Interview with Atef Abu Saif

Interview with Atef Abu Saif
Atef Abu Saif
Atef Abu Saif was invited to Manchester twice, once in January 2009 to attend a workshop entitled Art & Conflict organised by Literature Across Frontiers as part of the Cross Border Art project (see for further details), and the second time to appear at the Manchester Literature Festival 2009 with Bernard McLaverty. The first time his visa was refused by the UK authorities thanks to the restrictions imposed on visas for artists and academics (see Manifesto Club Campaign), the second time he was prevented from leaving Gaza to take up his fellowship in the U.S.

Introducing the interview, Alice Guthrie said:

Referring to the Palestinian creative process, Mahmoud Darwish famously talked of ‘prisoners growing flowers in their prison yards’; Somaya El Sousi, the Gazan poet and short fiction writer whose work is featured in Transcript 33, talks of people turning to writing in an ‘insane’ search for a ‘magical solution’. Atef Abu Saif told me that many young Palestinians turn to creative writing when things are at their worst there, and as a non-Palestinian I am fascinated by this creative response to violence and trauma; I so often find myself astounded that anyone can even write anything in the face of what they all have to deal with, on every level. I had been very much looking forward to seeing Atef explore this phenomenon and all sorts of other aspects of his creative work, in conversation with Bernard MacLaverty at the Manchester Literature Festival. Tragically, and predictably, he was unable to leave Gaza for the event. Miraculously, however, despite the technological limitations (Gaza has less electricity per capita than any city in the world), Atef was able to record the following interview for us, and in this way to be present after all.

We are so sorry not to have you sitting here with us in Manchester. Could you explain for us why you are currently stuck in Gaza?

Hi. This is Atef Abu Saif – from Gaza, still. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there in Manchester, with you – I couldn’t leave Gaza because of the siege imposed on us: the borders are closed, and I didn’t manage to get out of The Strip. I hope to have another chance to make it over there, but travel from Gaza is difficult, it’s kind of a miracle to be able to leave Gaza in these circumstances, you need a divine intervention...which actually didn’t happen, in this holy land.

You are a writer of fiction and academic works; you are a journalist; you teach both creative writing and Political Science in both Arabic and English; and you have a young family. How do you juggle all these things? And, what has made you pursue so many intellectual strands at once?

Yeah, that’s right - I write fiction and novels, and at the same time I work as a journalist, and at the same time I teach Political Science and Creative Writing in the local universities of Gaza... I don’t know, these multiple paths which I’m trying to develop or to discover are a kind of a way to find myself – you know, the whole question is about finding yourself, within this conflict area. From the beginning I wanted to write because I thought of writing as a kind of a message, because it’s very much related to my own political –well, private – history, family history... I just wanted, from the very beginning, when I was a child listening to my Grandma telling stories about her childhood in Jaffa City, before the 1948 war, and how she was forced to leave this beautiful city to live in a refugee camp – I just wanted to grasp this pain. And I think this pain is still current– I mean my grandmother died 15 years ago and still this pain is around, surrounding me in the refugee camp, in the city, down, if you see the city behind me here, in Gaza City...So I think I wanted to express this pain –I’m not sure if I managed to, you know, but at least this was an attempt!

When I wanted to study academically, I didn’t want to study literature, because I think my main literature teacher was my Grandma, Aisha: her way of telling stories was brilliant, and I hope by the end of my life I can manage to tell stories like she used to... and when I wanted to feed myself, at least, you know, to find something to survive, I studied Political Science, which was something I liked and was interested in. It’s true, as Aristotle says, man is a political animal – but in Gaza, politics is everywhere, believe me! Even the donkeys, the dogs, they understand politics, because we live in a highly politicised society, and region, in general – of course it’s not just all about Gaza. Even when I teach my students in the university, I try to teach them how life can be better, you know, because the people in Gaza are hopeless, and depressed, and they have many problems, they have problems getting hold of a loaf of bread, and problems getting gas to cook on, and getting any electricity, of course, absolutely every day this is a problem... but still, I think, the message that we can convey to them, even to my students, is that life is worth living, you know, and that despite all these conflicts, we can still live our life.

As you say, you have extremely limited and rationed electricity, terrible phone lines that hardly work, roadblocks everywhere, all manner of logistical difficulties, without even mentioning the violence and danger of your environment. How do you manage to keep all this varied work going, with your crippled technological and logistical situation?

Yes, you know, yes – in Gaza, you’re lucky to have electricity for 24 hours! (laughs). And you’d be even more lucky to have a phone line working, and some coverage for your mobile phone, and to have regular internet – I think nothing in Gaza is regular, everything is irregular, you cannot expect anything, you cannot say I want to do this tomorrow and I want to do that the day after... and I think even you cannot promise to do anything... and when it comes to me, personally, when I have classes to prepare, and articles to write in the newspaper, and I have to work on my new novel, and at the same time respond to my emails, and so on... I feel disconnected: living in Gaza is like being unplugged; you feel like you are disconnected, but at the same time you have no other choice: only you have to pursue your life, because I have to feed my kids, and sometimes I have to prepare classes for my students, and I have to commit to my weekly article and I have to edit my political journal. So I don’t know, sometimes you need a miracle in Gaza, but I think miracles don’t come, what comes is your own will, and I think it’s just a matter of managing your life, and, sometimes it’s difficult and sometimes, believe me, I feel very depressed. I couldn’t leave Gaza for three years, for example – I was invited 17 times to get out of Gaza, and I was supposed to be in Manchester today, and I was also supposed at the same time to take up a fellowship at Brown University in the United States, a writer’s fellowship, and I couldn’t. So I feel like I’m in prison – one time I was saying to my friend Mohammed that Gaza is a big prison; and he was saying that, well, a prison is a prison, it doesn’t matter if it’s big or small. And he was right, actually, because even if it’s a 350 km wide prison it’s still a prison, and you can’t leave it!

When you were telling me recently about the weekly sit-in staged by prisoners’ relatives outside the Red Cross, as portrayed in your story ‘The Portrait Years’, you referred to something you called their ‘hopeless hope’ every Monday morning. Could you explore this particularly Palestinian dichotomy a little further?

Yes. It’s been going on since 1949, and all my life I’ve seen them there: the prisoners’ families, sitting in front of the Red Cross Head Quarters in Gaza City – those old ladies carrying photos of their children, all prisoners of course – they are there every single week! Every Monday morning from 10 to 11 you will see the same faces... the time passes and their faces grow older, but still they have this hope that their kids (for them, of course, they are still kids) will be released one day. And they demonstrate against the Israeli measures of imprisoning their kids and preventing them from visiting them – some of them haven’t visited their children for 10 years... So I was fascinated by this ability to have hope: however much they realise that the Red Cross will not release their children, and they realise that the peace deals didn’t get their children out, and they realise that demonstrating or having sit-ins will not get their children released – but still they have this hope. That’s what I called ‘hopeless hope’: it’s not a dichotomy so much, rather it’s about this ability to see hope, even if hope doesn’t exist.

Your story ‘An Exclusive Morning’ caricatures an offensive aspect of media coverage of the regular carnage in Gaza, which you described to me recently as a kind of ‘feeding’ on people’s private grief. How do you feel this works? What is the attitude of international media to this private hell that your people live out in public? How could media coverage be improved, become more appropriate and more real, and feel less intrusive and voyeuristic for Gazans?

In ‘An Exclusive Morning’ I was preoccupied with the way the media covers Gazan events. Usually, as you were saying, the media tends to feed off the private grief of the people here. I remember a journalist friend of mine saying to me – we were here, in fact, in this Gaza media building – and he was saying, ‘Just imagine if a rocket comes and hits that building over there’ – and pointing to a distant building we could see from here – ‘Just imagine, I would be the one who takes the photo, exclusively.’ He couldn’t fully appreciate that hundreds of people would be killed, he was just thinking of his media coverage! And I think the way that the media works with Gaza is that Gaza is of course a source of news, it’s a place where news is made. I remember a friend of mine, when I was studying for my PhD in Italy, asking me how it feels to be in Gaza; I told him that it feels like being in a piece of news. And actually being in Gaza is, kind of, being in the actual factory of the news. But what is so bad about all this is the dehumanising of the people that can take place in news coverage. From my point of view, when I follow the news about Gaza, there is a lot about politics, a lot of talk about economics and sometimes military aspects, and about violence, but there is nothing about the private grief of the people, and about how people actually live – and this is the main idea of ‘An Exclusive Morning’: the two Italian ladies want him to act, they didn’t understand that he was not acting, he was crying because he felt sorrow, felt sadness, at the death of the little kids living in the neighbourhood. And they want him to repeat it, you know, so it is really about re-creating grief, sadness, re-capturing the moment, and this is hard, because this is not entertainment, you know, sadness is something private.

Your own house is encircled by five different minarets, allowing you to hear a different call to prayer from every room. Several of your stories refer to the increasingly claustrophobic Islamist presence in the daily life of your characters. Could you tell us some more about this, and perhaps about how it combines and interacts with the Zionist presence in daily life in Gaza?

I don’t know, religion is part of societies, and if you follow the changes in Palestinian society and in Middle Eastern society in general, there is a kind of Islamisation, a growing trend of practising religion. In the place where I live – on the seventh floor of a building in the Nasri quarter, in Gaza city – there are five minarets around the building, and I see them from every single window. Of course, I live in an Islamic society, it’s natural to hear the call to prayer, but what I mean is that it reminds you of this central presence of religion in the Middle East conflict; so this is not limited to Gaza, it’s of course the same thing with Israel, and I think this is why solving this issue is so very difficult, because it is portrayed as if it is between two religions. But if it was really between two religions, you know, you would have gods fighting! Personally, I think it’s about national issues. For me as a Palestinian, well, this is a national issue going back to the time of my Grandmother Aisha, and all of us, from her through to my little son, we have all been, and continue to be, searching for national independence.

If it wasn’t for the ridiculous and inhuman border regime you are subjected to as a Gazan, you would be sitting here instead of me, talking to Bernard MacLaverty. He has described creative writing as a kind of adult version of the way a child plays imaginatively, ‘making up a world, moving people within it, and commentating aloud about what the various people or animals are doing, as they do it’. He has also said that, for him, this is maybe a way of ‘trying to make sense of a difficult world’. Can you relate to this, in your own experience of writing?

I do agree – writing is about trying to make sense of this difficult situation; Northern Ireland, of course, is a conflict area, and Gaza is, maybe more so... I think for me, as I was saying earlier, I was fascinated by the way my Grandma, Aisha told the stories of her beautiful youth, at least as she remembers it, in Jaffa. And then how she was forced to leave, to flee, from Jaffa, on foot, and then to live the rest of her life, and to die, in Jebalya refugee camp here in Gaza. And so I think that this kind of grief is really what I’m trying to capture – at least in the novel I’m currently writing about the period of what we call the post-Nakba time, by which I mean the time after the Palestinian people were forced to leave their country in 1948. And I think this is the message of literature: I’m not trying to conceptualise the role of literature in society but it definitely does have a role. When people read my stories, or any writer’s stories, the first thing they ask is ‘what is it about?’ Because they want to see their life in those stories. And I think that people, normal people, they like to see their own lives, their own stories, within this story. And this is how and why the novel is so very important in a context like the Palestinian one, because it can tell those stories. At the same time, it’s not my mission to write the story of the people – I’m not a historian, I’m not a sociologist, I’m not a political scientist writing about people’s lives – no, in fact I’m trying to remake bits and pieces of the lives that surround me, and I’m not saying I’m loyal to the place where I grew up but you know I was definitely touched by the stories I heard from the refugees, all the tales they would tell about their suffering, their memories and of course their dreams, too. I’m even touched and affected still by the dreams of my students in the University. And then of course at the same time I have my own private life, where I have suffered from this conflict, and my own dreams-: I cannot travel, I was in prison for a while, in an Israeli jail because of this national issue, at the same time, well... I lost my brother in this war.

In ‘An Exclusive Morning’, as we were just discussing, the young Palestinian accompanying the Italian film crew hopes to force your character Darwish into acting out a repeat of his grief: to this end, he employs a kind of emotional / nationalist blackmail, claiming it will be an action for the sake of ‘the Palestinian cause’. Similarly, a child in one of Bernard MacLaverty’s stories is encouraged to help his dad in a burglary under the impression that ‘It’ll be for Ireland.’ Do you feel, or have you felt, this kind of pressure in your own work in any way? How do you work with that consciousness and remain free in your creativity, and create, as Mahmoud Darwish put it, your ‘flexible margin between the patriotic, the political, the daily, the cultural, and the literary?’

It’s not about heroism, you know. Rather, it’s about how conflict, national feelings, affect the characters. It’s true that my character Darwish didn’t accept – even at the end, with the young man, the journalist, putting all that pressure on him – he didn’t accept to repeat or to act, as he calls it, the moment of his grief. Instead, he says, very simply, I cannot repeat this because it’s something private. But the guy was trying to convince him using this heroic image of the country, and by using the nationalist discourse, and this is a kind of shorthand for how national feelings can affect our daily lives. And I think it is a very important issue, people can be very affected by this, I personally can be very touched by this, I mean I can remember many times when I didn’t want to do something and somebody would tell me, ‘It’s for Palestine,’ you know. And it’s true, I love my country, everybody loves their country, because we love our memories, our parents, our families, we love the place we were born in, our childhood in this place, and we Palestinians have our dreams, here, that are not fulfilled. But that is not the point. What matters is that there is an over-exaggeration of nationalism: it’s a very important thing in our lives as human beings because we love to exaggerate our nationality. And I think in the story once again, this is where the writer can work, because you want to be loyal to your society, and at the same time you don’t want to be a politician, you don’t want to talk politics! I don’t want to be a political writer, you know, I don’t want to write slogans or political leaflets, I want to write a story, I want to write life, and for my stories to be vivid, as life in the street is.

What are the most important ways in which the audience here can act on their feelings of solidarity and outrage? What can we do for you, the Gazans and the Palestinians?

(Laughs) I’m not a political activist to say how people can support the Palestinians, but I think the Palestinian cause is a just one, and that is enough. The Palestinians are not asking for the moon, as my mother Amna used to say. And this was portrayed in ‘The Time of the Portrait’: she wanted her kid to be let out of prison, you know, she wasn’t demanding heaven! She was asking that her kid be released, just that, and she supported peace for the sake of that. I don’t know, I’m not going to tell people what to do, but I think this is a just cause, and I don’t have an actual answer to this, but, well, I think… they know what to do.

The interview was recorded in the Gaza City Media Centre, late at night on Tuesday October 20th 2009, during one of the short and sporadic bursts of electricity that week. Our thanks to Pal Media Company for the facilities, Samir Bougie for camerawork, and Ibrahim Abu Saif for an all-night session of uploading the videos so that they could be accessed in the UK.

Click to view the interview and readings of Atef Abu Saif’s work on You Tube:

Interview with Atef Abu Saif Part 1

Interview with Atef Abu Saif Part 2

An Exclusive Morning by Atef Abu Saif, translated and read by Alice Guthrie.

The Portrait Years by Atef Abu Saif, translated and read by Alice Guthrie.

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