We are the Silence: How words bear witness in life and in death

Oct 31, 2023
Stick figures with Palestinian flag. Social community and citizens of Palestine, 3D rendering isolated on white background

In August of this year, Yousef Maher Dawas, a young Palestinian author, wrote a story of hope and resilience, titled “Kidney Transplant and Rebirth: A Palestinian Love Story”. On the 14th of October, Yousef was killed by an Israeli missile strike, along with several members of his family. Remember his words. He was not a number.

Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet, was well known for his ability to use language as a metaphorical homeland in place of the physical one that he, and thousands of other Palestinians, were denied access to. Forced to live in exile, Darwish was in Beirut when he wrote Memory for Forgetfulness, during the Israeli siege on southern Lebanon in 1982. In it, he wrote:

Does a bomb have grandchildren? Us.
Does a piece of shrapnel have grandparents? Us.
And the silence, the silence of the spectators, has turned into boredom.

We can read these words now, some forty years after they were written – as Israel continues its unrelenting bombing campaign on the Gaza Strip – and hear them as if they were written yesterday.

“I want a language that I can lean on and that can lean on me, that asks me to bear witness and that I can ask to bear witness,” wrote Darwish. ‘Shahida’ in Arabic means ‘bearing witness’, and from it also stems ‘gravestone’, ‘epitaph’, and ‘martyr’. For Darwish, the use of poetry and prose was necessary so that history could bear witness to the Palestinian experience, both in life and in death.

I started reading Darwish as the Israeli Defence Force began their 22-day assault on the Gaza Strip in late 2008. I was in Israel and Palestine working on an art project and had only equipped myself with so much knowledge with which to land. It was a steep learning curve to understand the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict while Palestinians were being bombed just forty kilometres away. Being there hastened the learning, without a doubt. I walked past Israelis who were yelling ‘death to Arabs!’, as well as those who were instead directing their anger toward the Israeli Knesset, shouting “You do not build an election campaign over the dead bodies of children!” as they took part in a 10,000 strong march against the war. Israelis, Palestinians, and everyone else, walking together in the face of horror.

A fifteen-year-old Palestinian who has grown up in Gaza will have already lived through five wars and the deaths of around 11,000 of their Palestinian brothers and sisters. They are the grandchildren of the bombs. Their grandparents will have seen so many pieces of shrapnel lodged into Palestinian bodies and minds throughout the fifty-six years of Israeli occupation.

But we are the bored spectators, we are the silence.

“I don’t know what the world is waiting for.”

These are words from a young writer I know in Gaza—Habiba, a medical student who describes herself as a ‘searcher.’ We were paired together through We Are Not Numbers (WANN), a platform that celebrates and sheds light on Palestinian stories through a mentoring program between experienced writers in the US, Europe and Australia and young Palestinian writers from Gaza, the West Bank and throughout the diaspora. The mission behind WANN is to put a face and a story behind the numbers presented in the media, to ensure that Palestinian people are not simply reduced to a number.

Now Habiba and all the WANN writers—like everyone else in Gaza—are living under constant bombardment from Israeli warplanes, missiles, bombs, and an imminent ground invasion, following the attack on southern Israel by Hamas on October 7.

Gazans are now living with the perpetual fear that they may not make it through the night—and indeed, already more than 8000 haven’t. So far, three WANN writers have been killed by Israeli airstrikes while sheltering in their homes.

Yousef Maher Dawas, was killed by an Israeli missile strike on the 14th of October, along with several members of his family. Described as a ‘joyful guy’, Yousef was studying to be a psychoanalyst and was interested in economics and politics. He was also learning the guitar. In an article from January this year, Yousef wrote about the destruction of his family’s orchard by an Israeli missile strike in May 2022. “Most Gazans have their own way of seeking sanctuary and shelter in their mind,” he wrote. “My escape was to play video games. I knew that youngsters in countries across the world were playing the same game as me — but for fun, not to escape death.”

On October 20, Mahmoud Alnaouq, the brother of WANN co-founder Ahmed Alnaouq, was killed alongside his father, Nasri, one of his brothers, Muhammad, his sisters Walaa, Alaa, and Aya, and their children, Bakr, Basma, Raghad, Islam, Sarah, Abdullah, Islam, Dima, Tala, Nour, Nasma, Tamim, and Malak. Mahmoud was twenty-five years old. He thought “the most effective way to change people’s minds and to make a change in the world is through writing.”

Like Darwish, under siege, these young writers have found a way to speak to the Palestinian experience, bridging the gap between language and mortality, even while expecting to die. On October 17, Abdallah al-Jazzar wrote in an essay published at the WANN website, “To be alive right now is nothing short of a miracle, and the opportunity to speak directly to you is both a privilege and an uncertainty. I may be gone by the time these words reach you, but I assure you, it’s never too late. Gazans have spoken from the grave in the hopes that someone, somewhere, finally listens. Will it be this time? The next time? Any time?”

Who is listening?

Last Wednesday, our Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, called for a “humanitarian pause” so that much needed aid can be delivered to Gaza—but this doesn’t go far enough. A pause indicates just that—a pause. It implies that Israel can press play again when it’s ready. Australia must use stronger words. Neither Wong nor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese have condemned Israel’s attacks on innocent civilians in Gaza, despite condemning Hamas, and unreservedly stating that the government stands with Israel and supports its right to self-defence, while not acknowledging the Palestinians right to resist their occupation. Nor have they acknowledged that Israel is committing what may amount to war crimes, as defined by international law.

On Friday, Australia abstained on a UN General Assembly non-binding resolution calling for a humanitarian truce in Gaza. Abstention, in this context, is a calculated silence that averts the gaze and ensures complicity with Israel and the United States.

Words matter.

When UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres pleaded for humanitarian aid to be allowed into Gaza, his words mattered so much that Israel called for his immediate resignation, and it is banning UN staff from entering Israel. That is the power of words, even when simply stating the facts.

A few days ago Habiba had written, “It’s almost afternoon and we haven’t eaten anything yet.. there’s no water, no gas for the cook. My aunt went for the bakery 4 hours ago and still hasn’t come back.” On Thursday, I woke up to another message: “They just bombed a house near us.. we all crawled into the hallway.. this is by far the loudest/scariest one ever.”

I don’t know what words to say back to Habiba. I tell her that I am here, that I am thinking of her and her family, that we will make sure their voices are heard, that thousands, millions of people all over the world are protesting and will not be silenced by fear of vitriolic abuse, that we will not stop speaking the truth of these atrocities.

Words matter.

Like the WANN writers, Darwish knew this intensely. He wrote: “I want to find a language that transforms language itself into steel for the spirit – a language to use against these sparkling silver insects, these jets.”

The young writers in Gaza are—right now—doing everything they can to transform the sounds and smells of death into steel for the spirit, but they also need to know that we are listening, that we are here.

Words matter.

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