In January 2013, I shared a cab ride across the Sinai desert with a Palestinian professor. He taught English literature at the Islamic University of Gaza but was then working on his PhD at a university in Malaysia. We were headed from Cairo to the border crossing at Rafah, about 250 miles. It was a very long trip. He took a manuscript out of his briefcase and handed it to me.
Actually, this story begins in September 2012 when the publisher of Just World Books heard that I was traveling to Gaza. Helena Cobban contacted me and asked if I would carry some books that had been requested by friends into Gaza. I knew there was no FED EX or postal service into the Gaza Strip. Israel has essentially tightened the screws on 1.8 million people there, and the siege makes normal delivery impossible. So I agreed.
The professor’s manuscript turned out to be the first compilation of short stories written by his students at the Islamic University of Gaza. He was hoping to get them published and he was obviously very proud of his students and very excited about the project.
Low and behold, the publisher who brought his manuscript to life a year later was Helena Cobban of Just World Books. The title they chose was perfect — Gaza Writes Back: Short Stories by Young Writers in Gaza, Palestine.
When I learned there was a book tour planned in the U.S.A. this Spring, I was very excited but also skeptical that the professor/editor or any of the contributors would be able to make it to America. Travel out of Gaza is nearly impossible for most Palestinians, and getting a U.S. Visa is an unfulfilled dream for many.
The publisher and the other sponsor of the book tour — the American Friends Service Committee — succeeded in helping Refaat Alareer (the professor/editor), Yousef Aljamal, Rawan Yaghi, and Sarah Ali (all contributors to the book) to obtain U.S. Visas for their travel. Alhamdulillah!
The logistics seemed to be working out. A month-long tour was planned from the East Coast to the West. Check it out here.
Sadly, Israeli authorities screwed up the plans.
Sarah Ali received a permit from Israel to travel from Gaza to Jerusalem to apply and interview for her U.S. Visa. However, after she received her Visa, Israel would not allow her to travel out of Gaza to Jordan to join her colleagues on tour.
Refaat and Yousef were studying in Malaysia and had no trouble traveling. Rawan was studying in London at Oxford University. The Israeli authorities couldn’t stop her from traveling.
Sarah remains in Gaza, with only a cardboard cut out sitting on stage in her place.