8 meters in height as an apartheid wall, and for them, it is a means of ‘security’. They are creating false notions of security challenges and annexing 9.4% of the land of the West Bank. It creates a huge blockade in the lives of Palestinians. For them, their means of existence, their daily activities, their mobility, their access to education, even their access to water and their access to their kith and kin have been curtailed. We can see that around this apartheid/separation wall, there are 550 Israeli military checkpoints. From this very fact, we can understand how far the life of a Palestinian will be collapsed simply by a separation wall. This is reality: it is a grey wall anybody can see, even digitally. But the Palestinians don’t have any options. TThey can’t destroy the wall. It is impossible for them. So they are artistically beautifying the walls by creating graffiti on the wall. When they make graffiti, it has an essence because they want to say that they cannot destroy the wall.
There is a writer based in Gaza. Her name is Rawan Yaghi. She is a young woman writer. She writes in one of her stories titled ‘A Wall’ that “While I was walking, I could see the wall. I couldn’t do anything, I just looked at the wall and pushed it with my hands, even though it was of no use.” So there are some literary narrations about the wall and in many of the stories and Palestinian writings, war is a recurring image or metaphor. There is a particular imagery created by most of the writers.
orm of resistance, is a means to create history and a replication of their everyday life. They are producing this graffiti to tell the world about their existence, that though the Israelites have created this grey wall to block the Palestinians, they are overcoming it and refashioning the wall with their creativity. They are even writing slogans and painting olive trees and domes on the wall. Even though the act of creating graffiti is prohibited by Israeli military forces as they blacken the wall, day and night, the Palestinians still do create graffiti. For the Palestinians, even the act of creating graffiti is a political representation and a means to politically participate in the Palestinian discourse. I am speaking about graffiti because it is a very powerful mode of visual art and an important part of the cultural landscape of the West Bank and Palestine itself. I have found that when the spaces are limited or when there is a block created by the Israeli authority or Israeli Jewish Zionist military forces, the Palestinians create their graffiti to overcome the kind of blockades created by the Israeli authority. As I’ve mentioned, cultural productions, literary productions, murals and paintings are some ways of artistic, literary and cultural modes of existence for them. This is a vehicle of thought and human expressions that the world cannot deny.
MF: Yes, and as you mentioned about war being a common theme in all of their literary and artistic productions- have these themes changed or been reshaped over the years with the changing dimensions of the conflict?
SAK: Your observation is correct. There are changes. When we observe the different artistic, literary and cultural productions, we can see that there are changes over time. Historically speaking, as everyone understands, there was the British Mandate period until the 1920s and afterwards from the 1920s to 1948, the period of Palestine, the geographical, political, and cultural existence of Palestine is very significant. 1948 marked the historical Nakba or the Catastrophe of Palestine. So, when you understand the artistic and cultural productions of Palestinians in the pre-Nakba period or the British mandate period and the post-Nakba period, you can understand that there are changes in the artistic and cultural productions also. During the 1920s to 1948 period, when we speak about their cultural as well as literary engagement, we can see that poetry was one of the most powerful means of human expression or vehicle of thought for them. There were some nationalistic kinds of messages and motivational kinds of poetry created to inspire people. There were different kinds of poetry created by people during that period. But in 1948, we saw a very historic catastrophe. Around 7,20,00 people had to flee from Palestine in a single moment. That has marked a very significant and powerful change in the artistic and cultural production of Palestinians- how they imagine, narrate, memorize and artistically and culturally reproduce their country- everything has changed. What does it mean to be a Palestinian in a post-Nakba period? What does it mean to be a Palestinian today? These are two important questions that we need to ask at this time. After 1948 we see that there was a massive influx of literary as well as cultural productions and people started their literary engagement during 1948 and after that that, it was a period of fiction for them. Fiction was the most powerful mode of literary engagement for them. Through their fiction, they echoed their national identity. They also focused on the destruction caused by the Nakba and by the massive fleeing of people from their land to the refugee camps and the neighbouring countries, especially to Lebanon: these were the major themes in the writings of those periods. But when we research the cultural, visual and artistic productions of Palestine, we observe from 1980 onwards that artistic and visual productions such as paintings and murals became quite popular, because more people, especially the youth, women, young children, and people of different religions came into an engagement with art, culture and literature. Until the 1980s, we can see that literary productions were somewhat reserved, just like in the case of the development of any country concerning literary and cultural productions, there was wonderful literature created including those by those by women writers. But from 1980 onwards we can see a galvanisation in reading, artistic and visual productions. Art, culture and literary engagements became three of the compulsory components in the life of every Palestinian to some extent. Thematically, too, there are changes. As I have mentioned in the earliest form of literary productions, during the pre-Nakba period and immediately after the Nakba period, gender was one of the major themes- patriarchy, division of labour, etc. But from 1980, for them their geographical existence, the question of their land and existence, the question of their political and cultural identity, the meaninglessness of everyday life, or their sumud (the Arabic word sumud stands for steadfastness and willpower) were the major themes. So there’s a thematic and artistic change. More Palestinians came into artistic works like producing graffiti and paintings, conducting art exhibitions, starting art schools and having art galleries like Ramallah-based art galleries. Recently there was an exhibition in Dubai conducted by a Ramallah-based art gallery. We can understand that Palestinians started to change. From 1980 onwards the literary, cultural and visual productions from Palestinians are powerful and outstanding. They have global standards in the mode of narration and production, in the quality of their production and their critical reception. They are outstanding and they invite global attention.
MF: As you mentioned, women were also a major part of these literary productions, especially in terms of novels. Can you speak a bit about the issues and voices of Palestinian women in culture as well?
SAK: Sure. As you have rightly mentioned, that was one of the focus areas of my research. I had particularly worked on 16 women writers located in various areas of Palestine. I focused on their geographical locations, majorly focusing on how they narrate their country through their literary works. I focused on women writers living in Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Ramallah, Yaffa, some of the refugee camps, even in Israel and Lebanon and other countries. I focused on diasporic Palestinian women writers living in America and some other countries. As I’ve mentioned, from 1980 onwards, women were more into literature and cultural and artistic productions. Rather than the age-old themes, like gender, I could observe that writing and cultural and literary productions are about more powerful kinds of political identity. They are turning their everyday life into literature; even speaking about everyday life is a political activity for them. Speaking about the day-to-day confrontation with the military and occupation and their means of everyday life – they are turning everything into their literature. What I have observed is young women do write.
There is a particular book called ‘Gaza Writes Back’ and even the title is very emblematic because now they have started questioning this confrontation and occupation through their literature. They are writing back. They are questioning the Israeli authority. ‘Gaza Writes Back’ is a story collection written by 20+ writers, and most of them are young women writers based in Gaza. Even their education, job, the military confrontation that has become a part of everyday life for them and the occupation, Judaization and Zionism have become major themes in their writing.
I can give you some examples. There is a powerful book by Fatima Qasim who is an Israel-based Palestinian writer, and in her book titled ‘Palestinian Women’, she has interviewed many women who have experienced the Nakba in person. She has reproduced the oral stories of more than 20 women in her research work, and her work has been published in the form of a book titled ‘Palestinian Women’. These women are 60 to 70 years old. Through the form of oral stories or oral histories, Fatima Qasim was trying to reproduce the actual story of Nakba – how they lost their land, and how they have become a second-class citizen and indifferent person in the land of Israel. These women are located in Israel, originally Palestinians but had to become second-class citizens after the Nakba. Most of their kin became a part of runaways or refugees. Some of them were locked up in ‘Israel’ (originally Palestine but what got converted into Israel). They tell us the stories of the Nakba, and what was experienced in the Nakba for them, the pain of the memory, the pain of losing their relatives, the pain of completely becoming a refugee in their land in a single night – it was a powerful and shocking memory for Fatima Qasim to narrate. We can see that Palestinian writers are trying to reproduce the stories of the Nakba in the form of memoirs, diaries, fiction, non-fiction and essays.
We see that there is another book called ‘Today My Name is Palestine’. It was written by a very young girl named Farah Baker. In her book, she is giving us Tweet collections. In 2005, during the time of war, she used to tweet her experiences at the same time. She used digital resources and digital mediums to tell the story of their everyday life. From a group of women who were telling the story of Nakba who were trying to orally reproduce their history, they have traversed a lot. So, women have been trying to reproduce the stories of their everyday lives through various media, even digitally. As I’ve already mentioned, young women also have started to write a lot about their Palestinian life. There is another book called ‘Gaza Mama’ written by Leila Alhaddad. She is a Gazan-based media person. She also lives in America and shuttles between Gaza and America. Leila tells the everyday life story in the form of media narrations or reporting. These reports have been compiled in the form of a book called ‘Gaza Mama’. For her, reporting and being a media person is a means of political existence. For other writers, their short stories are a means of existence. Another writer called Suaad Amiri who is a Ramallah-based Palestinian writer – I am just giving you some examples to show that there are variations and very powerful means of literary productions from Palestinian women; I am giving you examples of living writers and they have taken different kinds of mediums for their artistic and literary creations.. Suaad Amiri has written a lot of books, especially memoirs and non-fiction. In one of her works titled ‘Sharon and My Mother-in-Law’, she gives us plenty of examples of her day-to-day life. The work was published in 2005 and is written in the background of the Palestinian war. She speaks about one of her non-governmental organisations called Riwaq. Riwaq is an agency for the preservation of monuments in Palestine. They are trying to preserve historical monuments. She gives us some experiences, like when she was driving through Ramallah and West Bank as part of her job, she could see that most of the monuments had been destroyed, and most of the places had been reshaped into some other location or geography. Militarisation was going on. Some of the places, including her hometown, the place where her house was situated, she is making a journey to that place, what she could see was some stones only. The houses were lost, and along with the houses, the memories were also lost. When they are losing their memories, the Israeli authority is very consciously trying to wipe out all the memories. The Palestinians are trying to preserve their memories. They are trying to memorise and narrate all their memories to preserve their memories and histories. FFor them, that itself is a political act.
So, from fiction, they have traversed a lot to the memoirs, and from the memoirs again they are traversing to activism…Activism through literature and visual and cultural works. There are young writers, even women writers, who are using this new technology like tweets, blogging and live reporting as a powerful medium for their literary and cultural productions.
Why have I given all these examples? Because there are women writers living in Palestine as well as Palestinian women writers living in other parts of the world, and for them, literature and cultural productions are means of their political existence and political activism and they are telling the world that they do exist. Let me narrate two lines for you. There is a very powerful Palestinian Canadian poet. Her name is Rafif Ziadah. She lives in London. In one of her poems – her poems are quite popular in the digital space also – she recites some lines. She says “We Palestinians teach life. We Palestinians tell the stories of our everyday life to the rest of the world.” The poem concludes in a very beautiful way. Let me recite some lines for you. “We teach life, sir. We Palestinians teach life after they have occupied the last sky,” the poem ends this way, “We Palestinians wake up every morning to tell the rest of the world life, sir.” So this is happening. They are teaching us what their life is. For that, they have taken different modes of cultural and literary productions. It can be poems, it can be fiction, it can be novels, it can be short fiction, it can be short stories, it can be a combination of tweets, it can be some live reports, it can be a kind of political activism in the form of NGOs preserving their memories, buildings, monuments, their homes.. Day by day, the settlement is continuing. They can only document all their life, memories and history through their literature and other cultural and artistic productions.
MF: Right, and as you stated a lot of these cultural and artistic productions are becoming increasingly popular.. Given the current onslaught, a global wave of opinion has shifted in favour of Palestine despite media blackouts and disinformation. So, can literature and cultural intervention overall pose a challenge to the global forms of oppression or violence in terms of challenging the discourse and status quo?
SAK: Definitely. I’m very optimistic about it. Though the everyday stories are in a way highly pessimistic, we are all very eagerly listening to them, to listen to some stories of care, compassion, love, existence and all. The reversal is happening, that’s the reality. But at the same time, being a researcher in the field of Palestinian literature, art, culture and the other cultural landscapes of Palestine, I’m very optimistic to see that for them what they are trying to do through their literature is a kind of ‘dememoricide’, I do say that. Memoricide is, as we all see, a forceful killing of their memories, and ‘dememoricide’ is a term used by one of the critics called Nur Masalha in one of his books. What he says is the Israeli authorities especially the Zionist authorities are engaged in killing their memories, killing the Palestinian memories in multiple ways, killing the memory of their land, killing the memory of their houses, their kith and kin, their golden memories of pre-Nakba Palestine, and even their existence in their land and their association with their land. I can tell you one example. There is a story called ‘L for Land’. It was written by Sarah Ali. Sarah Ali is also a Gaza-based writer. In her story, there is an incident, where she asked her father about his olive trees. The father was very panicked and he just reproduced the number of olive trees destroyed by the Israeli bulldozers. At one time when she just mentioned the number of trees, “Wasn’t it these number of olive trees”, the father becomes very panicked and he pronounces the number of olive trees destroyed by the Israeli authority. So, even the number of olive trees destroyed itself is a very powerful memory for every Palestinian. In this context, what Israel can do is, apart from these kinds of bomb showers, along with this what happens is their memories and association with their land is always collapsed. They are killing their memories and what Palestinians are doing is an act of memorisation or remembering. So remembering is a very political kind of act in which every Palestinian artist and literary person is engaged. Memory is a form of resistance for them. When they memorialise the names of the places through their literature, when they produce graffiti on the walls about their historic past and their day-to-day life, they are registering their life itself so that the rest of the world can understand what the life of a Palestinian is. I wish to tell you about one incident. Fatima Qasim’s book ‘Palestinian Women’ gives us an idea about the pre-Nakba story and in her journey through the land of Israel, present-day Israel – not Israel, that is Palestine – she asked one of her interviewers about Salah-ad-Din Street. She said, “I want to go to Salah-ad-Din Street.” The woman (interviewer) laughs. It was a bitter laugh. The woman said if you are in search of Salah-ad-Din Street, you cannot find it. They call it Herzl Street. They have renamed the place. This is another kind of act of Israeli agency – they are renaming the places. They are wiping out all the memories. Various kinds of Judaization processes are going on.
Ilan Pappe, a revisionist historian from Israel has beautifully spoken about all these things in his book ‘The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine’. So, what they are doing is a kind of ethnic cleansing, a genocide. Ethnic cleansing of Palestinians works in various ways. Killing of the land, killing of the olive trees, killing of the memories, killing the relationships. So,, what Palestinian literary as well as cultural people are doing is they are preserving their memories. They are in an act of keeping all these memories afresh so that at least through that they can tell the rest of the world & every Palestinian that we are these people, we have these treasures, we have our land, we have our kith & kin. They are highly optimistic, & at the same time, they are showing resistance. IIn their resistance, we can see that there is optimism. So, to write is to exist. To write is to resist. To do their graffiti and artistic work is also a powerful means of essence that will be turned into a powerful existence as a proud citizen. So such a memory is very beautifully shared by them.them.
MF: Thank you so much for all the beautiful insights that you’ve shared with us, especially about Palestinian art, literature and culture. Jazakallah Khair once again for being with us and for giving us your precious time. I hope that many of the viewers will find this useful because I certainly have. Jazakallah Khair once again.
SAK: Thank you very much for this opportunity. Indeed, I feel like people have, maybe the literary world has already understood the power of Palestinian words & the power of the Palestinian paintbrush. At the same time, we need to popularise that. Global literature, researchers, as well as academicians and activists, artists as well as historians need to give more focus on Palestinian art and visual and cultural productions. These writers, women writers, young writers, male, and female, and writers belonging to different religions, are powerfully trying to tell us that we are for a particular cause, we are for the Palestinian cause through our literature and culture. And only when we try to echo their voices in the form of research, in the form of these discourses and deliberations, definitely that’s a means of giving them a voice. We are also on a mission of voicing Palestine, voicing their resistance, voicing their cultural and literary productions through which we can believe that they will be able to produce their own human stories, the stories of compassion and care from them. We need to listen to such kinds of stories from every Palestinian. The young Palestinian children should not be always exposed to these hate stories, but instead, the world, all the countries and people have to give them that kind of a world and Palestine is a geographical territory only. They are not on the refugee map, they are not on the map of the world. And actually, they are not refugees. Why should we call them refugees? They are not refugees. There are Palestinians who live as refugees outside Palestine, they had to run away. At the same time the Palestinians inside Palestine, in the occupied territories, Gaza, West Bank, and all the other places even in Israel, these people are living in their land but they have missed their land. So,, we must somehow be the voice for them to have their proud citizenship in their own country. So we believe that particularly with all these kinds of global protests- even in London I could see that there were a lot of protests from the student community, from the academic community, from the public. So,, we believe that one could not- the authorities could not shut their eyes and immediately peace must be established & every Palestinian should be free, they should be liberated, proud citizens in their own country with access to all the means of their day-to-day life. Thank you for the opportunity. I believe that research and activism continue in their way and various other modes too.