Busboys and Poets and Palestinian writers

Troy Davis executed by the US government in September 2011

I knew Busboys & Poets in Washington DC must be a special place when I saw the Troy Davis drawing on the wall.  Justice and human rights were in the air and the vibes felt really cool.

Busboys & Poets in DC

Busboys & Poets in Washington, DC

This proved to be an excellent venue for the last DC stop on the Gaza Writes Back USA book tour.  The 30-40 people were a friendly crowd and, based on the questions they asked, they were obviously well-informed about Palestine.

Refaat Alareer, the book’s editor, shared how he tried to distract his young children during the 23 days of Operation Cast Lead (Dec. ’08 – Jan. ’09) when “there was no right place, no right time; anyone, anytime, anywhere could be killed in Gaza.”

He would tell them stories, and then he realized the power of stories for connecting the past, present and future. During the bombing, his 5-year-old daughter asked him, “Who created the Israelis?” He was stunned, and couldn’t find an answer to her profound question.

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After the death and destruction ended, Refaat returned to his university. The Israeli Occupation Forces had destroyed the large laboratory building on campus, in addition to schools, medical facilities, banks and Mosques throughout the Gaza Strip. He saw the pain and horror in the eyes of his students. No one escaped the trauma of Operation Cast Lead. Everyone had lost a family member, a friend, a neighbor or knew someone who had been seriously injured.

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Refaat, the teacher, wanted to help his students find a way to resist. Many of them had been writing on blogs, websites, and Facebook whenever the electricity was working, usually only a few hours each day. He challenged his students to write fiction as a way to release their anger and frustration in a creative way.

Some of their short stories, all written in English, are included in Gaza Writes Back responding to Israel’s attempts to erase Palestinian voices. The book is for his daughter, for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, for the Palestinians in the diaspora, and most importantly, for non-Palestinian audiences.

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Then Refaat diverted from previous presentations and read a poem he wrote in 2012,  “I Am You”.  When he finished reading, the woman sitting next to me whispered “Wow!” under her breath.

Two steps: one, two.
‏Look in the mirror:
‏The horror, the horror!
‏The butt of your M-16 on my cheekbone
‏The yellow patch it left
‏The bullet-shaped scar expanding
‏Like a swastika,
‏Snaking across my face,
‏The heartache flowing
‏Out of my eyes dripping
‏Out of my nostrils piercing
‏My ears flooding
‏The place.
‏Like it did to you
‏70 years ago
‏Or so.

‏I am just you.
‏I am your past haunting
‏Your present and your future.
‏I strive like you did.
‏I fight like you did.
‏I resist like you resisted
‏And for a moment,
‏I’d take your tenacity
‏As a model,
‏Were you not holding
‏The barrel of the gun
‏Between my bleeding
‏Eyes.

One. Two.
‏The very same gun
‏The very same bullet
‏That had killed your Mom
‏ And killed your Dad
‏Is being used,
‏Against me,
‏By you.

‏Mark this bullet and mark in your gun.
‏If you sniff it, it has your and my blood.
‏It has my present and your past.
‏It has my present.
‏It has your future.
‏That’s why we are twins,
‏Same life track
‏Same weapon
‏Same suffering
‏Same facial expressions drawn
‏On the face of the killer,
‏Same everything
‏Except that in your case
‏The victim has evolved, backward,
‏Into a victimizer.
‏I tell you.
‏I am you.
‏Except that I am not the you of now.

‏I do not hate you.
‏I want to help you stop hating
‏And killing me.
‏I tell you:
‏The noise of your machine gun
‏Renders you deaf
‏The smell of the powder
‏Beats that of my blood.
‏The sparks disfigure
‏My facial expressions.
‏Would you stop shooting?
‏For a moment?
‏Would you?

‏All you have to do
‏Is close your eyes
‏(Seeing these days
‏Blinds our hearts.)
‏Close your eyes, tightly
‏So that you can see
‏In your mind’s eye.
‏Then look into the mirror.
‏One. Two.
‏I am you.
‏I am your past.
‏And killing me,
‏You kill you.

Questions from the audience followed — “What is the ideal desired outcome of this conflict?”

Yousef responded — “The solution must include the land between the river and the sea. Equal rights for everyone, and the right of return for the refugees to present day Israel. Any other agreement would be a waste of time.”

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Refaat added — “We’ve given the so-called peace talks enough time. Israel’s working against any possibility of Palestinians having their own state. Israel is pushing Palestinians into a corner — towards violence. Since Israel’s founding, their leaders have used the same strategy of violence, dehumanization and destruction. Palestinians have been responding creatively, using different methods of resistance. Writing, in addition to acting and drama, is another way for Palestinians to express their pain creatively.”

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In response to a question about Palestinian stereotypes, Rawan noted — “Fiction erases boundaries and draws us back to our humanity. Our job is to go global, and show the world that we are normal, just like anyone else. The international community needs to be open and willing to learn and hear the Palestinian narrative.”

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1 Comment

Filed under Gaza, Israel, nonviolent resistance, People

One response to “Busboys and Poets and Palestinian writers

  1. alicekisch

    Beautiful! Brava!

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