When I received a copy of Gaza Unsilenced in the mail, about a week ago, the first thing that struck me was the amazing cover photo. Now, I think I’m as wary of judging a book by its cover as the next reader/reviewer; and I read through the entire book before ever thinking of starting a review in this way. Does the book justify this sort of cover? Most assuredly it does!
The face on the cover is that of a girl—somewhere between 10 and 13, I’d guess. She has a marred, but beautiful face, striking dark eyes, and she almost seems to be smiling, acknowledging, at once, the onlooker, the photographer, and her own resilience, her capacity to survive. It is a haunting picture because her face is pockmarked by shrapnel in dozens of places—perhaps caused by the illegal “flechette” dart-bombs used unsparingly in “Protective Edge”; or glass fragments, or chips of concrete?
The book tells a story that is almost impossible to tell: the victims’ view of the 51-day, 2014 War on Gaza, euphemistically called, “Operation Protective Edge” by Israel. One element that disturbed me at first, but which I came to appreciate, is the way the narative gyrates chronologically. Sometimes, we are at the beginning of the war, a few pages more and, with another narrator, we are surveying the rubble at the end of the war; a few more pages, and we’re back in the middle of the unfolding horrors.
And why wouldn’t this be the best way to render the way war shatters everything—even our sense of time? Here, this structure seemed especially appropriate; for, in reality, “Operation Protective Edge” was just the latest outburst of a war that began in 1948 with the “Nakba” (Catastrophe), with Israeli massacres in Palestinian villages like Deir Yassin, leading to the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes, their native land. As awful as things have been in the West Bank and other parts of Palestine, the situation has been most dire in Gaza—a strip of land about the size of Atlanta, Georgia, hugging the Mediterranean, with about 1.8 million people (Atlanta has about ½ million) who have been “under siege” for more than 8 years in a Sartre-like hell with “No Exit,” surrounded by impassable “buffer zones,” with 60% unemployment rates, a frazzled infrastructure, bombed-out hospitals and schools, and half the population children and/or students!
More than 2200 Palestinians were killed during the 51 days of bombardment and invasion. About 70 percent of those who died were unarmed, undefended civilians—mostly women and children.
This is an anthology unlike any I’ve read. An English major, I’ve read my share of literary anthologies; a professional-and-citizen-journalist, I’ve read and learned from collections of work by master-journalists and social and political commentators. The power of Gaza Unsilenced is that it is a symbiosis: “you-are-there” journalism (including “blogger” twitter notes), combined with piercingly beautiful, unforgettable, cherishable essays, poems and photos. (One of Yeats’ phrases ran through my mind as I read the book: “A terrible beauty is born.”)
Other words, phrases, ideas were reiterated: “resilience”; “complicity”; “betrayal”; “human shields”; “de-humanization.”
Several of the authors wrote about the resilience of these Gazans who have endured so much, but re-plant themselves, as they re-plant their olive trees in the dry soil. Resilience is undeniable, but two words they eschew are “heroism” and “victimhood.” They do not want to be depicted as “heroes” or as “victims” by a global media infected with reductionism, always reaching for the simplistic explanation. Certainly, there were many heroes among the dead and wounded—those who risked their lives and gave their lives to save and help others. The victimization will continue for lifetimes. One American doctor who visited Gaza some months after the last bombs fell and the last bullets were fired, described the people as living—not with PTSD, but with “continuous, traumatic, stress disorder.”
Editor/writer/educator Refaat Alareer writes unforgettably about the death of his brother, Mohammad, and how his brother’s 4-year old daughter has been so unnerved by her father’s failure to keep his promise to return to her, she has retreated into a fantasy world—talking to herself, imagining her father giving her presents.
There is that kind of pity-evoking work here, and it may be cathartic for thoughtful, sensitive readers to read it, animating them to learn more about this ongoing crisis. Several of the authors stress that, while Gaza, and Palestine in general, constitute humanitarian crises, we must understand the “deep roots,” the “political” nature of this conflict, of this imbroglio—if we are ever to untangle it.
“Betrayals” have occurred on many fronts, and there has been the “complicity” of the global mainstream media, and the political hacks in Israel, the United States, Europe, and in Arab states like Sisi’s Egypt as well, and even with the West Bank’s Palestine Authority where the default position is, invariably, to blame those who resist the Occupation, and the depredations of war: physical and psychological destruction.
Editors Alareer and Laila El-Haddad have done a masterful job compiling this book. “What else can we do?” the survivors of the onslaughts wonder when journalists and human-rights advocates inquire how they manage to continue, to rebuild. They are rooted to their land, like their olive trees, planted and re-planted for thousands of years.
But, considering these stories, these flashes of insight, these twittering reflections, superlative essays, poems, articles and photos…, and considering that shrapnel-pock-marked face of the child in the mirror we gaze at on the front of this book, we also wonder, “What else can we do?”
How much time we spend dehumanizing the Other! And we go to war, and pay our taxes like good, little citizens, so that those who pander in lies and delusions can advance themselves, gain power and privilege in their narrowly-scoped worlds, shutting us and the Other out!
Is there a way to “re-humanize,” editor Laila El-Haddad wonders in her final essay. “There are no easy answers, but the quest begins by asking the right questions and knowing where to look…. We hope to have provided you a starting point in this book.”
El-Haddad and Alareer, and the mighty contributors here, have provided truth-seekers and truth-tellers with much more than a starting point. They have provided us with a mirror of our shattered human family.