Rebel in Gaza
By Asmaa Al Ghoul, DoppelHouse Press, 224 pages, $19
There has been nothing so dramatic as a “war” in the Gaza Strip since 2014, but the Israeli military has nonetheless killed more than 200 Palestinians there this year. On a single Friday in March, snipers took the lives of 52 protesters. Most weeks, the casualties dribble in more slowly: two or three or seven are shot while demonstrating along the fence that confines them; or, unsuspecting, they are blown apart by missiles fired from drones and F16s. Only when the toll is particularly high, or an unusual proportion of the dead are children, do the international media take notice.
Then there is the siege that Israel has imposed on the territory since Hamas took power in 2007 and the many deaths that this has more obliquely caused — along with the shortages of nearly all goods necessary for survival, regular power outages and lack of drinking water. Most Gazans are unable to travel even for emergency medical care outside the narrow boundaries of the Strip, generating a sense of suffocation and despair. You may have skimmed an article reporting that the UN predicted, in 2015, that the privations of the siege could render Gaza “uninhabitable” by 2020, which is no longer far away. Depending on your political orientation, you may choose to focus on Hamas’s failures of governance and fundamentalist rigidities, on rockets fired into Israel, on “terror kites” and “terror tunnels”. Taken together, this is the world’s image of Gaza: a place of violence, hopelessness, extremism and death. It is not inaccurate, but it is profoundly incomplete.
Asmaa Al Ghoul , who was born in the Rafah refugee camp at the southern end of the Strip, writes with clarity and tenderness of these realities and others that are less widely reported. Despite it all, she insists: “People continued to laugh in Gaza.” Her own laughter bubbles through the pages of A Rebel in Gaza: a stubborn, defiant joy in living, as keen as her rage or her grief. Al Ghoul, who has travelled widely and lived abroad, understands why so many of her friends have chosen to emigrate, but the cities of the west, “oozing with indifference”, hold little attraction for her. Her Gaza is a place of suffering but also of magic, as if its isolation and its privations bring the humanity of its inhabitants into sharper relief. “Life in Gaza has a strength that makes you feel that death doesn’t exist,” Al Ghoul writes. “Except in war.”
A Rebel in Gaza is a love letter to an unloved place, a memoir written in collaboration with the Lebanese novelist Selim Nassib, whom she met in Cairo during one of several periods when death threats made it wise for her to leave Gaza. Nassib describes their method in the preface: whenever they could meet, Al Ghoul would talk and he would translate her words into French as they went, reading them back in Arabic for her approval. (The English version is a translation, by Mike Mitchell, of a French edition published in 2016.) Travelling in and out of Gaza is never easy: it took Al Ghoul and Nassib more than four years to finish.
The result is fairly seamless. Nassib erased all trace of his own presence, and the book is episodic and casual in tone, like a series of conversations with a voluble and fascinating friend.
In a foreword, Al Ghoul writes of her eagerness to avoid “the prevailing cliches” that might confine her narrative. The usual smeary lenses through which the region is viewed are blessedly absent. There are many villains and few heroes, but even the villains are decent sometimes. Al Ghoul is equally allergic to pieties. In an early chapter, she commits the cardinal heresy of admitting that she has no desire to return to the village from which her grandmother fled in 1948 and considers the refugee camp in which she was born to be her only homeland. She writes with palpable affection of Rafah, of the sound of raindrops on the corrugated metal roof of her family home, of the “maze of alleyways” in which she played as a girl, and ran from Israeli soldiers.
More than anything, Al Ghoul refuses the role of victim — of Israel, of Hamas, of any of the men or women in her life. From early on, she insists on writing. She publishes her first poem at 16. It’s a love poem, which so infuriates one of her uncles that her mother fears he will kill her. She works steadily as a journalist — the good, troublemaking sort — from the age of 19 onwards. She refuses to cover her hair, talks openly of falling in love, marries twice and twice divorces. When Hamas police or mosque officials challenge or upbraid her, she does not hesitate to let them know that they are the ones bringing shame to Islam. Imagine, if you can, a Palestinian Emma Goldman — brave, righteous, unapologetically and unstoppably free.
Again and again, Al Ghoul pays for her defiance. Hamas comes across as a repressive force, arrogant and unaccountable, but neither unfathomable nor monstrous. Whatever else it is, it’s family. Al Ghoul was still a girl when several of her uncles joined Hamas during the first intifada. They stopped laughing, she recalls. She receives her first death threats after a letter she writes to one of them is made public. He had become Hamas’s chief of security in Rafah and, she learned, had been imprisoning and abusing members of Fatah, the rival, secular party. “Is this the country we want, uncle?” she writes. He doesn’t speak to her for years.
More threats — plus arrests, beatings and international notoriety — follow when she speaks out after being harassed by Hamas police for going to the beach without a male relative as chaperone, and again for cycling with two foreign friends. Later, she challenges the government more directly, not only in her daily life or as a journalist, but as an activist in the early days of the Arab spring. In Palestine, the effort is swiftly crushed. Al Ghoul does not feel discouraged. “Gaza has always been rebellious,” she says. “I am her daughter, and I look like her.”
All of this — studies, work, struggles, love and heartbreak — is punctuated by war, the periodic devastation of the Strip by “our crazy neighbour, Israel”. During the last such catastrophe, in August 2014, the house in which Al Ghoul grew up, in which her aunt and uncle and their children and grandchildren still lived, was destroyed by Israeli missiles. Nine of her relatives — none of them Hamas members, two of them children and one an infant — were killed. Al Ghoul choked down her grief and took her laptop to the beach, where she knew she could get enough of a signal to file a story. “I’m not going to stay silent,” she told herself. “I’m not going to cry. I’m going to write, write until the end.”
Let’s hope she does. The world would be poorer without Al Ghoul’s voice, without her warmth, her fury and her laughter.
Ben Ehrenreich’s The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine is published by Granta.