I started as a lone voice. In the silence of a rather vigilant night, my keyboard was my sole collaborator. Few words of protest, engulfed by anger and discontent, found their way into a yet-to-be-filled draft email.
My overly conscious heart was heavy. “I cannot accept, ethically and morally, that my voice be shared equally with writers who reflect the voice of an obnoxious occupier,” I wrote. Not that I had blurred vision or confused emotions; it was more an enlightened revelation, where I knew that I was sad, enraged and offended. And I knew exactly why I felt that way.
Presumptuously, as put by the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, I along with other Arab women writers, were to celebrate a collection of short stories coming out in the fall.
These embraced the voices of 30 women covering the Middle East, whereby ‘Israel’ is supposedly an integrally normalised Middle East state, according to the Americanised contorted concept of the ‘Middle East’; with no pains, no shame, and no open wounds.
The recently aborted project (Memory of a Promise: Short Stories by Middle Eastern Women) was meant to honour the late American scholar and writer Elizabeth Fernea, known for her highly appreciated writings about Middle East issues. She devoted “her life to advance the causes of those who are excluded and muted by political, economic and social oppression”.
Around 15 Arab writers were to share their voices and ‘concerns’ with their counterparts from Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan … and, of course, Israel — an allegedly legitimate literary Middle Eastern component that desperately seeks acceptance, notwithstanding its ‘genocidal’ practices against Palestinians.
The inclusion of Yehudit Hendel and Orly Castel-Bloom, two Israeli authors celebrated amongst ‘institutionalised’ Israeli literary circles, in the anthology-like book was imposed by the Texas Middle Eastern Studies Centre on the assumption that “their stories chosen focus on two women’s psychological reactions to personal challenges —- loneliness and illness”, as justified by the editorial staff. “This focus” should speak to “experiences all woman share”.
Well, certainly not to my experience! There is more to my suffering and painful experiences than ‘loneliness and illness’!
As I stated in a decisive clear-cut letter of protest emailed to the Middle Eastern centre: While Yehudit Hendel was born in Warsaw, Poland, and immigrated to Haifa, Palestine, I was born in Kuwait to a Palestinian refugee family, and I am denied the right to return to Palestine, my homeland.
How is it possible to overlook the fact that I am homeless and yet console my defeated self that a home can be envisaged out of clichéd ‘cultural tolerance’? How can I refuse to hate a ‘killer state’ or not turn a deaf ear to voices that reflect its disgrace? I can’t. I simply cannot.
Since I could never compromise my pains or sugarcoat them with falsified “reasoning”, I requested that my contribution in the book be withdrawn. And it was withdrawn promptly. The Texas centre must have felt that a lone ‘No’ will hardly harm the celebrated short story anthology. There was no reason for it to worry or reconsider its stance, or at least question the ethical grounds upon which it drew the literary map of the Middle East.
As expected, it expressed sympathy and understanding. Apparently, I should be grateful to this ‘sympathetic-ness’ and ‘understanding-ness’!
It was a lone ‘No’ for a while though as I set out in a marathon campaign to make my ‘No’ matter more. I wanted my ‘No’ to add up into more ‘No’s’. Consequently, I contacted other Arab authors listed in the book, most of whom I had never met, but was well-acquainted with much of their work. Guess what? In a 10-day unrelenting campaign, infused with persistent passion and decades-long inherited losses and accumulated pains, my ‘No’ became scores of ‘No’s’. All the Arab writers whom I managed to contact withdrew their contributions in the unlikely ‘coming book’, a collective withdrawal process that gained escalating momentum with the help and support of friends and colleagues, who joined forces with us in what became a ‘to be or not to be’ fight.
In a region caught in defeat and despair, the ‘No’ turning into ‘No’s’ comes as a symbolic victory. My ‘No’ is alone no more. My ‘No’ says more, and it means even more. It is heard loud, yet it is by no means demagogic.
Huzama Habayeb is a Palestinian novelist.