Narrating Gaza: Pain in Arabic, information in English

Speaking in English feels like a prisoner gazing at the warden’s keys.

An illustration showing a mother mourning her dead child wrapped in a shroud and in front o her the letters homeland written in Arabic
[Jawaher Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

As an Arab, I do not need to write for Palestinians. Palestinians have written to all of us for years with their words, lyrics, prose, verse, silence, blood and limbs. But their narration, no matter how eloquent, mild, angry, or distressing, remains impossible.

As the bombs rain on Gaza today, killing and maiming thousands of civilians and displacing more than a million, how does one write of Palestinian pain, Palestinian tears? What burden of believability must the Palestinians endure for their grief to meet the decency of recognition? In what language will their suffering be understood? What medium will ever carry their agony to safety?

In Arabic, the Palestinian pain needs no translation. It is visceral and piercing. Consider this scene from the live coverage of Palestine TV channel when reporter Salman al-Bashir broke down live as he delivered the news of the passing of his colleague Mohammed Abu Hatab and his entire family in a bombing in Gaza.

Al-Bashir, speaking outside a hospital and in tears, removed his protective gear in a sign of utter despair as he delivered a harrowing account of his friend’s murder amid the blaring sounds of ambulances. “The only difference between us and those who died already is just a question of time,” he said.

“We are hunted down one after the other. Nobody looks out for us or realises the severity of this tragedy in Gaza. No international protection at all. These jackets and these helmets don’t shield us from anything. They are mere slogans we wear for nothing. We are pure victims live on air. We are just waiting for our time.”

I wish everyone understood Arabic to feel the sonic vibration of pain in this reporter’s words and connect with the sorrow in the voice of the studio anchor as she sobs in the background. In this tongue, there is no distrust, no test of sincerity, and no heartless expectation of proof of humanity.

In English, al-Bashir’s torment was greeted with questions, suspicion or eviscerating calls of self-condemnation, while this narration found a tender chorus in Arabic. In English, it registered for many as mere information to be endlessly verified despite an appalling heap of evidence of thousands of children deliberately killed, dozens of journalists targeted, hospitals and schools bombed, and countless homes destroyed.

Through screams and moans, through unbearable scenes of children trembling with fear, through the wailing of mothers and fathers holding dead babies in their arms, and through the anguish of the elderly forced to experience the dread of the Nakba twice in their lifetime, why does this Palestinian suffering feel like an endless performance with no resolution? Why does their pain need countless statements and signatures? Who are we to require another human being to audition for their humanity?

Why is Palestinian testimony forbidden?

Palestinians have had to deal with conditions of deletion and erasure since 1948, the year the occupation of their lands began. At the heart of their experience is a colonial project that pursues the expulsion and removal of a population from its land and simultaneously maintains that the land was empty and without a people.

For 75 years, Palestinians have had to resist a systematic campaign of occupation that has maligned their history and rendered them invisible. At every escalation of violence since then, the history of this occupation has been rendered a predictable loop of fragmented facts, misinformation and testimonies continuously discredited.

During these terrifying episodes of violence – like the one we are bearing witness to today – Palestinians must always defend their narrative against a series of unacknowledged negations and stage their pain to the world with a cruel optimism that maybe this time, the world would finally believe them.

Can the Palestinian ever be believed?

Instead, and despite unprecedented street support in capitals across the world, Palestinian suffering feels imperfect in English, illicit, and contingent. Worse, it sounds like this: “Human animals; flatten Gaza; finish them; bounce the rubble; their kids keep Mein Kampf by their bedside; their mothers raise monsters; they hide terrorists in their hospitals and schools; they are all barbarians.”

Rules of engagement, the Geneva Conventions and international law do not mean anything here. Kill them all, dehumanise them, and tell the world the occupier is the ultimate victim while the unspeakable unfolds on our screens.

Nobody captures the impossibility of Palestinian narration as writer Adania Shibli does in her 2017 masterpiece Minor Detail, a fascinating tale in Arabic that defies the occupier’s insistence on suppressing the account of the marginalised and effacing their right to narrate their own story.

Shibli digs out a horrifying and well-documented “detail” from the archives about a young Bedouin girl who was raped repeatedly and killed in 1949 by a group of 17 Israeli soldiers. Through the narration of a Ramallah woman who is obsessed with finding the grave of the young girl and retelling the story of this “unworthy life”, the novel resorts to an imperfect archive, erased maps and fragile memories to restage the pain of Palestinian absence since the traumatising experience of the 1948 Nakba.

Shibli’s painstaking attempt to piece together fragments of an incident covered up in silence and distortion has been itself met with attempted erasure. Shortly after the October 7 attack, Litprom, a German literary association, withdrew an invitation to celebrate Minor Detail at the Frankfurt Book Fair, a prestigious event in the publishing world.

An interview that was scheduled with the author, whose book was a finalist for the National Book Award in the United States in 2020, was postponed to a later time with a “less politically charged atmosphere”, according to the fair organisers.

In obsessing over the location of the burial site, Shibli and her narrator are insisting on reclaiming the voice of all Palestinians silenced by the occupation and frustrated by the weight of their continuous cancellation. By cancelling the celebration, Litprom affirmed once again that Palestinian storytelling is ultimately suspicious.

Can the Palestinian ever narrate to live?

Many invoke Israel’s right to defend itself. I understand the Jewish fear of annihilation. It is real and I will never slight the heaviness of that memory. But why should that fear trump Palestinians’ perpetual fear of erasure? What makes one fear more acceptable, more relatable than the other?

Why must Palestinian life exist only as a litigation of someone else’s fear? Are Palestinians condemned to be a mere audit of their existential ailment? They deserve freedom from a fear they did not create.

It is remarkable that yet again we must affirm not only Palestinians’ right to live, but also the fact that Palestinians do not live just to resist. They also fall in love, laugh, sing, play, pray, dance, cook, make love, make art, act, write, build, farm, tell stories, dream, grieve, forget, forgive and remember.

Sadly, we do not see them this way.

This is all too familiar. Like Palestinians, Arabs appear as unresolved questions, threats in a narrative authored by someone else. After 9/11, many of us felt detected, tracked down. We were told we must be smoked out of our caves. More than a million of us were killed to satisfy a mighty vengeance while the world stood watching.

The vengeful “war on terror” brought out the worst of us, but it ignored the best of us. An entire civilisation, a rich history, and an abundant life experience were reduced to a brutalising question mark, a mere confrontation with the “modern West”.

Palestine has met the same fate in a world where the beautiful density of their existence has been compressed to a basic desire to stay alive. Words are bombs and bombs are words. We can no longer tell the difference.

We are tired of living a life dictated by someone else’s neuroses of fear and insecurity. We can’t stand the constant questions. Why is it that the ones dropping bombs are always those asking the questions?

Frantz Fanon, the champion of the Wretched of the Earth, said, “I came into this world imbued with the will to find a meaning in things, my spirit filled with the desire to attain to the source of the world, and then I found that I was an object in the midst of other objects.” Fanon’s Blackness was a crushing objecthood in a racist white world.

Palestine is a crushing objecthood in an anti-Arab world.

How else could we explain those cheering for war, knowing that a child’s life in Gaza expires underneath the rubble or in the hands of a distraught mother every 10 minutes? If bombs appease the rage, I hope scenes of wailing mothers are worth it.

Some ask what Palestinians want. What do Arabs want? What do Muslims want? We want to be left out of imperial schemes and moralising decrees of what we should wear and how we should live. Try it once: leave the Middle East alone.

This is how Arabs and Palestinians feel and have felt for decades, if others cared to ask such a simple question, a humane way to address all of us with a benign “How are you?”

Instead, the official language has been coups, bombs, drones, collateral damage, absurd caricatures, brutal dictators shoved down our throats, farcical peace treaties, and occupation. Yes, it is our fault, too, but our biggest mistake has been accepting to be spoken to only in this impoverished idiom.

You may think I’m writing about anger, but these lines carry the crushing weight of exhaustion. I learned English many years ago with the lyrics of Bob Dylan and Bob Marley. Words were biting and soothing. The sounds of a new language felt uplifting. Get Up, Stand Up! Everything’s Gonna be Alright.

I did not understand then why Bob Marley sang in a band called The Wailers. I do now. For far too long, English to me has been about a one-way call and response, a relentless interrogation with words experienced like a rattle of bullets. My writing has felt like wailing to be understood. Speaking in English feels like a prisoner gazing at the warden’s keys.

These days, I am Sixo, the character in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, who stops speaking English because he sees no future in it. I am the nameless Palestinian narrator in Shibli’s Minor Detail who stutters because speaking at the checkpoint is treacherous.

To make things worse, university officials tell us teachers and students to be neutral, not to take sides in this war, and maintain our commitment to conflict of ideas and critique. This may be the biggest farce I have heard in all my time in academia. Should I remind you that these silencing ploys come to me in English?

To be clear, there is nothing in English, or any other language, that is inherently callous or heartless. I write about the helplessness some of us feel in speaking a language that seldom loves us back.

Palestine is narration. You may hear it as noise, as mere information, but we hear it as an eloquent testimony of endurance, a proof of life. As the poet Fady Joudah says, “I live Palestine in English. But in my heart Palestine is Arabic. And Palestine in Arabic does not need to explain itself.”

Despite all this, I cling to a glimmer of hope that one day this English will feel the warmth of our Arabic.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.