Palestine Speaks: Narratives of Life Under Occupation is the latest book from Voice of Witness, a San Francisco-based nonprofit cofounded by Dave Eggers and published by McSweeney’s. Voice of Witness uses oral history to highlight human rights crises through their book series and education program. Additional information about the organization and free curriculum for Palestine Speaks is available here.
Author, editor, and critic, John Freeman interviewed Palestine Speaks editors Cate Malek and Mateo Hoke about the process of collecting and sharing these oral histories. John Freeman is the author of two books, The Tyranny of Email, and How to Read a Novelist, and editor of Tales of Two Cities: The Best of Times and Worst of Times in Today’s New York. He lives in Manhattan and is the founding editor of Freeman’s, a literary journal launching in the fall of 2015.
FREEMAN: Why Palestine, what brought the two of you there in the first place and what made you feel like this is a place whose stories you wanted to help tell?
MALEK and HOKE: Cate was working for a non-profit tourism organization, bringing people from the US and Europe to go on walking trips in the Middle East. The work turned out to be an incredible way to meet a lot of different people from many levels of society in very diverse communities throughout the West Bank. We had done work many years before in long-form, immersive journalism and knew that was the kind of work we really cared about doing and wanted to get back to doing. When Mateo started volunteering with Voice of Witness, we saw the opportunity to pull all these threads together into a reporting project we felt could be very powerful.
What kept us going over the four years we were putting this project together were the compelling stories that we were hearing. We wanted to do justice to the people who had taken so much time to share, not only very difficult stories with us, but also their humor and insight. While it’s not the norm yet to see complex, nuanced stories from Palestinians in the US media, there are many brilliant journalists and artists doing work on Palestine, and so we hoped to contribute to that body of work. As Americans, it’s tempting to shrug our shoulders and say what’s happening in Israel and Palestine is too complicated to engage with, but the truth is we’re major players in the conflict and we believe becoming more informed can only help everyone involved.
FREEMAN: You write in the book’s introduction that you hope its publication helps change some of the preconceptions people hold about Palestine: can you be more specific about these preconceptions, and which of your own changed in gathering these histories?
MALEK and HOKE: In the US, and the West in general, people often hear about Palestinians, but rarely from them. And when Palestinians are talked about, they are often flattened into the stereotype of either terrorists or victims. Who hasn’t seen images of a young Palestinian man with a keyffieh around his face, throwing stones? Or a Palestinian woman sobbing? The news only seems to cover Palestine when something terrible has happened, which leads to these very understandable preconceived notions people in the West have about Palestine. Our goal is to offer our readers some context for the stories they hear. To dig deeper into the lives of the people in the news stories, and offer our readers a richer understanding of life under military occupation.
We are both from the US, so before the project began, our views on Palestine were inevitably shaped by US culture and media, which leaves a lot of room for growth. This book took nearly five years to complete, so there was a lot of room for our own views to shift along the way. One of the main things that shifted right away was the perception that Palestine is a dangerous place for outsiders to travel or work, that Palestinians don’t like Americans. But in reality, Palestine is a hospitality culture, and a very safe place to work.
FREEMAN: There’s a wide range of people here — activists, a fisherman, a graffiti artist, a long-distance runner, even. How did you come across your subjects and did you ever try to talk to a Hamas militant?
MALEK and HOKE: We were really lucky to work within the strong networks of people Cate had access to from her work with non-profits, and as a teacher and editor. Sometimes, we would get a recommendation of someone we should talk to, or sometimes there was a particular community or story we wanted to learn more about. So we would ask around for contacts, and often had way more than we needed. For example, we had heard the story of the eighteen wanted cows that Ghassan Andoni told before, and we wanted to find someone who knew that story, but then Ghassan’s story included so many other themes and had so much depth that we decided to include it in the book. Our translators often got very into the interview process as well, and many of our narrators came from people they recommended.
We interviewed more than seventy people and the process of whittling those interviews down was very, very difficult. But the process for transcribing and editing each narrative was so time intensive that we had to be very focused. We did interview the family of a Hamas militant who had been killed by Israeli soldiers, but we chose to focus instead on the son of a man who had been suspected of being a militant and had also been killed, shot by soldiers when he was driving his car in Bethlehem. At one point he had been working with Islamic Jihad, but at the time of his death he wasn’t affiliated with any party. About halfway through the interview process, the son was arrested under administrative detention and so we were unable to continue since he was in prison with no idea of when he would get out. For both of us, that’s the story we regret not including the most.
FREEMAN: Everyone in this book seems to mark themselves, or mark time, by history: they were born in the first intifada, or during the second, they were born a year after the Iran-Iraq war. I’ve never read an oral history so rooted in a political timeline, why do you think this is the case for your subjects?
MALEK and HOKE: It’s not so much that the narratives in the book are rooted in politics, it’s more that they’re rooted in the history of the place. The first and second intifada’s are very real and visceral pieces of Palestinian history and identity, not just hash marks on a timeline. One of the things that came across in our research is how proud the culture of Palestine is, despite nearly forty years of military occupation, and the violence and humiliation inherent therein. The intifadas affected the lives of everyone in Palestine, and no one came out unscathed. So if someone says they were born during an intifada, it’s likely because the effects of being born during an uprising against the occupation influenced his or her life and identity in a profound way.
FREEMAN: And yet interruptions — whether its power, prison (and let’s talk about that in a moment), the endless delays of checkpoints — seem to be the defining characteristic of Palestinian life. Many of your subjects simply deal with it, but what are you observations on how this affects life in Palestine?
MALEK and HOKE: As outsiders, it can be a little difficult to try to understand what parts of Palestinian culture come from the occupation and what comes from something else. But you’re absolutely right that the delays, interruptions and restrictions are omnipresent. They mean that it is difficult to make plans or to have a regular schedule. This affects school, finances, and career aspirations and it also affects the ability to just relax or go on a vacation. It takes an incredible amount of hard-headed persistence to accomplish fairly basic things.
This can turn tragic, as in the case of Kifah, where her inability to travel has blocked her access to the medical care she needs to save her life. It can also just be intensely frustrating, as in the case of Ghassan, who we mentioned before, who had to curtail his career as a physicist because he wasn’t allowed to travel. He talks about trying to make the equipment he needed, such as lasers, himself, but he finally gave up when he realized he could never keep up with other scientists that way. Our narrators expressed various ways of dealing with that, and certainly it leads to anger, depression and despair. It also contributes to an incredible amount of resourcefulness and a black humor that pops up throughout the stories. For most of the narrators, it pushed them to take some sort of action, whether that was through art, running, activism, education, or many other things. It’s disturbing when interruptions like these become normalized and people stop noticing them as unusual. There’s a tendency in Palestine for someone facing the most surreal situation to give a half smile and say that it’s normal or expected. They’re joking, but Palestinians talk a lot about the battle against the normalization of the occupation, and the need to fight against accepting small, restrictive lives as the status quo.
FREEMAN: This is a very hard book to read, because your subjects are very proud, very articulate, and yet many of the experiences they have — being forced to strip, being removed from houses at night, having their homes demolished — are humiliating, or seem designed to humiliate. I was surprised, though, how few people expressed anger: even a man who had spent more than half of a decade in prison without being charged. Did he talk about how he dealt with anger?
MALEK and HOKE: There are some very difficult parts of the narratives, and we often left interviews feeling deeply shaken and disturbed. But the narrators were also often very insightful about how they dealt with trauma. Abdelrahman, specifically, said that for him it helped to feel he was connected with a larger cause and with his community. He said that because he knew he was one of many being imprisoned with no charges, and that there were many people in worse situations than him, it helped him survive. He was talking there not about dealing with his anger, but keeping his sanity at a very basic level. And he said he did see other prisoners who struggled with serious mental issues after being released. He certainly still struggles with the effects of his prison time many years later. But he said it made him want to give back to his community. He works as a lawyer now, representing other prisoners in torture and administrative detention cases. For him and other secular prisoners, becoming involved in the community was often their strategy. For Kifah, and other religious prisoners, their time in prison often strengthened their faith.
FREEMAN: Let’s talk about the effect of prison: more than half of your subjects have spent time in prisons in one way or other. Many of them without charges on administrative detention, which is similar to the loophole that puts people in Guantanamo. You say in your introduction that these lives are not meant to be representative. Still, I want to know if this is common: do most people in Palestine know someone or other who has been detained, and does the fear of administrative detention cut across the lives of most people?
MALEK and HOKE: To say this is common would be an understatement. The prison crisis affects every Palestinian in the West Bank, no matter one’s age, gender, location or socioeconomic class. For those who haven’t been detained or imprisoned themselves, then he or she has a family member who has. Forty percent of men in the West Bank have spent time in prison. One of our narrators, a man named Abdulrahaman, spent nearly twenty years in prison, most of it in administrative detention (which means he was held without charges). Children often grow up with a parent in prison, and often see that parent dragged away in the middle of the night at gunpoint. Children and teenagers too are taken by soldiers in midnight raids, so the trauma goes beyond simply the detention, and the torture used during prison interrogations. In certain communities, there is a real sense that soldiers could come at any time to take people and hold them indefinitely.
FREEMAN: There are lots of different story-telling styles here — some people are brief and factual, others are chatty, some intensely poetic. Jamal Baker, for instance, a fisherman, says: “I feel like I’m a fish. If I leave the sea, then I will die.” How many of your subjects had given testimony to a journalist before, and how did your interviews change depending on the subject’s experience with telling their story?
MALEK and HOKE: Some of the way the narrators speak is because of the language. Arabic speakers tend to use metaphor, and poetry itself is an important part of the culture in Palestine. We tried to preserve that in the translations as much as possible. But Palestine is a hotbed for quick news stories, and anytime something tragic or scary happens in the occupied territories, it’s common for journalists to drop in, talk to a few people, and leave. During the research for this book we interviewed more than seventy people, so some of our narrators have certainly spoken with journalists previously, but in a very different way than we were asking them to talk to us because we were sitting down for hours, and would be coming back again and again, sometimes a dozen or more times.
In terms of how our interviews changed depending on the subjects experience, if it seemed to us like someone had rehearsed their story, or told it many times, we would listen patiently and let them tell that story again, because it’s important for everyone to feel heard. But we’re fortunate that our work allows the time to go beyond the rehearsed narratives, and dig deeper into the stories people tell. And this is imperative because we were often talking about traumatic episodes in our narrator’s lives.
Most of our narrators had never been asked questions from journalists like the ones we were asking. Questions like, “tell me what you were like as a child,” or “describe your typical day from the time you wake up to the time you go to sleep” may seem simple, but they allow us to give our readers a deeper understanding of who the people are telling these traumatic stories, rather than just focusing on drama or violence. They offer a detailed look into the lives of the people living through these traumas, and allow our readers a deeper understanding of the narrators’ lives.
FREEMAN: The restrictions in movement your subjects face are intense, many have not been to other parts of Palestine even though they are nearby…and yet so many of them feel Palestinian. It is who they are. Can you talk about how that sense of nationality was demonstrated?
MALEK and HOKE: There can sometimes be kind of a knee-jerk, thoughtless expression of nationalism in Palestine, waving the flag or putting on a keffiyeh. But for the narrators in this book, nationality was much deeper and closely intertwined with the idea of resistance. This resistance is sometimes militant, but much, much more often takes the form of speaking up for themselves and their right to exist or portraying a picture of Palestine they don’t think the outside world often sees. As one person we interviewed mentioned, they watch the same movies and read the same news we do. They know what the stereotypical images of Palestinians are, and that they are often seen as either terrorists or victims, and many of them were actively trying to combat that. That includes two of our narrators in Gaza, Wafa, who runs an organization with the purpose of reaching out to people around the world and changing the image they have of Gaza. Also Abeer talked about using her Instagram feed to show a different view of Gaza, and writing stories for the Israeli press, for which she is often sharply criticized for by other Gazans, for the same reason. For Ebtihaj in the West Bank, her nationality was expressed very simply by not moving to the US when she had the opportunity to, and staying in her village and raising her family.
FREEMAN: Will there ever be an 826 Palestine?
MALEK and HOKE: There are already tons of dedicated people in Palestine doing what the 826 nonprofit does, which is offer mentorship to help kids be better at writing and school. The first narrator in our book is a woman who founded a cultural center where kids (and adults too) get reading lessons, tutoring and mentoring, as well as classes in music and dance. Voice of Witness and 826 are different nonprofits with different missions, but as far as VOW goes, we are looking into ways to share VOW’s oral history methodologies and resources with communities in Palestine.