Remembering Refaat Alareer, in the words of his student

A former student remembers the writer, poet and activist who died in an Israeli bombardment of Gaza last December.

Refaat Alareer
Refaat Alareer is considered 'the voice of Gaza' [Alareer's Twitter account]

Gaza City – I first met Dr Refaat in 2015 in Gaza City. He was a guest speaker at The English Club to discuss the book he edited, Gaza Writes Back: Short Stories from Young Writers in Gaza.

It was a collection of short stories by 15 young writers, and a couple by Dr Refaat, that delved into the experience of growing up in Gaza and the writers’ experiences during the 2008-2009 Israeli assault on the enclave.

We were all aspiring writers of a sort, we ranged from 13 to 17 years old, and I think most of us underestimated what being an English major could be like.

We thought we were learning everything we needed to learn right there in the English Club. Then we met Dr Refaat.

He was so impressive, the hall was completely quiet – we were all absorbing his speech, his mannerisms; we were moved by his story.

Steering his own course

Dr Refaat told us his story of rebellion, how he decided to major in English when his father wanted him to study medicine.

He was determined to steer away from the sciences, though, so he told us he intentionally failed in his chemistry and physics exams to convince his father that he needed to move to the literary stream.

“I had to make my father proud, but I hated math!” he explained to an amused audience.

His father wasn’t happy with this but later, Dr Refaat ranked second in all of Palestine on his high school exams. And he went on to major in English.

The discussion went on for a while and by the end, I think we were all aware that we should not have underestimated English as a major.

Four years later, I was finally done with high school and had to pick a university. I decided to go with the “strict” Islamic University instead of other colleges in Gaza. He was teaching there and I wanted to hear him talk about literature again.

I was warned by some upperclassmen about going into the English programme at the Islamic University. “Dr Refaat is tough and not friendly, but he is intellectually stimulating,” they said, concluding with “You have to decide.”

They were right, Dr Refaat as a teacher was tough but fair and his rules were clear: “If you want to feed your nerdy side, you have to be willing to give every minute to pass my course. Otherwise, take it with another lecturer.”

I think he must have gotten a sense of satisfaction when he was offering a course that no other lecturers were offering. Maybe he enjoyed torturing his students, but it’s probably more that he wanted to make sure that they learned everything properly, it was in their best interests.

Man protesting with sign that has Alareer's photo on it
A photo of Refaat Alareer is displayed at a protest for a ceasefire and a free Palestine at Breslauf Square in Cologne, Germany, on December 9, 2023 [Ying Tang/NurPhoto via Getty Images]

“Literature provokes more questions than answers,” he would say. “I won’t give you answers, you have to do that for yourself.”

Another Dr Refaat

In 2022, I was accepted into a writing workshop that Dr Refaat was teaching, needless to say, I was happy.

And in that class, there was a whole other Dr Refaat – unlike the formal man behind the university podium, he was open and friendly with all his students. He taught us everything he knew about literature, writing and translation.

And so we shifted that term between a formal Dr Refaat teaching Shakespeare and the friendly one in the writing training. It’s magical how a loaded, two-hour class feels like a minute when the lecturer is teaching that way.

It was August 2022 when I got paid for a job for the first time. I brought Dr Refaat a pizza, his favourite, to thank him for teaching me the skills I needed.

Without Dr Refaat, I would still be scribbling, not daring to share a word I wrote. I wouldn’t know how a pun works, what a metaphor is or how to be a loyal translator.

On January 1, 2023, my first story was published and Dr Refaat was the first one I sent it to, worried because I knew he was hard to please. He “liked” the link but didn’t say anything, I so wanted to hear his opinion.

Two months later, he commented on an article I had translated and said: “I liked your Hamlet story too.”

That made my day.

A last chance

When I became a senior last year, I managed to do a course with him in the summer semester, and it was worth the juggling I had to do to manage to attend.

What I didn’t know back then was that it would be the last time he would teach me.

On December 7, my literary father figure, my role model, Dr Refaat was martyred in the “safety” of his home.

On December 7, the world lost a great educator, a free soul, a remarkable storyteller, a powerful man and a father.

Dr Refaat lived his way.

Dr Refaat taught me everything I know.

Your heart lives inside our hearts.

You will always be remembered. You shall never be forgotten.

Source: Al Jazeera