Gazan Women: Resilient and Innovative
“[I want] readers to understand Gaza and its people, women included, in a different light: not as victims of unspeakable tragedy or beggars awaiting the next aid convoy, but as human beings who are resilient and innovative despite the extreme circumstances they live under…”
Connection Point Director Yasmina Mrabet interviewed Palestinian author Laila El-Haddad about her experiences, perspectives, and work as a writer and media activist. Her responses are below.
Can you tell us a little about your personal background and experience as a Palestinian woman living in the United States, and how your experiences have influenced your work as a writer and media activist?
I was born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents who both spent their long careers working and saving to put us through college, since we do not have the luxury of attending national universities as many other people do. I spent much of my childhood in Saudi Arabia, while summering in Gaza, eventually traveling to the United States for college. But we were always stateless, without any citizenship except our Palestinian travel documents, so we understand very early on that this made us vulnerable, especially in times of crisis like the Gulf War, during which time I was present in Dhahran.
Traveling between these two universes, and navigating my various identities and worlds, definitely shaped my work, for I never felt I belonged to any one place, but I also learned this could be an asset: It helped me attain a broader understanding of the subjects I was dealing with, and made me more approachable. This asset was particularly useful in my work as a media activist, enabling me to bridge the gaps between my Western and non-Western audiences, and in my writing, helping me convey the Palestinian narrative to a Western audience. Of course being in the United States, I can add to the dimensions of identity that of being a visibly Muslim woman as well, not just a Palestinian. So in a way, I guess you can say I convey multiple narratives at once!
Your latest book is called Gaza Mom: Palestine, Politics, Parenting, and Everything in Between. What issues do you address in this book, and what are some of the main messages you wanted to get across?
Gaza Mom, my first book, is a compilation of my daily experiences as laid out in my blog (Gaza Mom, originally called Raising Yousuf: diary of a Palestinian mother) and other work, over the course of 5 years from 2005 until 2010. The blog on which the book is based came about by happenstance: I started writing it in late 2004, mainly to keep my husband, a Palestinian medical student who was studying in the United States at the time, abreast of my son Yousuf’s developments. (He was nine months old then.) It gradually morphed into the story of how, for Palestinians, the personal is violated and immersed with and often overtaken by the political . During this time period I was working in Gaza as a journalist while my husband Yassine remained behind in the U.S. Being a Palestinian refugee, it was not possible for him to come visit us in Gaza. So my son and I would journey back and forth between Gaza and the United States every few months.
On one such journey back to Gaza, which we have to make by flying into Cairo then traveling 5 hours by land to the Rafah Crossing, we learned that the crossing had been shut down indefinitely, as it would be for many times to come in the future. We ended up stranded in Cairo for nearly 55 days, during which I struggled to convey this experience to non-Palestinian friends: that of always being stranded, figuratively or literally, of always awaiting something, whether it’s a border to open or a visa to be issued, of constant vulnerability. This became one of the objectives of the blog, and ultimately, the book: to share a Palestinian narrative, thereby humanizing the Palestinian situation, by explaining how these seemingly routine, ordinary, and quiet moments like being stuck on a border crossing form a part of the quintessential Palestinian experience – being stranded by the border for days and sometimes weeks at a time with my young son; attempting to obtain a travel permit to the West Bank; or awaiting a family-unification approval for my husband. (Right now, Israel bans Palestinian spouses who lack residency papers from traveling to or living with their families in Palestine.)
In short, the book attempts to give you a personal understanding of the impact of Israeli’s occupation policies, and what it is to be Palestinian today, with some humor along the way. It is also a window into Gaza during some of its most turbulent years – the second intifada, the Disengagement, the elections, the onset of the siege – but also into the violated but resilient lives we live as Palestinians. It is a story about mothering, homeland, identity, war and survival.
What do you see as some of the biggest challenges facing Palestinian women today, either in the Diaspora or in Gaza, or both? What do you see as the biggest opportunities?
In addition to challenges facing Arab women in general, and Palestinians as a whole, be it statelessness, access to social suport mechanisms, and so on, Palestinian women face their own unique challenges. They face an enormous burden in terms of not only raising their families, but rehabilitating those families in the aftermath of Israeli assaults like Cast Lead and the ongoing blockade. This responsibility is only heightened when one considers the alarming number of Palestinian men in Israeli prison (or who have been in Israeli prison)-something like 1 in 5. Children are missing their role models and turn to their mothers. Palestinian women are also increasingly becoming the breadwinners in their families-in fact more and more men are specifically looking to marry working women because they can provide a steady and regular salary, where male unemployment rates have otherwise skyrocketed. So the women are (as women usually do!) taking on multiple roles and responsibilities, but under a situation of extreme psychological and physicial stress-and few people stop to ask how they are handling it or what support they might need.
There is also a great thirst these days for an authentic telling of the Palestinian narrative but the story-tellers are sorely lacking. Women’s voices are in particular absent, and are seldom represented at all, though they often have the most personal stories to tell. Sometimes it’s due to a combination of factors, cultural, social or political, whether it’s feeling we don’t have a right to speak on behalf of Palestinians, or maybe we shouldn’t be, or whether our stories are silenced by political or media establishments, or we are too busy doing other things – raising families, etc. But there is definitely a huge window of opportunity now following the Arab Spring, with rising awareness about the Arab world and its people, for Palestinian women to rise up to the challenge and own their narratives and tell their stories, and for authors and writers and activists to give them the tools necessary to empower them to tell these narratives. Another great opportunity is Palestinian women’s access to education. They rank among the most literate in the Arab world. But how do we convert this education into further opportunity, be it career or entrepreneurship? This is where I see some barriers.
What about your next book, which I understand you are co-authoring with writer Maggie Schmitt: The Gaza Kitchen: Recipes and Stories from the Gaza Strip. What is the inspiration for this book?
Yes, that’s right. Actually the new title is The Gaza Kitchen: a Palestinian Culinary Journey (because it was important for us to make sure the reader understand Gaza as being an inseparable part of Palestine as a whole). I’ve always been fascinated by the Palestinian culinary universe and what it revealed about our history as a people, where this history has otherwise been disparaged or destroyed. But in all written or oral accounts of Palestinian cuisine, what little there was of it, Gazan food was often absent, despite the fact that it has some of the most interesting combinations of ingredients in the country. So I always wanted to explore why this was the case and what we could learn, as a result, about the history of the area, in particular of the hundreds of destroyed and depopulated villages whose inhabitants fled to Gaza in 1948, bringing their food and customs with them.
My desires converged with those of writer Maggie Schmitt, who approached me in 2009 after visiting Gaza with an interest in writing about the food of the area. We spent three months in Gaza in 2010, seeking conversations about cooking and eating, because we intuited that this would allow us to tell the story of the place in a very special way. We visited cooks – mostly women – of all different regions and social classes, prepared meals together, and listened to their stories. The conversations that take place in the kitchen are different from conversations anywhere else: more intimate, more leisurely. These conversations, and the recipes we learned in them, form the backbone of this book. One of the goals of this project is to give readers some sense of what households, families, and daily activities look like in Gaza, simply in order to recognize the humanity of those lives, for Gazans are consistently shown either as hapless objects of pity or vicious objects of fear, seldom as singular lives in a complex environment. The near-complete closure of the Strip has succeeded in isolating Gazans, making it difficult to correct this misrepresentation. As for Gazan women, they’re seldom represented at all, and their daily struggles to keep their families fed, clothed, healthy, and educated are almost entirely invisible from outside.
This book is a hybrid of sorts. It is mostly a cookbook, which recovers and compiles both traditional and contemporary elements of a rich and little-known cuisine. But it also attempts to do a little ethnography, a little history, a little political analysis. Cuisine always lies somewhere at the intersection of geography, history, and the economy. What makes it such a compelling subject is that it serves as a cultural record of daily life for ordinary people, traces of a history from below made palpable in something as evocative and delicious as a plate of food. Our hope in this book is to share this food with you and in so doing, something of the indefatigable spirit of the people we interviewed.
If there was one thing you could highlight to the world about Palestinian women, especially those in or from occupied Gaza, what would it be?
To have people understand Gaza and its people, women included, in a different light: not as a victims of unspeakable tragedy or beggars awaiting the next aid convoy, but as human beings who are resilient and innovative despite the extreme circumstances they live under; as human beings who desire basic freedoms and opportunities to live and prosper and develop, not simply food. This is perhaps the biggest misconception about Gaza: that it is a war-stricken place teeming with poverty and hunger. And while economic indicators are startling, thinking of Gaza in this manner does its people a disservice because it tends to dehumanize them. As I stated above, Gazans are consistently shown either as objects of pity or of fear, seldom as singular lives in a complex environment. But Gazan women and men alike do not want outsider pity. They want their freedoms, and what we on the outside can do to facilitate that. Despite our best intentions, sending food is not always the right thing. Readers might then wonder, what is it we can do to help? I would advise them to partake in the now-global BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement, in order to put pressure on Israel and hold it accountable for its actions. Already it has proven very effective from Europe.
Laila El-Haddad’s books are both available for purchase internationally at Just World Books.
Follow Laila El-Haddad on Twitter (@gazamom)
Follow Peace X Peace on Twitter (@PeaceXPeace)
Follow Connection Point on Twitter (@Connection_Pt)
The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.