Decolonising Palestinian narrative

Late in June, Auckland saw the first national conference for Palestine in New Zealand for over twenty years. Several hundred people gathered for a weekend of workshops, campaign strategising and presentations, including talks by Gaza-based blogger Yousef Aljamal and anti-Zionist Israeli Miko Peled. Ripples of energy and enthusiasm have spread out across the country following the weekend, as the call for a movement of Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions – its challenges and useful provocations dissected so ably in Overland by Kim Bullimore – forces us to re-think how we best advance the Palestinian cause.

I was honoured to be invited to speak alongside Yousef Aljamal at a Students for Justice in Palestine event organised by Nadia Abu-Shanab the week after the conference, and to get the chance to try and combine some of the questions raised by the more general, literary-theoretical work we try and advance here at Overland with the immediate tactical and practical questions of organising. We are lucky in New Zealand to have many principled journalists and Palestinian advocates of long standing – Don Carson, pre-eminently – and what follows builds on their tireless, and often lonely, adovacy work.

Here’s what I said.



All media is social media. That’s the first point I think needs emphasised. We have had this term ‘media’ since the mid-twentieth century, and the term ‘medium’, in the sense of ‘an intervening or intermediate agency or substance’, since the sixteenth century.  (I’m drawing on Raymond Williams’ Keywords). Books, speeches, leaflets, fliers, websites: they are all a medium between people in a process of communication, between a writer and the audience they hope to summon. That process can involve greater or lesser degrees of activity and exchange but it is essential to all media.

The great social media of the Palestinian struggle have, until recently, been the printed word and its spoken accompaniment. Literature – poetry especially – has a status and importance in Palestinian social life very difficult for us in the West or the First World or whatever you want to call it to fully appreciate. The Anglosphere, and literary culture settled around English-language writing in London, seems terribly provincial when contrasted with the Palestinian experience, connected as it is to the rich, complex world of Arabic literature more generally. We are used to narratives generated by Western journalists and commentators – sometimes honourable and very serious, in their way – stressing Palestinian disadvantage and abjection. A focus on literature, and literature as social media, reminds us of Palestinian agency, and a particular kind of privilege in the Palestinian situation:

The view from the top is epistemologically crippling, and reduces its subjects to the illusions of a host of fragmented subjectivities, to the poverty of the individual experience of isolated monads, to dying individual bodies without collective pasts or futures bereft of any possibility of grasping the social totality.

That’s how Fredric Jameson, a generation ago now, described ‘First World’ experience and literature.

A turn to Palestinian writing shows other forms of social media, unimaginable to us in our own culturally impoverished context. Twenty-five thousand people filled a Beirut stadium in 2008 to listen to the great poet Mahmoud Darwish. Darwish wrote, in addition to his own ( prolifically produced) poetry, Arafat’s famous 1974 ‘gun and an olive branch’ speech. You can find pictures of him sitting alongside Arafat and George Habash on any number of occasions: these give some sense of the importance of poetry, of literature, to the Palestinian national cause.


Ghassan Kanafani, the master short story writer, edited Al-Hadaf, the militant newspaper: he was killed in Beirut in 1972 when his booby-trapped car exploded.


Fadl al-Naqib said of Kanafani that he ‘wrote the Palestinian story, then he was written by it’.


The public and the private, the social and the individual, the literary and the political: these can’t be separated when we talk about Palestine. Kanafani’s life provides a triumphant, and a tragic, explanation for why.

So solidarity, voice, and social media: the first way in which these have contributed to decolonisation have been in the form of newspapers, loud speakers, books, performance. A tradition, in historic Palestine and throughout the diaspora, is sustained by active readers, listeners, popular memory. Younger writers contribute to this tradition, and write within its supporting frames.


I start with these comments not to disparage the work of more recent bloggers, but to put our appreciation of their achievement in a proper context. There is a tendency, important to resist, for talk of social media to turn itself, somehow without us quite knowing how, into another iteration of the old familiar story of Western Enlightenment and benevolence. This continues from the language of human rights and sponsored training, the indignity Palestinians have had to suffer for a while of graduate know-nothings, flush with foreign aid money, lecturing them on the principles of non-violence.

The technological utopianism that imagines Twitter and Facebook and Blogger somehow drive the recent revolutions in the Arab world is so obviously unconvincing its enthusiastic adoption across Western commentary ought to rouse our suspicions. What goes missing from this Just So story? History, politics, conflict, struggle.

What social media does give us, though, is a greater ability to listen. It’s harder to deny the presence of Palestinian voices now, even for those who want to deny them. For those of us who want to seek them out, and to share them, there’s an obvious boon. It’s not, then, that social media changes the Palestinian struggle so much as that it changes our ability to learn, to educate, and to organise within the states backing Israel.


Palestinian voices: I want to stress both words. We hear about the abstraction Palestine all the time. It’s a case, as Edward Said argued in The Politics of Disposession, of ‘Palestine, yes; Palestinians no’.’ Everyone has an opinion on a ‘solution’ to the Israel-Palestine conflict. What’s harder to hear – and, for obvious and important political reasons, essential for Israel’s apologists that we don’t hear – are Palestinian accounts. But ordinary Palestinian accounts – and voices, conflicting, arguing, strategising – are all around us now.

The documentary value of blogs like Yousef Aljamal’s is almost incaluable. Under impossibly difficult circumstances – and at what must be huge personal cost ­– the translators, writers, journalists and bloggers who are forging this online Palestinian civil world make visible what Said called ‘the narrative of [Palestine’s] present actuality’.

This is of exceptional importance. We should use the term narrative in its more old-fashioned and simple sense here – that is, as a representation of an event or series of events – and not be seduced by seemingly more sophisticated relativist talk of ‘contesting the narrative’ or ‘disrupting the narrative’ set out by Israel. Most of the refutations and accusations that Israel’s apologists level are designed as provocations and distractions, a form of trolling (to borrow the jargon of social media). The task of the Palestinian bloggers, then, is one of building, patiently, unstoppably, a counter narrative that gains an audience as its facts and its reliability spread and give confidence.

Yousef Aljamal’s work is exlempary here but there’s a whole network of activist writers – and it is the existence of this network that I think most important. The people who put together the Palestine Literature Festival, for instance, or Saeed Ibrahim Amireh (whom I had the honour of meeting at Marxism in Melbourne last year) someone who maintains a website chronicling the struggles for survival of his village, Ni’Lin.


There is every reason for us to feel confident and optimistic about this phase in the Palestinian struggle. Opinion internationally, especially since the IDF’s defeat by Hizbollah in 2006, continues to turn against Israel. Palestinian experience is audible now in ways that just a generation ago would have been unthinkable. Writing after the massacre at Sabra and Shatila, Edward Said described the Palestinian narrative as ‘now barely in evidence’ – writers like Yousef Aljamal make such an assertion impossible today.

Mahmoud Darwish has a line about ‘the invaders’ fear of memories.’ Every Israeli incursion and act of violence against Palestinian territory and community is bound up in this fear of memory, the Zionist project’s necessity for eliminating the Palestinians as a people, as a history. Said called it ‘the inadmissible existence of the Palestinian people whose history, actuality, and aspirations, as possessed of a coherent narrative direction points toward self-determination, were the object of this violence’.

Narrative ­­– and literature more generally – nourishes our sense of this coherent narrative. For those of us listening from outside, it reminds us we’re not thinking about passive victims but are rather responding to – and facing demands of solidarity from –active, and sometimes joyous, agents:

We have on this earth what makes life worth living: April’s hesitation, the aroma of bread
at dawn, a woman’s point of view about men, the works of Aeschylus, the beginning
of love, grass on a stone, mothers living on a flute’s sigh and the invaders’ fears of memories.

 The chance, and the challenge, is to construct active tradition as much as innovation, to find in new media, ways of solving old problems, and of sustaining modes of resistance. Social media sets up chances for parallels, comparisons, reflections.

Fadwa Tuqan, Palestine’s great revolutionary feminist poet, began her autobiography – A Mountainous Journey – with this observation:

A seed does not see the light without first cleaving a difficult path through the earth. This story of mine is the story of the seed’s battle against the hard rocky soil; a story of struggle, deprivation and enormous difficulties.
The story, I hope, may provide a ray of light that will shine upon wayfarers on arduous paths. I should like to add here that the struggle for self-fulfilment is sufficient to satisfy our hearts and give meaning and worth to our lives.
There is no shame in losing the battle. The main thing is not to give up and lay down our arms.

Fadwa Tuqan

 I hear echoes of this, almost thirty years later, in a different medium, in the young Palestinian woman writer Lena Ibrahim’s declaration of fidelity to memory and a whole way of struggle:

This is what it means to be young and Palestinian. It is our responsibility to continue for the rest of our lives remembering. It is our responsibly to continue for the rest of our lives understanding, studying, and arming ourselves with knowledge of every part and period of struggle within the Palestinian occupation. Proficiently enough, that not a single person we ever encounter will be able to challenge the Palestinian premise and demand of freedom. We must learn our personal story, our family’s story, our neighbor’s story, and the stories engraved but hidden in the soil of our land. And then we must use them to resist, to speak, to teach all who may ever want us to forget, our collective unforgettable story. The old will die, and the young will liberate Palestine.

What we are discussing is memory, and the politics and responsibility of sustaining memory. It’s not narratives that need decolonising, then, so much as narratives that are in the service of decolonisation. It’s not new media displacing old, but the young arming themselves from every part and period of struggle – an exciting moment to witness.

Tuqan’s lines I’ve taken from Olive Kenny’s translation (The Women’s Press, 1990); Darwish’s ‘On this Earth’ from Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché’s translation in
Unfortunately, It Was Paradise (University of California Press, 2003). The details of Darwish’s Beirut performance comes from Ian Wedde’s obituary.

Dougal McNeill

Dougal McNeill teaches postcolonial literature and science fiction at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. He also blogs at Nae Hauf-Way Hoose and is an editor of Socialist Review. He’s currently writing a book on politics, modernist literature and the 1926 General Strike in Britain. He tweets as @Lismahago.

More by Dougal McNeill ›

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