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Book Review: Letters to Palestine: Writers Respond to War and Occupation (edited by Vijay Prashad)

Letters to Palestine cover - Vijay Prashad - banner

Gaza, 2014. Following the kidnap and murder of three Israeli youths, the IDF embarked on a seven week campaign against Gaza. In that time, over 2,000 Gazans were killed, most of them civilians and most of them children, while tens of thousands were injured. Hospitals, schools and houses were demolished and half a million Gazans were displaced.

The Gazan conflict divided people like no other conflict. Across social media, timelines were filled with people trying to draw attention to the devastation and destruction in Gaza while pro-Zionists asked what else they could do in the face of continuing Hamas aggression. 

With access to Gaza notoriously controlled and restricted, there was limited reporting on the ground, scant consideration of everyday Palestinians who were living in a state of terror. 

Edited by Vijay Prashad and featuring a host of writers, poets, essayists and activists, Letters to Palestine: Writers Respond to War and Occupation attempts to give a human face to that struggle. 

Reading this collection with a desire to learn more about the conflict from a Palestinian point of view, one might expect little more than anti-Israeli propaganda and rhetoric. Letters to Palestine is nothing of the sort. It is an earnest collection of essays, poems and diary excerpts that seeks to understand both the conflict and history of Palestine. 

In his essay 'Bad Laws', Teju Cole talks about how what he terms 'cold violence' is exacted through a series of laws, by-laws and regulations that are all perfectly legal under Israeli law. Based as they are in restrictions on freedom and movement, he notes that these laws are in contravention with international standards and conventions. He mentions Sheikh Jarrah where Palestinians are slowly losing their permanent residency in East Jerusalem, where the right of return applies to Jews in East Jerusalem but not Palestinians. 

"The historical suffering of Jewish people is real, but is no less real than, and does not in any way justify, the present oppression of Palestinians by Israeli Jews" – Teju Cole, ‘Bad Laws’, Letters to Palestine

In an excerpt from her 'Travel Diary' Noura Erakat begins by describing her anger and anti-Israeli sentiment but over the course of her journey to Palestine begins to develop a more nuanced position. She brings up the subject of privileged Palestinians, those who have done very well out of occupation and observes that not all Palestinians are good-hearted, not all Israelis 'evil'. While capturing the atmosphere in Palestine during her visit, Erakat mentions the work of Zochrot, an Israeli non-profit organisation whose aim is to raise awareness of the Palestinian Nakba and of New Profit who work towards the demilitarisation of Israel. Spanning over eleven days in May 2013, the diaries give a unique snapshot of a moment in Palestinian time.

"Israeli settler colonialism, apartheid and occupation should not cease because Palestinians are good and Israelis are bad"- Noura Erakat, ‘Travel Diary’, Letters to Palestine

Nalja Said shares her 'Diary of a Gaza War, 2014' as a Palestinian living in America during the conflict. Intimate and painfully honest, Said's entries show her worry and despair for her loved ones in Gaza. 

"If you think that Palestinians all hate Jews and are rejoicing in the deaths of those three boys (Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer, Eyal Yifrah), then you are a racist. That's all I have to say. As my dad used to say, ‘No one has a monopoly on suffering’" – Nalja Said, 'Diary of a Gaza War, 2014', Letters to Palestine

"The boy who was killed was a cousin of my dear friends... You who are reading this are now two degrees from the murdered Palestinian - a child killed in revenge" – Nalja Said, 'Diary of a Gaza War, 2014', Letters to Palestine

In 'Below Zero: In Gaza Before the Latest War', Ben Ehrenreich reminds us of the appalling conditions of loss, devastation, poverty and wretchedness in Gaza even before the war. 

Interspersed throughout the collection is a series of heart-breaking, eye-opening poetry. Poems tell of Kafkaesque experiences of denied entry and the soul-destroying set up of the checkpoints. Notable entries include 'Until It Isn't' by Remi Kanazi, 'Afterwords' by Sinan Antoon and 'Running Orders' by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha. 

"Prove you're human/ prove you stand on two legs/ Run" - Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, 'Running Orders', Letters to Palestine

The last part of the collection is dedicated to an examination of the Palestinian liberation movement in America and its links to the civil rights movement. For the most part, this was too US-centric to be of specific interest to foreign readers but there were some interesting parallels to be drawn to the South African and worldwide anti-Apartheid movement. 

In 'Yes, I Said, "National Liberation"', Robin D G Kelly notes the intersection with Black rights and Ferguson, how the black civil rights movement moved from supporting Israel to recognising the injustices there. 

It would be impossible to capture the scope of this collection here.  Vijay Prashad has done an excellent job in curating a collection of short, powerful pieces that is each powerful in its own right. I would highly recommend this collection to anyone seeking to know more about the situation in Gaza both before and during the conflict last year.

Letters to Palestine: Writers Respond to War and Occupation is published by Verso Books who currently have a sale of 40% off on paperbacks and 50% off on eBooks. The book is also available to purchase from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

Film Review: Regarding Susan Sontag (2014)

Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag was iconic but she was an icon who warned against the entitlement of the observer and the assumption of a right to observe. She was renowned for being brilliant yet confoundingly difficult. One of the most influential writers of the 20th century, Sontag refused to be pigeon-holed as a female or feminist writer. 

Directed by Nancy Kates, Regarding Susan Sontag tells the story of Susan's life from her childhood to her last days and death from cancer. The film received the Special Jury Mention for Best Documentary Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2014 and was nominated for Documentary of the Year at the 2015 Dorian Awards. 

Regarding Susan Sontag posterRegarding Susan Sontag is first and foremost a biography. It is a film about Susan Sontag, not about her works. Director Kates remarks that it would be impossible to attempt a critique of Susan's writings through the medium of film but the truth is you can only gain an intense familiarity with a body of printed works by actually reading it. 

In a viewing at the Frontline Club in London, the question was asked of Kates why she chose to focus so closely on Sontag's sexuality to the detriment of her works. I think it is rather a question of why the Frontline Club chose to screen the documentary - in a meeting of journalists regarding a woman who commented so poignantly on the role of the media and photography, it was only to be expected that viewers would want a greater insight into Susan's thoughts. The film does not provide an in depth critique of Susan’s thoughts and opinions nor does it delve too deeply into her major works. 

Nevertheless, the film does not focus only on Sontag's sexuality and the film made use of an impressive series of montages and techniques to blend together archive photography, film footage and interviews with voice overs from Patricia Clarkson who narrated Susan's diaries. 

Nancy Kates remarks that Susan's own son David Rieff wanted nothing to do with the documentary and all footage of him in the documentary was archive footage. It is hardly surprising given that Susan chose not to inform her direct family of the terminal nature of her illness. Once he made his decision, Kates had to consider whether to carry on with the film at all. She decided to go ahead on the basis that there was no shortage of archive footage of Susan and her papers and diaries were released into the public domain after her death. 

When I went to see the film, I anticipated an insight into Sontag's works and the situations she wrote about but I didn't demand it. Regarding Susan Sontag made want to be a better me, a better activist but it also reminded me not to make the same mistakes that she did, to connect with people and to dive right in to human relationships. It demystified the icon for me and reminded me that while talented, Susan Sontag was fallible and human. The film certainly made me want to go out and read all her works in one sleepless, caffeine-fuelled sitting. 

Would I recommend Regarding Susan Sontag? Absolutely. From a film-making point of view, the documentary is superb in its use of archive footage and montage techniques. The narration of Susan’s diaries provides an insight into what she was thinking and feeling in a way that she never publicly revealed during her lifetime.  I would recommend the film for people interested in the human being behind the brilliant public facade but do feel that viewers seeking to connect to Susan on a critical, intellectual level might be left feeling a little disappointed.

Theatre: Guillem Clua's Skin in Flames at the Park Theatre, London

Skin In Flames

Last night we caught the final performance of Guillem Clua’s Skin in Flames at the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park. We sat in the smaller Park 90, an intimate setting with seats on three sides of a tiny stage. On the stage, two parallel stories play out in a hotel room in a post-conflict society.

In the first, a local reporter interviews a foreign photojournalist who is in the country to receive a peace award. Twenty years earlier, in the depths of the conflict, he took the photo that would launch his career. It is of a young schoolgirl flying through the air after a bomb explosion, her body engulfed in flames. Photojournalist Frederick Salomon (Almiro Andrade) never did find out the girl’s name but then again, neither did he stop to find out whether she had lived or not. As the conversation continues, the audience gets the unsettling feeling that reporter Hanna (Bea Segura) knows more about the incident than was reported in the papers.

In the next room, a young mother meets with a UN doctor to enquire about the health of her child. With her child desperately ill and in need of medication, it emerges that the mother has been trading sexual favours with Dr Brown (David Lee-Jones) for months to secure the necessary medication for her child. Not happy with with how the events of the day have played out, the doctor steps up his manipulation of Ida (Laya Martí) and subjects her to the ultimate betrayal.

Skin in Flames is harrowing yet excellent. Catalan playwright Guillem Clua wrote the play La Pell en Flames in 2004 and the English version of the play has been performed across America before making its UK première during this run at the Park Theatre. The most notable achievement of the play is Clua’s use of one physical space to bring together several overlapping stories. Ultimately we learn that it is just one one story that began during the bloody conflict twenty years earlier and continues to this day.

Laya Marti (Skin in Flames)

The cast of Skin in Flames was superb. It was quite something to watch four people occupying the same small space, telling two, three stories at once and somehow managing to deliver one powerful, coherent message.  Spanish actress Laya Martí was superb as Ida and her reading of the child’s tale of the pig and the snake will haunt me for some time (as will the unspeakable horrors which happen on and off the stage). Likewise, David Lee-Jones was so convincing in his portrayal of the manipulative doctor that I felt quite physically revolted at times and could not bear to look at him.

Bea Segura (Skin in Flames)

It was fellow Spaniard Bea Segura that held the cast together in her role as Hanna, taking the story deeper and deeper into the murky past of the country’s civil war and the terrible events of that day. Finally, Almiro Andrade was utterly convincing in his role as Frederick Salomon, a sad figure who has made a living out of telling himself he did enough that day, he told the world what happened and that was enough.

David Lee Jones and Almiro Andrade (Skin in Flames)

I’m almost sad that I only saw this play on the last night. My friend Liz was so impressed with it that she came to see it again with us last night and I can see that I might have been tempted to see it again too. You can read Liz’s review at London Theatre 1. I would highly recommend that you see the play if ever it is on at a theatre near you.

Photo Credits: Andrew H Williams


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