Gaza is a city that has grown up at war. Conflict seems to be the natural state of affairs here. People are born in wars and die in wars. Many never really free themselves from it at any point in between.
Growing up in this kind of environment, you cling to anything that offers continuity, or suggests stability; anything that seems to have the power to outlive these endless wars. Something that can outlive them, I learned, is stories. I was always fascinated by the anecdotes and legends my grandmother, Eisha, told us as children. Many of them were stories about her early life, before the Naqba. I would hear similar stories from neighbours in the refugee camp where I grew up (and still live). As an aspiring writer, I always felt it was my duty to keep telling and re-telling these stories, to weave them into my own, and to make them public. Stories of love, adventure, anger, estrangement, nostalgia, social dynamics…
Sometimes, when we’re caught in the middle of momentous events, I also feel a duty to write about what’s happening right now, right this second. So I have this habit of keeping a kind of a diary whenever war breaks out. Every morning, before attempting to go about a normal day, I handwrite an account of the day before. Sometimes these notes provide raw materials for my fiction, weeks, months, even years later. I regard them like first-hand, eye-witness accounts, almost as if they weren’t written by me. I kept this kind of diary during the previous two assaults on Gaza, in 2008 and 2012. Indeed, I have handwritten pieces dating all the way back to the late 1980s: the eye-witness accounts of a teenager!
The last Israeli assault took place just a few days after my return from a book tour in the UK. My publisher, Ra Page, at Comma Press, wrote to me to ask if my family and I were safe. By that point I was well into my routine of handwriting diary entries. I believe it was about the fifth day. For a change, I typed one out directly into English, rather than Arabic. He posted part of it on Facebook, then sent all of it to a website in the States. He kept posting my new diary entries from that day onwards, to newspapers and websites around the world. Eventually they started appearing in major international newspapers. The diaries have now all been collected into a single book entitled, The Drone Eats with Me.
I was not writing news reports about the situation in Gaza. I was trying to talk about my personal life, and the lives of my relatives and friends in these circumstances. War turns you into numbers. I was trying to counteract this, to show that we are human beings. That we have to carry on living, despite the war, in these situations. That the human soul isn’t lost, necessarily, under the rubble, nor are its memories or dreams. I was trying to humanize what war tries to dehumanize.
I was also trying to reassure myself that I wasn’t actually dead already. Sometimes in the insane smoke of war, you do begin to wonder what’s a hallucination and what’s not. Through writing these pieces and then seeing them appear in international newspapers, I felt that I must be still alive. More importantly, I felt that I was doing something. I was telling these stories of the present, in my own way.
So The Drone Eats with Me should be read against this backdrop. It strives to counteract the media presentation of Gaza as a city occupied only by numbers. Without knowing they would one day appear in a book, my diary entries were presenting another Gaza. A forgotten Gaza. An unseen Gaza.
In the media, Gaza is just a victim. It is a city of war, of destruction, of assassination and of poverty. All of which it is, of course. But besides this, it is also a city full of life. A city where there are cafés, artists, fishermen, farmers, beaches, children. Gaza produces literature like anywhere else – but because of the Israeli siege and the difficulty of movement into and out of the Strip, the writing it produces doesn’t reach wider audiences. There is a vibrant cultural life in Gaza but it is hidden behind the curtain of the news. Young authors, female and male, meet regularly to read their work and listen to each other’s. But they struggle to ever get it published as there is no specialized publishing house in Gaza and their communication with publishers outside is limited. Often they receive invitations to read their work outside of the Strip, through festivals like PALFEST which takes place in other Palestinian territories, but they fail to get permits to leave.
It is important that these authors are given a chance to speak and to have their works read and discussed. It is important that this other Gaza has a chance to be heard over the sound of the drone’s constant buzzing.
Find out more about The Drone Eats with Me.
Read an interview with Sarah Irving, who translated one of the short stories in The Book of Gaza (2014).