For Books’ Sake Talks To: Bidisha (Part 3)

13th Jun 2012


Our Cariad Martin talked to Bidisha in a three-part interview. If you haven’t read them yet, investigate parts one and two first.

One of the primary intentions of the journey writer and critic, Bidisha, took to the West Bank in 2011, was to encourage Palestinians to tell their own story. Many of these stories are depicted in vivid and interesting detail in Bidisha’s reportage book documenting the trip, Beyond The Wall: Finding A Path Through Palestine, but as the book is quick to acknowledge, it is not as simple as just putting pen to paper.

When questioned about the idea of oppression generating great works, Bidisha admits “I’m not particularly on the side of ‘great art’… when it comes to oppression and resistance, I’m very biased towards non-fiction, reportage, testimony, witness, research and documentary”.

She considers these by far the most powerful tools, and points to instances in the past where these materials have been influential in, for example, the formulation of international human rights laws.

She does not brush aside the idea that creativity can thrive in controlled and restricted circumstances, but is keen to draw attention to creativity not just in art and literature, but also in acts such as organizing events, protests and demonstrations “often at great risk of trouble”.

For many, there are far too few original works coming out of Palestine at the moment. In particular, they criticize the fact that there is “no body of work which could be called ‘Palestinian literature’”. However, there are many obstacles preventing the works of ordinary Palestinians reaching an international audience, not least the daily reality of living under occupation. 

At a group talk in Nazareth featured in the book, one of the speakers argued; “the maintenance of a cultural heritage can hardly be expected to be kept as a priority alongside the daily struggles we go through: the violence, the harassment, the survival, the occupation.” As Bidisha sharply summarises; “art falls down a bit when there’s a gun in your face”.

Another significant obstacle is the lack of translated works. Beyond The Wall briefly notes the problem of an “unwillingness of Western readers to read literature in translation”, which sadly accounts for just 2% of what is published in the UK. On top of this there is a difficultly in translating Arabic to English with all nuances in tact.

Bidisha states that a rise in Arabic-to-English literature requires “champions, a few well-publicized hits and the support of publishers, bookshops and newspapers.” The work itself would require translators “whose nimbleness in both languages is exquisite”.

Bidisha is optimistic that investment in this area may increase, despite the fact that traditionally most successful fiction and non-fiction on international issues is usually written in English. She argues; “The Arab Spring, with the West’s concomitant interest in all things Arabic, is leading to a broadening of interest not only in Middle Eastern politics but also in Middle Eastern history, society and culture”.

Even if the stories of Palestinians were more widely published, there is no guarantee that a lack of understanding from Western readers would not hinder their popularity. Bidisha solemnly acknowledges “it is difficult to understand a war zone, an area of need or conflict, a natural disaster or occupied territory unless you’ve been there”.

In Beyond The Wall, Bidisha describes how, at a meeting in Ramallah, a Dutch woman stood up and unhelpfully declared that “the occupation would succeed, the army would win, the resistance movement would be defeated [and] fighting back was futile”. She was immediately rebuked by another audience member, who passionately responded; “What are you saying? That this is all pointless? We will succeed – we have been succeeding. Either you die silently or you die fighting.”

She described the Dutch woman’s comments as an example of colonial arrogance, to attend an event “in a culture and country which is not your own and [give] it a death-prognosis, while completely undermining the strength of the Palestinian resistance movement”.

This lack of understanding is not helped by newspapers, TV and radio outlets, who are fickle in their coverage of conflict, and tend to move on to the next area which is “in fashion”.

However, Bidisha argues that this is where “longer-term journalistic work and homegrown reports, citizen activists, bloggers, and investigative reporters” come in.

Bidisha admits that she is “cynical” about a lot of online activism but recognises that the Internet has been instrumental “in demonstrating the intelligence and power of writers within their own countries in testifying, analyzing, reporting, whistleblowing and bearing witness across the medium and long term”.

It has created significant change in the consumption of information, and means that audiences are no longer relying on “often rushed and sometimes shallow news reports from CNN, the BBC, Al-Jazeera or whoever”.

Unfortunately, whether from international news outlets or from the Palestinian people themselves, audiences are not always receptive to the information put in front of them. Bidisha refers to the words of one of the dedicated activists she met on her journey; “it’s getting people to believe it that’s the problem.”

Bidisha acknowledges the unfortunate truth that many people “have a hard time looking at and accepting the often terrible evidence put in front of their faces… They prefer to turn a blind eye or to live in denial simply because the reality of cruelty, abuse, oppression and inequality are so awful.”

If you are not one of those people, and would like to stay well-informed about the reality of the daily struggles of Palestinian people, you can purchase Beyond The Wall, or one of the other titles written by Palestinians that Bidisha has kindly recommended: Nathalie Handal, Raja Shehadeh, Suad Amiry, Ghada Karmi, John McCarthy, Karma Nabulsi, Susan Abulhawa and Selma Dabbagh.

Cariad Martin