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Dispatches from the Land of Erasure


Over the past year, a group of Arab American writers—Hayan Charara, Marwa Helal, Randa Jarrar, Fady Joudah, Farid Matuk, Deema K. Shehabi, and I—began a group text, sharing stories about our own lives and the predicament of being Arab in America. This group text often touched on matters regarding the state of literary arts, though it was equally a space full of photos of our kids and lives. We had the sense of wanting to archive these conversations for future Arab American writers and somewhere along the line, the idea of a group essay emerged. I proposed that it would catalog the erasures we’d witnessed or experienced, but that it also would celebrate the liberatory work happening in our community, the poems and stories and art that hold us together and raise us up. In that group text we were after an asylum, a safe space, where we could explore and share inchoate thoughts, half-dreams, and the rough edges of our feelings.

These dispatches emerge from the inspiration of that space, though they lack the rough and informal improvisatory quality of a community talking with itself. Three other recent essays are also points of departure for these “Dispatches”—all of which were informed by the group text. Fady Joudah’s “Say It: I’m Arab and Beautiful,” Randa Jarrar’s “Ask Auntie Randa” pieces, and my “Same as It Ever Was: Orientalism Forty Years Later” confront the poison of white supremacy and Orientalism in American politics, literature, and culture, while offering antidotes: reclaiming beauty, liberation, and community.

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Israel convicts a Palestinian poet, NYC writers gather in solidarity

On Thursday Palestinian poet and photographer Dareen Tatour was convicted by an Israeli court of incitement to violence and support for a terror organization, ending a years-long legal battle that began with Tatour posting a poem on Facebook entitled “Resist, my people, resist them.”

First arrested in October of 2015, Tatour was one of the earliest targets of Israel’s cybercrime unit, and its controversial predictive policing strategy of scanning social media posts for language perceived to be a threat against the state. In the years since, a rapidly increasing number of Palestinians–many of them teenagers–have been arrested over statements made online, often for little more than using the word “martyr” on Facebook.

In Tatour’s case, she spent much of the past three years on house arrest, as Israeli prosecutors argued that her calls to “resist the settlers’ robbery” and “not succumb to the ‘peaceful solution’” amounted to a violent threat against the state. That position has been condemned by free speech advocates like PEN International, and by over 300 writers, including Alice Walker, Claudia Rankine, and Naomi Klein, in an online petition circulated by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP).

While prohibited from accessing the internet or using a cell phone, Tatour has maintained a line to the outside world through letters and her poetry. “Despite all this I have continued to write and I have touched the meaning of freedom,” she wrote, days before the verdict, in a letter addressed to JVP members. “Ideas have wings that no one can bind . . . My words have been able to cross distances and traverse borders until they reached to you.”

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John Berger contemplates life and death at the graveside of Mahmoud Darwish

A few days after our return from what was thought of, until recently, as the future state of Palestine, and which is now the world’s largest prison (Gaza) and the world’s largest waiting room (the West Bank), I had a dream.

I was alone, standing, stripped to the waist, in a sandstone desert. Eventually somebody else’s hand scooped up some dusty soil from the ground and threw it at my chest. It was a considerate rather than an aggressive act. The soil or gravel changed, before it touched me, into torn strips of cloth, probably cotton, which wrapped themselves around my torso. Then these tattered rags changed again and became words, phrases. Written not by me but by the place.

Remembering this dream, the invented word landswept came to my mind. Repeatedly. Landswept describes a place or places where everything, both material and immaterial, has been brushed aside, purloined, swept away, blown down, irrigated off, everything except the touchable earth.

There’s a small hill called Al Rabweh on the western outskirts of Ramallah, it’s at the end of Tokyo street. Near the top of this hill the poet Mahmoud Darwish is buried. It’s not a cemetery.

The street is named Tokyo because it leads to the city’s Cultural Centre, which is at the foot of the hill, and was built thanks to Japanese funding.

It was in this Centre that Darwish read some of his poems for the last time—though no one then supposed it would be the last. What does the word last mean in moments of desolation?

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Palestinian children’s book becomes target for boycott and censorship

By Radhika Sainath for Lithub

As a new parent, I’m now alert to a substratum of media that passed below the radar of my younger, less narcissistic, self. In the space of mild leftist parenting, this means acquiring board-book samizdat such as Click Clack Moo (cows striking for workplace benefits), and A Rule is to Break (inculcating anarchist principles in pre-literate children.)

Of course, the post-colonial space of this genre (Babar notwithstanding) is pretty unpopulated, so I was excited to spot P is for Palestine by Golbarg Bashi at my local Book Culture.

The book is fantastic on so many different levels: it features a little girl with curly black hair, big eyes and brown skin; the illustrations are gorgeous; and it teaches the alphabet through egalitarian and multi-cultural words from both Arabic and English like “C is for Christmas,” “E is for Eid,” and “M is for Miftah, Key of Return.”

But nothing Palestine-related, no matter how anodyne, can be consumed safely in America, let alone on the Upper West Side.

When I started chatting with the cashier when I bought the book a couple of weeks ago, I learned that the store was in the middle of a targeted boycott campaign.

“They haven’t even read it!” he said.

Googling the story, I learned that Bashi, the author, received death threats and needed police security at her storytime reading at Book Culture’s Upper West Side location. Book Culture received threats comparable to when it refused to ban Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa. A local synagogue threatened to ban Book Culture from an upcoming book fair if the owners did not denounce the book, and anti-Palestinian activists called for a boycott of the store. The “Upper East Mamas” Facebook group was shut down after parents “went ballistic” over the book, as reported in Page Six, The Forward and The New York Post.

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