Authors on the limits of writing amid the silencing of Palestinian voices

Protesters in London hold tributes to popular Palestinian writer, poet, and professor Refaat Alareer who was killed, with several members of his family, by an Israeli air strike. One of Alareer’s famous poems ends, “If I must die, let it bring hope, let it be a tale.” Ron Fassbender/Alamy Photo
11 January, 2024

“In the face of life and what it holds, writing can appear as a lost cause. Or this is how it seemed at least at 8.29 am, mid-July, 2014,” the Palestinian author Adania Shibli wrote in June 2022, recalling the moment she got a warning call from the Israeli Defense Forces. In an essay titled “On Learning How to Write Again,” Shibli contemplates the futility of words while the Israeli army dropped bombs over Ramallah, concluding, “In the face of the banality of this wretchedness, the vocation of writing seems, once again, to be like that of a streetlamp lighter, a vocation that has no place in our world of today.” This feeling led her to “abandon” writing from time to time, and teach at Birzeit University, in Palestine.

Another teacher and writer, the literature professor Refaat Alareer, spoke from the opposite end of this argument about the limits of writing. In his introduction to the collection Gaza Writes Back—half of whose entries were fiction by his students that addressed the aftermath of Israel’s 2008 attack on Gaza—he wrote, “Even when the character is dying, his/her ultimate wish is for others to ‘to tell [the] story,’ as Hamlet put it. And telling the story thereby itself becomes an act of life.”

Alareer’s words read grimly prescient today. An Israeli airstrike on his sister’s home killed him on 6 December 2023. Since then, a poem he had recently posted has been furiously translated into several languages. It ends, “If I must die, let it bring hope, let it be a tale.” But this outpouring of global solidarity occurred while his body continued to lie under the rubble.

In the wake of the Israel’s 2014 attack on Gaza, Alareer co-edited the anthology Gaza Unsilenced, which carries a piece about an airstrike killing his brother. Its introduction raises questions about how writing might address the most recent onslaught while also evoking a much longer history and experience. “We are inundated with figures and numbers attempting to depict for us what life is like in this tiniest of places,” it notes. “How can words convey that which numbers and images and characters and online posts cannot, no matter how valiantly?” Yet, it also points repeatedly to language as a tool to obscure what Palestinians are witnessing. “Gaza is a place drowning in euphemisms.” This is an aspect that several journalists and writers are calling attention to at the moment. The slyness of the language used around this conflict has been evident in media coverage over the last two months, from a BBC headline that indicates Palestinians “died” but Israelis were “killed,” to a now-deleted tweet from Israel’s prime minister that characterised the ongoing events as a “struggle between the children of light and the children of darkness.” Publishers for Palestine, in a November 2023 letter, also noted that “as cultural workers who pay careful attention to words and language, we note that this genocide was inaugurated with Israeli occupation military leaders using words such as ‘human animal’ to justify their attacks on the civilians of Gaza.”