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Back from Gaza, Palestinian Writer Susan Abulhawa Says “Language Is Inadequate” to Describe Horror

Web ExclusiveMarch 06, 2024
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Palestinian novelist, poet and activist Susan Abulhawa joins us for Part 2 of her interview from Cairo after two weeks in Gaza. She discusses the impact of “unlimited weaponry” supplied by the United States for Israel to bomb and starve civilians there. “Language is really inadequate and insufficient to capture the enormity of this moment,” says Abulhawa. “What I’ve seen is really a fraction of the totality of this horror.” She is the founder and co-director of Playgrounds for Palestine, a children’s organization, and the executive director of Palestine Writes Literature Festival.

Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we continue with our conversation about what’s happening in Gaza.

The World Food Programme has accused the Israeli military of blocking the agency from delivering crucial aid needed to avert a famine in northern Gaza. Health officials there say at least 18 children have died from starvation in recent days. The Biden administration is defending its decision to keep sending arms to Israel even though it’s blocking aid deliveries. National security communications adviser John Kirby was questioned at the White House on Tuesday by journalist Andrew Feinberg, a correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent.

ANDREW FEINBERG: What is preventing the president from communicating to the Israeli government that if they don’t allow aid, we will not continue supplying weapons? Why is that not a fair trade: no aid, no bombs?

JOHN KIRBY: Because the president still believes that it’s important for Israel to have what it needs to defend itself against a still viable Hamas threat. Maybe some people have forgotten what happened on the 7th of October, but President Biden has not.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Susan Abulhawa, Palestinian novelist, poet, activist, author of several books, best known for her debut novel, Mornings in Jenin, an international best-seller translated into 32 languages, considered a classic in Palestinian literature. She’s founder and co-director of Playgrounds for Palestine, a children’s organization, and the executive director of Palestine Writes Literature Festival, just out of Gaza Tuesday after spending two weeks there. And she’s joining us for Part 2 of our conversation from Cairo, Egypt.

Susan, as you listen to this, you’re not in the United States right now. That’s the conversation that just took place. The question: Why is the U.S. providing Israel with weapons as it blocks food aid to a starving population? Continue to describe what you’re seeing on the ground and what you feel that people outside are not seeing, and, particularly because the U.S. is facilitating this, and you usually live here, how the American people understand what’s taking place, and should understand.

SUSAN ABULHAWA: I think the absurdity of the United States trying to airdrop — or, rather, it’s a theater, to airdropping a handful of boxes of aid to people who are starving because a key American ally, to whom we have been providing unlimited weaponry and financial aid, is actually doing the starving and doing the bombing, I hope will become, or if it’s not already, apparent to the American people.

I mean, I think, you know, hearing that clip, people still talking about Israel defending itself is — it’s difficult for any sane person to, or any person with a conscience or, you know — to understand how this language is still being spoken in public discourse. Gaza is a principally defenseless civilian population in the most densely populated place in the world. They have been imprisoned in what is tantamount to a concentration camp for over — for nearly 20 years. They have been occupied. They have been bombed repeatedly by the most powerful military in the region. And we’re still talking about this nuclear power defending itself from civilians. How do they — how is this even spoken with a straight face is beyond me.

Now, this absurdity is apparent to most people in the Global South, who have been victims of Western colonialism. But for some reason, it still seems to be an effective claim among Western societies, although less so particularly with younger generations who are more sophisticated when it comes to acquisition of information. Despite the pervasive censorship from social media platforms, people are still able to get some information from the ground, and, you know — and then we see acts, selfless acts and extreme acts, like what Aaron Bushnell did.

And, you know, I, frankly, don’t pay much attention to what I feel is political theater, when it comes to official spokespeople and electoral politics. I’m more interested in where change actually is cultivated and where it comes from, which is from the bottom up. I’m interested in the protests that still happen on college campuses despite the doxxing, despite the targeting of students and faculty alike. I’m interested in people who continue to pour into the streets all over the world into capitals by the hundreds of thousands. I’m interested in people in the movements to boycott Israel. I think this is where my focus is. This is where my interest is. Nothing is going to come from a ruling elite, that seems, frankly, hell-bent on accomplishing this genocide with — and at the same time trying to pay lip service to assuage public opinion that is increasingly oppositional.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Susan, I wanted to ask you — you’ve been co-director of Playgrounds for Palestine, a children’s organization. If you can talk about that group, why you founded it? And also, if you could talk about the — it must be incomprehensible, the level of trauma that the children in Palestine have been going through over the last five months, and the need that they will have for counseling and for repair of their psyches after this conflict is over.

SUSAN ABULHAWA: So, Playgrounds for Palestine, actually, while I was there, I facilitated a lot of children’s activities as a kind of psychological first aid for children. The trauma is immeasurable, frankly, not just for children, but for everybody.

I spoke with a lot of women, in particular, who were recovering in a hospital or were there — or, you know, being with their children who were recovering. The stories they told me are just — are out of like a Hollywood horror film. I mean, there are — I have photos of the backs of men where Israeli soldiers carved pictures, smiley faces, Stars of David, etc., in their skin. These women narrated stories to me of, you know, Israeli soldiers laying them — laying hundreds of women on the ground and then taking their guns with the laser and laughing, and then wherever the laser landed, they shoot.

I spoke with a woman whose 3-year-old daughter had both of her legs shattered, and she was in the hospital recovering. It was an intentional — she was intentionally shot by a soldier. And this happened to her daughter after they killed her son, shot him through the head, in what she described as tank fire toying with them for about 30 minutes before they finally delivered the final blow that took her son.

People being forced to walk from hospitals, severe injuries, people being forced to walk for hours to get to safety. Children and people, you know, who were fleeing their homes, trying to get to the south, having to walk with their hands up, with their IDs, and if anybody dares to look down or pick anything up, they’re picked off. They’re literally shot by snipers.

The scenes that they narrated to me — I spoke with a little girl who was about 8 years old, whose face was badly burned, but her injuries were the least in the whole family. The entire family had third-degree burns all over their bodies. And what she explained to me, again, you know, I don’t know how a child survives that.

I spent time in a hospital, in a maternity ward, where there were newborns who had either — who were unknown or who were known but whose family was just absent and no longer there, or nobody knows what happened to them. These newborns are spending 24/7, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in incubators without any human touch, really, except when they come to feed them, because the nurses and the doctors are so exhausted and so overworked. People are being discharged from hospitals with wounds and going into tents where they don’t have running water and proper hygiene, and they’re getting horrible infections and dying from sepsis.

You know, life on the beach, you know, the beach is where Palestinians used to go for fun, to love, to be with family. And it’s torture now, because a lot of tents are pitched in the sand, and the sand is in everything. People’s skin is scorched. I mean, children walk around with cracked cheeks from the sun and sand. The sand gets in every bite of food.

The food that does come in, into Rafah, is primarily canned food. And most of it — and I think you hinted at this earlier, and I’ve seen it and tasted it myself — it is stuff that has clearly been sitting on shelves for decades. And all you can taste, really, is the rancidity, metallic taste of the can.

You know, this is — people schedule their days, they plan their days around trying to get to a single shared bathroom that’s shared by hundreds of other families. They try to do their best with hygiene, but it’s impossible. And when you have — when people succumb to living in filth, people — you know, I think maybe people in the West sort of have this impulse thought that most Black and Brown people sort of live like this. So it’s a little humiliating to have to explain that we don’t actually live in filth. And it’s degrading, beyond anything you can imagine, to be forced to live like this months on end, to have no way to protect your children, no way to give them hope, no way to calm their fears.

You know, there’s no privacy in the tents, because, you know, there’s not enough tents for families. So families are actually separated, with, you know, dozens of women in one tent and dozens in another. So spouses cannot even hold each other at night when they need that care the most. It’s these details that are traumatizing en masse for children, for parents, for elderly.

People don’t have medicines. People are dying from lack of insulin, which, by the way, Israel has banned from coming into Gaza. And they’re dying from diarrhea, because they’re drinking polluted water, and Israel has also banned water treatment, water filtration systems, even handheld ones, simple personal water filtration systems that, you know, Americans use when they go camping.

The degradation is total, Amy. And on top of that, they’re bombed, day in and out, even in Rafah. When I was there, there was not a single night that we didn’t hear bombs, and at least once was close enough that the building I was in shook, and we thought our building had actually been hit. But it was the one — it was one over from where I was. And there was another moment, too, when a tent by a hospital, where we had just been, was bombed. They bombed a tent. And it actually happened to be the tent that is adjacent to the tent that Bisan Owda was in. And they were sitting, eating. They were sitting on the ground eating, and shrapnel just came above their heads.

You know, this is a daily — this is a daily life, and everybody is expecting to die, expecting to lose the people they love. And they are. And I think, you know, there is something that I’ve noticed that happens. There’s a kind of detachment when people tell you what’s happening to them or what has happened. There’s a kind of numbing, that must be, I suppose, some kind of a defense mechanism. So, when they have a chance to breathe, I think these demons, this horror, this trauma is going to be another layer of catastrophe, generations just lost.

AMY GOODMAN: Susan Abulhawa, you talk about already Rafah is being bombed. Sunday, Ramadan begins. There are supposedly ceasefire talks going on, but the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is continuing to threaten an all-out ground invasion of Rafah. What would this mean for the situation there?

SUSAN ABULHAWA: What you would expect, Amy. I mean, imagine — imagine them rolling in in a ground incursion where 1.4 million human beings are crammed into a tiny area — I think has been likened to the size of Heathrow Airport. When you walk out into the streets in Gaza, it’s crammed. I mean, it’s like being at a, you know, like — it’s the kind of crowd you would see at concerts in the United States. It’s 24/7. People have no place to walk barely. You know, to go from — if there’s a car and it’s driving a block, it will take you, I don’t know, 20 minutes to go a block, because a car has to contend with foot traffic, donkey traffic, horse traffic. It’s every — it’s just crammed. It’s completely crammed.

And another thing is that, you know, people — there are some apartments that might be available for rent, but people are terrified to rent apartments. They’d rather stay in a tent, because they don’t know — they’re worried — you know, it’s more probable that buildings are going to be bombed than tents, even though tents are being bombed, as well. But, you know, these are the choices that people are making.

Yeah, I don’t know — I don’t know how else to draw a picture for you, but it is a holocaust. It is unlike anything I have ever seen. I was in Jenin in 2002 when Israel committed a massacre there, and I thought that was the worst thing I had ever seen. This is infinitely worse than anything I’ve ever seen either personally or even in a Hollywood horror film.

Just walking, just when you — when you walk outside, you feel — like, first of all, there is one color. It’s gray. It’s just this miserable gray. And it’s painted on people’s faces, because they can’t wash themselves. They don’t have gasoline anymore, so they resort to one of two options. One is called solaar [phon.], which is, you know, a mixture of dirty gasoline. And the other is called searage [phon.], which is basically cooking oil. And searage is the cheapest of the two, and that’s what people who do have cars use. It creates this grotesque odor. It coats everything. It also — it’s being breathed in by people, and it’s a substance that sticks to the lungs. And so, there’s going to be, you know, in the future, massive lung disease from this searage. There’s this sort of constant haze of dust and rubble from the destruction that just doesn’t settle, and you breathe that in, as well. And you kind of — you walk through the street, and you feel the weight of the air is heavy. And I don’t know how else to describe it, but it’s hard to breathe. And I say that literally, and figuratively, as well. And then, you know, you go to the — you go to the ocean to get a little bit of a breeze, but the misery is also there.

AMY GOODMAN: You have said that it’s grassroots activism that most interests you, what people are doing on the ground to resist, whether around the world or here in the United States. And I wanted to ask you about the University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill, announced her resignation December following intense Republican-led backlash over questions regarding antisemitism and the contentious testimony before Congress. Major donors to UPenn had demanded Magill’s resignation since September, after she refused to cancel the Palestine Writes Literature Festival on campus. You’re the executive director of that festival. She was forced to resign. The UPenn Board of Trustees, who announced her resignation, then resigned himself. Can you talk about all of this controversy? And this had happened beginning before October 7th.

SUSAN ABULHAWA: Right. I mean, imagine that, that they were so up in arms about a literature festival. It was — frankly, it was such a beautiful moment of agency for us Palestinians. It was the first time that artists and writers from our diaspora, from every part of Palestine, from ’48, ’67, Gaza, Jerusalem, from the camps in Lebanon, from Jordan, other parts of the Arab world, from the United States — it was the first time we were able to gather in a single place since the Nakba. It was an exceedingly joyous moment for all of us. People cried. They had never seen anything like it. They had never experienced it.

There were — you know, we talked about everything, from tatreez to queer literature. We had interviews with writers and talking about their books. We had children’s programming. We had — we talked about food, culinary heritage. It was just — there was this amazing photography and art exhibit, photographs from our lives and of our ancestors in Palestine, going back to the beginnings of photography. It was just — it was a really incredible moment for all of us. And there was immense love within the walls of the building at UPenn.

But we also knew that outside there was extraordinary hate that had been directed at us for weeks prior. And during the festival, there was a billboard, a digital billboard, that was roaming campus, the campus, with photos of many of our speakers, myself included, you know, in these sort of demonic colors and calling us jihadis and Nazis and other defamatory words.

And then, after the festival, Marc Rowan, who was one of the trustees, and he was the most vocal of the trustees calling for Liz Magill’s resignation — he’s a billionaire. And from what I understand from journalists who write — who write, you know, business journalism, call him the Antichrist of the business world. But in any event, this man went on national television shows and wrote op-eds lying about the festival. I mean, at one point, he said that we called for the genocide of Jews. Now, we all knew that they had people recording inside. That’s not hard to — that’s not hard to expect. I mean, Malcolm X taught us that. And I even mentioned it in my opening speech. You know, I welcomed all the people coming to surveil us. But yet he has never produced anything resembling such a claim, because it’s a lie.

But, you know, they go on and they say this stuff, and nobody challenges them, and it becomes fact. And Marc Rowan even went so far as to try and tie the festival to October 7th. I mean, it’s disgusting. It’s disgusting, the way that — but this is Zionist propaganda. I mean, you know, we saw its continuation with the lie of the 40 beheaded babies and then, you know, this claim of mass rape, that’s thankfully getting dismantled by, you know, people who are paying attention. I mean, it’s just — it doesn’t stop, and it doesn’t get challenged, not really. I do have hope in this younger generation that’s questioning things. And they’re not buying the lies in the ways that older generations continue to do.

AMY GOODMAN: When you went into Gaza, you brought suitcases. Talk about what you brought in. And also you held a writing workshop, Susan. Can you talk about the stories that people told?

SUSAN ABULHAWA: I brought in a lot of things, ranging from medication to diapers, menstrual pads, just sanitary wipes, just body wipes, soap, shampoo, hearing aid batteries for the deaf community, that has been devastated by the lack of batteries, particularly children who are learning to communicate and who depend on a functioning hearing aid, and who are now regressing because of that. We brought in coffee. That was such a huge gift. I mean, people couldn’t — people haven’t had coffee in months. And it was like I just gave them, you know, a box of gold. You know, I brought in everything I could possibly bring, and I actually left Gaza with just the clothes on my back, because I gave everything away, because that is how deep the need is. People literally fled their homes with just what they were wearing. And even people who packed suitcases, they left them on the side of the road, because it got too heavy or because soldiers made them drop them.

You know, we talk so much about the physical needs, because it’s immense — you know, water, food, shelter. But there’s the psychological, the intellectual needs. I mean, we’re not just — you know, we’re not just, you know, these physical beings. People in Gaza want to reach their potential. I mean, you know, despite Israel’s best efforts to reduce Gaza to this point previously — I mean, they said it before. You know, the siege that’s currently in Gaza was about reducing Palestinians. And they talked about putting Palestinians on a diet, etc. But despite all of these restrictions, despite the bombings, Palestinians still figured out ways to build, to go to university, to learn, to establish businesses and jobs. And I think Israel hates that. I think they hate it. And I think that was — you know, that’s one of the things that is pushing this kind of — it’s part of this hatred. It’s part of this glee that the whole society seems to have at Palestinian suffering.

We held the writing workshop with a group of young people. All of them are creatives in one way or another. The stories they told are harrowing. And being in their presence, frankly, was humbling. And I said this in one of the articles. You know, you feel small in front of these people who have endured the unendurable, and who still managed to be generous and kind. I’m wearing this necklace and these pieces, these pieces of handmade jewelry, from people who insisted I take them, people who have nothing, who have lost everything, but who somehow keep their dignity and their generosity and their habits of hospitality. It’s extraordinarily humbling.

The writing workshop was a two-day event, was four hours each day. The first day was sort of working, doing writing exercises, talking about the craft. And the second day was when we developed the stories. And I was pleasantly surprised at the level of their writing. And I’m really looking forward to editing a collection, because I think the people of Gaza who have lived this moment should be the ones to narrate this moment. It shouldn’t be anybody else, not even other Palestinians like me. And my goal is to give them the tools that I have acquired in my life to narrate this moment for the rest of the world, and I’m looking forward to producing this book with them.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Susan, can you talk about the medical community, the health workers — I mean, you are a renowned novelist, but your background is also in medicine and science — and the effect of the bombardment of the hospitals, of the ambulances, on the medical workers, the doctors, the nurses, the medics themselves?

SUSAN ABULHAWA: They are bearing the brunt of a lot of what’s happening. Individually, I want to say also, a lot of the doctors and administrators themselves have been forced into tents. So, you know, nobody is — there are no bubbles for people to live in, except, you know, some of the NGOs who are able to secure safety and running water, etc., mostly for foreigners who come into Gaza as aid workers. But Gaza’s doctors and nurses, a lot of them haven’t been paid in months, but they still show up for work. They are exhausted. They are demoralized. Every single one of them has lost family members or friends and neighbors. The vast majority of them are displaced, and most of them have lost their homes. They are all bewildered in one way or another, trying to just function through this moment and praying for a ceasefire.

Even, you know, like I said, the ceasefire seems to be the ceiling of people’s ambitions at this moment. And it’s particularly acute now with Ramadan around the corner. The idea that Israel will still be bombing during Ramadan is — you know, I want to say “unimaginable,” but we already crossed that threshold a long time ago. Language really is inadequate and insufficient to capture the enormity of this moment. And I want to emphasize that what I’ve seen is really a fraction of the totality of this horror,

AMY GOODMAN: Susan Abulhawa, Palestinian novelist, poet, activist, author of a number of books, including her debut novel, Mornings in Jenin, an international best-seller translated into 32 languages, considered a classic in Palestinian literature. She’s founder and co-director of Playgrounds for Palestine, a children’s organization, and executive director of Palestine Writes Literature Festival. She just left Gaza after spending two weeks there, was speaking to us from Cairo, Egypt. To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracy now.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.

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