- Published on Tuesday, 12 April 2011 20:00
- Category: Literature
To co-owner of famed Washington, D.C . bookstore, Politics & Prose, David Cohen, books must pass what he and his late wife Carla dubbed “The George Orwell Test.” This test is defined by Cohen as “holding your own people, the people you agree with, to the highest account.” The memoir of Gazan doctor Izzaldin Abuelaish, I Shall Not Hate, passes that test. Abuelaish describes his commitment to peace despite growing up in squalid Gazan refugee camps and losing three daughters and a niece during the 2009 Israeli air strikes against Gaza.
To Cohen, Abuelaish’s depiction of life in the Gaza refugee camps— a life of poverty, deprivation, and hopelessness — takes on “things that are not very appealing” with honesty and sincerity. Cohen says that like Orwell before him, Abuelaish does not attempt to romanticize the poverty he experienced in the refugee camps because “there’s nothing romantic about people who are in poverty.”
Also like Orwell, Abuelaish takes his fellow Palestinians to task when needed. “Dr. Abuelaish had a wonderful sentence in the book where he talks about how Palestinian forces mislead the people of Palestine in 1948. Also, when he says a two-state solution, [he knows] that’s not necessarily a popular solution within Gaza.” Cohen says that though there are many people on both sides of the conflict who may not agree with Abuelaish’s stance on the Middle East conflict, it was important to bring his message to D.C.
Both Cohen, and Executive Director of the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in D.C., Esther Foer, were moved by how “somebody with Dr. Abuelaish’s background who grew up in the refugee camps could talk about the potential for peace after everything he’s been through.” Seeing Abuelaish as “a person who stands as a standard-bearer and model” for how people can overcome personal tragedy, Cohen and Foer teamed up to bring Abuelaish to D.C.’s historic Sixth & I Synagogue. Cohen and Foer knew there might be some opposition to Abuelaish’s message at such an iconic symbol of Judaism in the nation’s capital, but Cohen said, “we didn’t care about that, because this is a legitimate thing, a legitimate idea.”
As he did in his book, when he finally took to the podium at Sixth & I on Feb 28, 2011, Abuelaish was “not afraid to give the [Palestinian] suffering it’s name” and spoke candidly about the travails of his childhood in a Gazan refugee camp as well as the day three of his daughters and one of his nieces were killed by Israeli shells in 2009. Abuelaish says unequivocally that for both Palestine and Israel “the main problem is occupation.” To Abuelaish the occupation is as much a problem for Israel as it is for Palestine. “What happened in the Arab countries, it can happen in Israel,” he says. Abuelaish says the potential for “the Israeli public to wake up and tell its leader ‘what are you doing for us?’ You didn’t bring us any peace, you only marginalized and segregated us from the international community and we’re suffering because of your attitude,” is very real. Abuelaish sees this threat as reason to push an agenda of change to the Palestinian and Israeli conflict.
To Abuelaish, the recent uprisings in the Middle East should be a clear sign to leaders all over the world that “they have to take care and open their eyes to serve the people’s interests” rather than simply their own. Abuelaish says the vanguards of these movements, “the young men and women who started to feel that they want their future,” must be taken seriously because these movements are “for the future, the future of all.”
Abuelaish, who suffered the loss of four young family members as a result of Israeli military action in Gaza, says these contemporary movements illustrate that such actions are now becoming increasingly archaic. “The means of fighting have changed — education, technology, Facebook, Twitter and many other things” are today’s most important battlegrounds.” Referring to these technological advancements that many in the West point to as being responsible for the spate of uprisings in the Middle East, Abuelaish says, “You can’t hide anything anymore. Anything can happen here and immediately it will spread everywhere.” As a result of the increased transparency created by changing technology, Abuelaish says, “It’s not just Pan-Arabism, it’s about human beings. The world has started to change. It’s not just one country here or there, so we must think wider and larger.”
Writing of the day when his daughters and niece were killed by Israeli shells, Abuelaish says he briefly feared his young son would be driven to extremism, a fear he says many other Palestinian parents constantly contend with. Speaking of this fear, he says his son “wasn’t born to be extremist, he was born a human being with a good heart but the suffering he faced and the context in which he lived could push him towards extremism.”
As much of the conflict in the Middle East is at least partly rooted in religion, Abuelaish uses it as a means to illustrate its positive power as well. Abuelaish uses the story of Moses delivering the Hebrews from Egypt as an example of religion as a tool to “free the people from oppression, from occupation, from suffering. That’s what faith and religion are.” Abuelaish goes on to say that regarding religion, “it’s for the good of a human being not to criticize each other. Religion is between you and God but it will be reflected on the ground between me and you and how we respect each other. Religion is good deeds and good deals.”
Although as his mother’s eldest son, he often had to miss school to help provide his family with an income, Abuelaish, who went on to become an OB/GYN practicing in both Palestine and Israel, says it was teachers who constantly pushed him to strive for life beyond the tight quarters of the Gazan refugee camps and not to be held back by the devastating poverty that surrounded him. As a result, education is of great importance to Abuelaish who says he identifies with famed Egyptian author Alaa Al Aswany’s sentiment that “when you know more, you have more responsibility towards your people.” Abuelaish says “Once you know it opens your eyes about the size of the problems, what you can do, what has been done, and what should be done. With learning and education you are skilled and armed which gives you the responsibility of doing more.”
Though his book and speech provided a personal account of one of the world’s most divisive ongoing political issues, Abuelaish says, “My goal is not political because the human life is not to be politicized.” Instead, Abuelaish wants his story of devotion to peace despite the constant specter of violence and occupation to be seen as “a human message” that will inspire “everyone to open their eyes.”By Ali Latifi* Photographs used with permission from Bloomsbury Publishing