“In the face of life and what it holds, writing can appear as a lost cause. Or this is how it seemed at least at 8.29 am, mid-July, 2014,” the Palestinian author Adania Shibli wrote in June 2022, recalling the moment she got a warning call from the Israeli Defense Forces. In an essay titled “On Learning How to Write Again,” Shibli contemplates the futility of words while the Israeli army dropped bombs over Ramallah, concluding, “In the face of the banality of this wretchedness, the vocation of writing seems, once again, to be like that of a streetlamp lighter, a vocation that has no place in our world of today.” This feeling led her to “abandon” writing from time to time, and teach at Birzeit University, in Palestine.
Another teacher and writer, the literature professor Refaat Alareer, spoke from the opposite end of this argument about the limits of writing. In his introduction to the collection Gaza Writes Back—half of whose entries were fiction by his students that addressed the aftermath of Israel’s 2008 attack on Gaza—he wrote, “Even when the character is dying, his/her ultimate wish is for others to ‘to tell [the] story,’ as Hamlet put it. And telling the story thereby itself becomes an act of life.”
Alareer’s words read grimly prescient today. An Israeli airstrike on his sister’s home killed him on 6 December 2023. Since then, a poem he had recently posted has been furiously translated into several languages. It ends, “If I must die, let it bring hope, let it be a tale.” But this outpouring of global solidarity occurred while his body continued to lie under the rubble.