Ceding the Palestinian narrative to … Palestinians

Marcello Di Cintio’s book, ‘Pay No Heed to the Rockets,’ ends up revealing something discomforting about us: our notions of Palestinian life may have little to do with how Palestinians experience themselves.

Palestinian activists around a bonfire in Ein Hijleh protest village, in the Jordan Valley, West Bank January 31, 2014.
Palestinian activists around a bonfire in Ein Hijleh protest village, in the Jordan Valley, West Bank January 31, 2014.

Pay No Heed to the Rockets,” Marcello Di Cintio, Counterpoint, 2018.

Marcello Di Cintio’s Pay No Heed to the Rockets borrows its title from Mahmoud Darwish, Palestine’s most widely translated poet, who, amid the sounds of destruction accompanying Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, marks one night under siege with a how-to on coffee brewing. The passage, even in translation, brilliantly evokes the banal, methodical persistence of the civilian in wartime:

Gently place one spoonful of the ground coffee, electrified with the aroma of cardamom, on the rippling surface of the hot water, then stir slowly, first clockwise, then up and down. Add the second spoonful and stir up and down, then counterclockwise. Now add the third. Between spoonfuls, take the pot away from the fire and bring it back. For the final touch, dip the spoon in the melting powder, fill and raise it a little over the pot, then let it drop back. Repeat this several times until the water boils again and a small mass of the blond coffee remains on the surface, rippling and ready to sink. Don’t let it sink. Turn off the heat, and pay no heed to the rockets.

This idea, that the daily horrors of life under siege could be little more than an afterthought, especially to those who experience them most intimately, should be the least surprising takeaway of Di Cintio’s meandering, yet deeply satisfying survey of the Palestinian literary scene. But by ceding so much of the narrative to the authors he meets, he ends up revealing something discomforting about us, their English-speaking audience: our notions of life in the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel may have little to do with how Palestinians experience themselves.

This insight is not new, of course. In his 2012 memoir, Strangers in the House: Coming of Age in Occupied Palestine, Ramallah-based author Raja Shehadeh recalls an episode in which he was asked to recount his experiences before a roomful of Palestinian Americans. Di Cintio, who refers to all of his interview subjects by their first names, retells the scene: “Raja knew what they wanted to hear: ‘an inflamed passionate denunciation of the Zionist enemy as the source of all our troubles.’ Raja, though, could not oblige.”

“Only later did I realize that to do so would have been a betrayal of my own existence,” the Palestinian author wrote in Strangers. “To simplify my life and paint it in black-and-white terms was to deny my own reality, which I mainly experienced in tones of gray.” While noting Raja’s impressive accomplishments as a lawyer and founder of the Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq, Di Cintio heralds the author’s ability to express such nuance, even when the issues at stake can seem zero-sum (see, for example, Shehadeh’s recent measured response to Yossi Klein Halevi’s Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor).

Over and over, Di Cintio’s subjects, most of them younger and lesser known than Shehadeh, share this aversion to the black-and-white. Though they hail from very different geographies and, in some cases, write in different languages, what all of these authors have in common is a fierce commitment to authenticity, even if their stories disrupt long-held notions of what a Palestinian is supposed to think and feel. This may help explain why a book about literature has as its subtitle, “Life in Contemporary Palestine.”

When Haifa-based playwright Bashar Murkus sought to shed light on the experiences of Palestinian prisoners, for example, he steered clear of platitudes, choosing instead to explore how confinement alters a captive’s sense of time. “I didn’t talk about Israel and the prisoners,” Bashar told an interviewer in 2016. Yet predictably, his 2015 play, A Parallel Time, was attacked for what Jewish Israeli audiences saw as its sympathetic portrayal of “terrorists.” Bashar rejects this characterization, not because he shies away from nationalist themes, but because he insists the play was not about them. Anyone who concludes otherwise “never saw the show or read the play,” he says.

This automatic association—that a Palestinian playwright can only see his subjects through the lens of his inherited history—troubles Bashar. “We took these stories from our fathers or grandfathers,” he tells Di Cintio. “And we believe that they are our memories. But they are not our memories at all, because we didn’t live [them].”

Another Haifa-based writer, khulud khamis, who spells her name in the lower case, acknowledges, “I am writing from my perspective as a citizen of Israel.” In one piece, based on a 2003 Palestinian suicide bombing on an Israeli bus, she makes a point of naming one of the victims, a 13-year-old girl who happened to be Palestinian. “This is part of my reality here in Haifa,” she tells Di Cintio. “The bus I wrote about, the number 37, is the bus my daughter used to take to school back then. Michelle could have been Qamar.”

In Jerusalem, Di Cintio finds a deeply rooted book culture under systematic assault by both the Israeli and Palestinian authorities. Along Salah Eddin Street, he meets Mahmoud Muna, proprietor of the Educational Bookshop, which famously stocked Edward Said’s 1995 Peace and Its Discontents, a collection of essays sharply critical of the Oslo process, even as it was banned by the Palestinian Authority. “The book,” Mahmoud tells Di Cintio, “became one of our first bestsellers.” Mahmoud believes diaspora writers like Said and Darwish narrate most of what the world knows about the Palestinian experience because “[the] rest of us are just busy struggling.”

In the West Bank, Di Cintio finds some evidence that what Palestinians read prior to 1994, when the PA brought limited autonomy to population centers like Ramallah or Nablus, was indeed produced elsewhere. He visits the Nablus Prisoner’s Library, a collection of books—some of them transcribed by hand—once belonging to Palestinian inmates at former Israeli occupation prisons in the city. Most of the titles trace back to the First Intifada, when Palestinian political prisoners would hold study groups on various Marxist texts or the histories of other liberation movements.

Here, Di Cintio finds a book of songs valorizing Nelson Mandela and captures the moment’s significance through the understated grace of straightforward reporting: “Someone had written diacritical marks in pencil over the Arabic lyrics to indicate proper pronunciation, evidence that prisoners did not simply read the words but sang them aloud.”

If her parents’ generation enthusiastically consumed other people’s books, 18-year-old Salha Hamdeen wanted to create her own. In the Bedouin encampment of Wadi Abu Hindi, Di Cintio meets this young author, whose autobiographical fairy tale Hantoush has its hero flee the bonds of occupation on a flying sheep. The story won the 2012 Hans Christian Andersen prize, which dubbed it the year’s best new fairy tale, but Salha has no illusions about the accolade. “The story became popular around the world,” she tells Di Cintio. “But nothing really changed here.”

In this interaction, Di Cintio displays a self-awareness all too rare in this genre. “To Salha,” he writes, “I was just another foreigner taking advantage of her story with nothing to offer in return.” That he lets the judgement stand, with no commentary of his own, is evidence enough that he is aware of his privilege. But it is only when he goes to Gaza that we get a full glimpse of Di Cintio’s integrity.

On his way there from Jerusalem, he admits having second thoughts, postponing the trip to Erez, where Israel regulates all human entry into the 40-kilometer strip. When his Palestinian fixer on the other side tries to reassure him, Di Cintio says he “hung back anyway… wondering if I was in over my head.” That so few reporters acknowledge this fear may owe to some sense of journalistic distance, but too often, it has felt to me like a false heroism—as if simply surviving Gaza for a few days qualifies one to publish full-length books about the place.

Once he musters the nerve to cross over, Di Cintio meets author Mona Abu Sharekh, who, like most of the territory’s population, traces her family’s roots to a Palestinian village inside what is now Israel. “I don’t feel it is my home,” Mona says of Asqalan, which is some 15 kilometers from the Gaza border. Di Cintio points out that, like the inherited stories described by Bashar Murkus, Asqalan “exists in her father’s memory” but has little bearing on Mona’s daily life. “This is the refugee’s dilemma,” he concludes, “to long for somewhere you do not know, and demand a return to a place you’ve never been.”

Mona’s attachment to Gaza—“the place that lives inside me”—motivates her to excel at her job with UNRWA, the UN relief agency recently defunded by the Trump administration. Her writing skills earned her a job documenting the agency’s success stories, an effort aimed at sating its international donors. Even though she wrote them, Mona admits that the stories could sometimes feel “dishonest and propagandistic,” leaving out the many ways that donor assistance was simply not enough.

Although Mona has some reservations about the politics governing her work, she also tells Di Cintio: “In the end, I got good work with NGOs and with UNRWA.” It’s that kind of complication that Di Cintio takes great care to represent throughout his reporting. Rather than wield statements like Mona’s to make some facile ideological point—about the merits of donor assistance, say—the author instead does what many of us writing about Palestine and its people simply fail to do: listen beyond our preconceptions.

Pay No Heed to the Rockets holds the stories of dozens more writers and the people who support them, each with a fresh take on life in contemporary Palestine. I highly recommend it.