If this book had to be described succinctly, it is a perfect example of the different components that construct an implosion. Marcello Di Cintio’s “Pay No Heed to the Rockets – Palestine in the Present Tense” combines travel writing with creating the space for Palestinian narratives within a literary context. Which is the Palestine we claim to know, and what parts of Palestine are still awaiting recognition? The answer is undoubtedly political – the entire territory of historic Palestine is awaiting recognition. From this departure point, it is possible to frame this compelling read within a Palestinian and human experience.
As the author embarks upon his journey of discovery, musings on well-known Palestinian writers such as Mahmoud Darwish, Mourid Barghouti and Ghassan Kanafani are prominent. There is a feeling of loss as the author compares the changes in landscapes by recalling Barghouti’s own memoirs, while also setting the tone for the rest of the book, as the Palestinian writers interviewed by Di Cintio are all impacted by different forms of absence, due to the ongoing trauma of the Nakba. In introducing Darwish and Kanafani, the author writes: “In between exile and explosion are lives that followed Palestine’s frayed plotlines.”
Writing has been a powerful weapon against Israel’s narratives and violence. Kanafani’s widow tells Di Cintio: “The plan of the Zionists was to liquidate all Palestinian intellectuals.” The author also quotes Kanafani: “In so far as I am concerned, politics and the novel are an indivisible case, and I can categorically state that I became politically committed because I am a novelist, not the opposite.” Darwish, on the other hand, maintained that “Palestinians should not shackle themselves to the solitary idea of political liberation.” Both authors have an equally valid point – writing can be the catalyst for a committed revolutionary, yet life itself cannot be overlooked. For Palestinians, life is intertwined with trauma; also with the right of return. Yet, within this vast equation, there are other pockets of existence where absence intensifies and manifests itself in different forms.
For Rana Mourtaja from Gaza, writing provided the means to create a world that is different from that experienced in the enclave. Still, there is a lingering question that manifests itself earlier, when she describes having listened to music during Israeli bombardments of Gaza. There is guilt at indulging in music “as if there is nothing going on”. The question of where attention should be focused remains paramount. She differentiates between the people and the cause. These distinctions are absorbed by the reader who is also invited to pause and view Palestine from Palestinian perspectives, rather than the packaged and processed variations which are made available so far away from its original source.
Loss, in terms of both people and land, is also evoked in Ramallah, with criticism for writers who, according to some Palestinians, have created a trend out of Palestine. Di Cintio meets with a group of writers in Ramallah, who narrate their experiences of politics and literature, and how these journeys eventually contributed, or transformed, an inner part of their lives. One Palestinian present during the meeting remarks: “A lot of foreigners are coming here to write about Palestinians. They weren’t interested in us when we were blowing ourselves up.” The critical comment opens a plethora of questions as to what contributed to the shift in interest and how it reflects upon Palestinian lives. In a way, the comment echoes Mourtaja’s differentiation between the people and the cause, while also eliciting questions on how Palestinian writing altered with time due to the shifting political dynamics and Israeli colonialism.
A significant portion of Palestinian writing still reflects the political violence experienced by Palestinians. Documenting violence through writing, whether historical or contemporary, is also, at times, circumventing its way around violence to survive. In Nablus, the author met with Wisam Rafeedi, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) who was jailed by Israel many times. Besides the PFLP’s insistence of extensive reading, Rafeedi also wrote a book in prison which he smuggled out with the help of an intricate system among the Palestinian prisoners.
Land also features prominently in the book. It is not only the appropriation, but also the alterations to the territory that Palestinians pointed out to the author. There is a tendency, from outside, to normalise colonial structures as part of the territory rather than impositions. Acts of resistance from non-Palestinians can also contribute towards this normalisation. A case in point is the Apartheid Wall and its graffiti, about which Di Cintio states: “Most of the Palestinians I spoke to, however, despise the decorations. They feel the art lends permanence to a structure they hope will come down one day. More than this, though, they don’t want anyone to make the Wall beautiful.”
Loss, which is another theme that features explicitly in the book, makes for a compelling read in the author’s section on Jerusalem. Palestinian displacement, the looting that happened in the aftermath of the Nakba and Israel’s enacting of the Absentee Property Law contributed to changes in the perception of, and relation to, literature. The loss of Palestinian libraries marked the first event in shaping the following years as regards literature. Di Cintio quotes Israeli researcher Gish Amit, who conducted a study about the looted and confiscated books: “When the war ended it became evident that in addition to their homeland, homes and property, the Palestinian people had also lost their aristocracy.”
The Nakba and subsequent political changes adversely affected literary expression. Besides the differences between Palestinians experiencing the daily ramifications of colonialism and Palestinians in the diaspora, Palestinians’ reading habits altered after Oslo with the previous preference for Arabic books waning, communicated to Di Cintio simply: “They felt like they were reading bullshit. They were reading lies.” Other Palestinian authors have faced the brunt of censorship by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, thus making literary expression both a cautious and revolutionary act in itself, depending upon the individual.
More than 1 million Palestinians were displaced in 1948
Relive the journey of Nakba refugees
While the book is replete with anecdotes and in depth narratives from Palestinian writers, there is also a feeling that the audience is missing, or unidentified, due to the violence that suffocates Palestine. The implosion still festers, magnified by the knowledge that so many narratives have been gathered, while multitudes remain undocumented. Di Cintio’s book contributes towards exposing this paradox, forcing awareness in the reader of a Palestine beyond our limited imagination.