For Books’ Sake Talks To: Bidisha (Part 1)

11th Jun 2012


In the first instalment of a three-part interview, our Cariad Martin talks to Bidisha about her latest book:

Beyond The Wall: Writing A Path Through Palestine is the latest provocative offering from writer and feminist critic, Bidisha. Written during her visit to the West Bank in 2011, Bidisha admits that on beginning the journey she had no intention of writing a book at all.

She took notes hoping for material for a short newspaper piece, or perhaps a pitch for a TV or radio documentary, but immediately realised she wanted to do more. She explains; “what I was observing and experiencing was so vivid, the place so interesting and its circumstances so unique, I was compelled to write about it”.

The project became an extended piece of reportage, documenting “not only the specifics of the region… but also universal themes of occupation, control, the military mindset, political and cultural resistance, borders and policing and the psychological effects of occupation both on perpetrators and survivors”.

Bidisha is understanding of my admission that I was initially quite intimidated by the premise of Beyond The Wall. She acknowledges that discussion around this issue is volatile, and often ends up with extreme voices on both sides “dominating, polarizing, derailing or degrading the debate”.

For those that, like myself, have often stood on the sidelines as discussions on this piece of political history grows ever heated and complex, Beyond The Wall is the straight-talking voice of calm.

Bidisha felt that on a subject where people are mostly informed by short news reports and long academic books, there was a gap in the market for a book of “lightening fast reportage that wears its background lightly”. She believes the book has been successful precisely because it is  “short, immediate, accessible and [presupposes] no deep prior knowledge”.

The approachability of this book comes from a combination of Bidisha’s vivid and concise literary style and her commitment to straight reporting. Her love of “polished, poised writing” comes through absolutely, although she notes that this was a time-consuming process.

She explains; “I could feel the book’s language, tone and structure coming together very tightly while I was there… but it took the whole of the following summer to write and edit it”.

Straight reporting is an extremely effective tool in this instance, and Bidisha’s hope that “the scenes would speak for themselves” has certainly been achieved. The events described are brief but evocative, a result of the idea that “conversations and details crystallise when you’re away from the action”.

Given that the intention was to provide an honest and intimate account of Palestinian life, it was important to Bidisha that she not remain part of “a bubble of outsiders looking in.”

She was acutely aware of “the colonial act of strolling into a country, interpreting it any way you wish and then confusing your interpretation, generalisation, prejudices, platitudes and assumptions with the actual truth,” and therefore sought to speak to people beyond the immediate circle of journalists, international activists and aid workers.

Although they made every effort to reach citizens beyond the “internationalised, English-speaking, middle class… activists and artists”, Bidisha is quick to admit that to gain a true insight would involve “learning decent Arabic, staying in Palestine for a long period of deep immersion and talking to those people in a culture who are not so privileged”.

The mere act of travelling around the area and gaining access to locals was one of the most demanding challenges. The women in particular were frequently harassed, but when asked if she would have done anything differently to make the journey easier, Bidisha responds firmly; “to imply that doing things differently would result in a different outcome is to blame the victim”. She goes on, “what the military do, what sexual harassers do, is their choice, their delight, their fault and their responsibility.”

The importance of responsible journalism is a subject close to Bidisha’s heart, and this was reflected in the recent event held in London to celebrate the book’s publication. She was keen to avoid the typical book launch party, complete with “warm vinegar wine, wilting Doritos in a plastic bowl, a drunken speech which nobody can hear… unflattering lighting and nowhere to sit,” instead opting for a panel discussion with three hand-picked female experts.

The aim of the discussion was to take issues touched on in the book and “apply them to a broader discussion about war reportage, international relations and journalistic responsibility.”

It was particularly important to Bidisha to have an all-female panel, noting that in most circumstances these women are invited as the token female in a male-dominated discussion, justified with the myth that there are not enough women in the field.

The evening consisted of a ninety-minute discussion covering “everything from Azerbaijani and Iranian society to the digital revolution to army corruption and torture”. The guest speakers were novelist, economist and academic Nitasha Kaul, producer, journalist and former soldier Rosie Garthwaite, and journalist and foreign correspondent Amy Blundy.

Between them the women spoke about 12 different languages and had expertise in the Middle and Far East, Russia, Iraq, Kashmir, India and Bhutan. Bidisha explains that the event was particularly poignant as it followed the memorial of war reporter Marie Colvin, which Amy Blundy attended. Similar events are scheduled in London and further afield over the next few months.

Despite the difficulty of reporting in the Middle East, particularly for women (reference is made in the book to the detainment of Alice Walker), Bidisha is optimistic, and encouraging of any journalists or writers considering the journey. Her advice; “memorize what happens, don’t stay silent, laugh at the pathetic power-plays of the perpetrators and write about it unapologetically.”

Cariad Martin