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Mohammed El-Kurd on Gaza

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Palestine Festival of Literature, "How Empires End," London, December 2023

A lot of people have been talking about Gaza. Most of these people are writing their essays and articles on expensive couches in expensive houses next to windows not blistered by white phosphorous. Their chandeliers never shake to announce a building’s final throes. Nor do these writers ever sharpie their children’s names on their arms in case of unexpected rubble. Such details are not minor. Even outside of that spectacular violence the mundane in Gaza is still lethal, even during ceasefire, life in Gaza is abject. Most of those writing about Gaza are not doing it in internet cafes crowded by young men and their aborted potentials, or from bedrooms haunted by suicide. That too isn’t a minor factor. 


What I’m trying to say is that there are no soapboxes in the concentration camp. We simply do not understand the consequences. We simply do not understand what life inside Gaza does to a person, what violence that violence begets. We do not know the consequences, the mental and muscular consequences of transforming a cab into a hearse to deliver a loved one now dead in a body bag. Which man, which man will the boy carrying his brother’s limbs in a backpack, grow up to be? And where do we get the right to condemn him? What becomes of the nurse who’s shift is interrupted by her husband’s corpse on a stretcher? What about the father carrying the remains of his son in two separate bags? What happens to them after all of this death, once they are alone and away from the cameras?


We know the facts about the Gaza Strip. We know that it has been declared “uninhabitable” by the useless UN, and it’s under siege, and that two-thirds of the population in Gaza are refugees – descendents of refugees that have been dispossessed during the creation of the Jewish state. We know that half of the population of Gaza is children. Many of them have had their calendars marked by bombardment after bombardment. Sometimes we use these facts to contextualize and historicize the violence coming out of Gaza. But more often, these facts are obfuscated to depoliticize and mystify that violence. But neither we nor our enemies really contend materially with those facts and figures. We recite the numbers as if they are the weather. We spit out the word 'uninhabitable' without really reconciling the fact that Gaza is a place like no other. Here is a strip of land encircled by an abundance that it is owed. Yet people there live in scarcity, live deprived of water, and food, and passage. Boys in such a world are men. And girls are men. And the women are men too. Not only men, but fighters, who all seem through a sniper’s eye view to be plotting a second Holocaust. Everyone in Gaza is a potential terrorist, and thus a legitimate target. Words like agony and brutality are inept here. There is no comprehending this. I live in Jerusalem, well, half of the year, don’t tell the government. 

I live in Jerusalem, I grew up in Jerusalem, and if we measure only by distance, my home is only an hour away from Gaza. But because of the blockade, Gaza appears as though it is a faraway planet, foreign even to neighboring Palestinians. The deliberate and systemic isolation of the Strip has translated into a cyclically vapid understanding of its reality, particularly in the media industry. The industry standard is to dehumanize Palestinians. Our grief is negligible. Our rage is unwarranted. Our death is so quotidian that journalists report it as though they're reporting the weather. Cloudy skies, light showers, and 3,000 Palestinians dead in the past ten days. And much like the weather only God is responsible. Not armed settlers, not targeted drone strikes.

Producers invite us, it seems, not to interview us for our experiences or analysis or the context we can provide but to interrogate us. They test our answers against their viewers' biases. A bias well fed through years of Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian rhetoric. The bombs raining down on the besieged Gaza Strip become secondary, if not entirely irrelevant to our televised trials. 

There's a Egyptian political prisoner named Alaa Abd el-Fattah. You know, me and my friend Amani used to have this fight all the time; he writes in his book, he says, 'If I were free in Gaza instead of locked up in Cairo, I would read books, walk on the beach, work, and make a living.' And I would always joke about this passage because I say you cannot, you know, romanticise siege. His sentiment is undeniably dignifying and even beautiful. He says 'Gaza is besieged, but it has not been taken captive, and the difference is enormous.' Still, myself, I posit these words, can one gloss over a sky blocked by barbed wire? What is that if not captivity? You know, I've heard it said and I said it myself, that those confined by siege or incarceration can be emancipated in the mind. To dig a tunnel out of prison one must first imagine it, before clawing at the floor. So perhaps Palestine taught Alaa what it has taught many of us, that here the symbolic meaning of military barriers does not extend beyond the material fact of their cement. But what Alaa lionizes us about Palestinians in Gaza is what he has in common with them: the rejection of foisted realities, the refusal to die in the wait. 

To end, I just want to speak about a person, a dear friend of mine, but really an authority figure who also refused to die in the wait. A lot of people here talked about him today. Refaat Alareer.


Last I heard, Refaat was still under the rubble. You know, such a sentence should not be meant literally. But there is no metaphor or hyperbole here. There is no poetry in this sentence. Refaat is still under the rubble and he isn't alone in this suffocation. Thousands in Gaza remain buried in debris, but airplanes still take flight. People still travel. And what's worst is that the birds still migrate. I checked this morning. I'm told it's blasphemous to ask why God has yet to show face. But it's hard to keep a faith that hasn't kept my people. Refaat is still under the rubble and I don't think I understand the heft, the heft of such a sentence. They say there are seven stages of grief and thus far, all seven of them have been disbelief.


If I stand here and read an obituary, if I told you that Refaat Alareer was a poet and professor born in '79 from Gaza, Shuja'iyya who earned his BA in English from the Islamic University of Gaza which, by the way, was completely destroyed by Israeli airstrikes and his Master's from UCL here in London which, by the way, has refused to comment on his assassination; he also earned his Ph.D. and co-founded We Are Not Numbers and co-edited Gaza Writes Back. And and and and and and was one of the few sending us fragments of news and analysis despite the media blackout and, and, and, and if I stand here and read an obituary, if I decorate this eulogy with kind words, with the kind of shiny adjectives we only gift our friends after they have died, I would be doing all of us a disservice. After all, this is a man that loved to cuss, and joke, even when the bombs dropped he gave us laughter and, perhaps indulge me, especially as the bombs dropped, he gave us laughter.


So I'm not going to indulge in meaningless good taste because he gave us laughter, thunderous laughter, when the world ordered us to shrink and whisper. When Israeli propagandists made a ridiculous claim that Palestinian fighters had baked a baby in the oven, which by the way the Israeli military has denied itself since many of you will love to hear it from the horse's mouth, Refaat joked on Twitter, he said, "With or without baking powder?" And many, many people use that against him as some kind of indictment. But to me that is so courageous and so funny and so human to be able to joke in the face of so much insidiousness. I mean, the claim made about baking a baby in the oven is so insidious because it invoked a real crime that took place during the Deir Yassin massacre. It replicated the testimonies of eyewitnesses who saw Zionist soldiers throw a father and his son in an oven. What do you do with so much insidiousness? Refaat satirized it.


I also don't want to sit here and draw a perfect victim portrait because perfect victims are boring and impossible and Refaat was so courageous and funny and interesting and full of humanity, and when we try to conjure up perfect victims we are shrinking the scope of humanity for everybody around us. When we try to dictate who is and who isn't mournable, who can we and can't we grieve with, when we emphasize the death of women and children, as though the death of our men is not heart-breaking, we are shrinking the scope of humanity for everybody else. 

So to leave you, I just want to invite everybody in this room to be a little bit more courageous, to be a little bit more human, to be a little bit more flawed, to satirize and ridicule and make fun, because there is nothing more precious than laughter. And we can't let this storm pass us by. We can't just be bystanders in this genocide. We all have an active role to play.


Right there, over there, they are subjected to a genocide, but here we are at war and each of us has an active role to play. Thank you so much. 

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