Yousef Aljamal discusses Omar X, a story about the death of his brother, featured in a collection of short stories by Gazan writers
YOUSEF ALJAMAL, WRITER, BLOGGER, AND TRANSLATOR: “Omar X”. The night was silent. The moon hid behind some summer clouds. His smile revealed his young age. His steps beat the ground slowly, looking for the path. The thump thump sound of a helicopter was getting closer, penetrating the peace of the crowded refugee camp his family had lived in since 1948, and the familiar noise of tanks rolling in violated the silence of the night and decreed that he would never sleep again.
He got into his cocky uniform hastily, grabbed his gun, and rubbing its dusty barrel he stormed out of the house. As he waited a little at the doorstep of their house to make sure no one was watching, his eyes wandered right and left and, finally, met the eyes of his best friend, who was murdered three months ago and is now immortalized in posters stuck on the walls of the camp. Those honey eyes of his best friend always brought him comfort. As the helicopter moved away for a while, silence prevailed again.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. That was Yousef Aljamal reading from his story “Omar X”. That story is included in a collection of short stories titled Gaza Writes Back: Short Stories from Young Writers in Gaza, Palestine. And Yousef now joins us in the studio.
Yousef Aljamal graduated from the Islamic University in Gaza in 2011. Aljamal is a blogger who’s committed to promoting the Palestinian narrative in the west through translation and has organized, participated in, and attended dozens of lectures and courses on translation and creative writing. He’s the cotranslator of The Prisoners Diaries: Palestinian Voices from the Israeli Gulag and contributor to Gaza Writes Back. Yousef is currently doing his MA in international relations at the University of Malaya in Malaysia.
Thanks for joining us.
ALJAMAL: Thank you for having me.
JAY: So this short story is about Omar, who–as one reads the story, one discovers that Omar is shot and dies in the course of these few pages. As you told me off-camera, Omar is not a fictional character. Omar was your brother.
In 2004, March 7, around 50 military vehicles, Israeli military vehicles, invaded our refugee camp, the Nuseirat Refugee Camp, and killed 14 Palestinians, including my oldest brother. He was trying to get inside an orange orchard, which was full of Israeli snipers. He didn’t know that. They shot at him, and he bled for four hours. Israeli snipers didn’t allow paramedics, who were very close to the site of the killing, to transfer him to the hospital, and as a result he passed away.
The following day, I rushed to the site of the killing with some of my friends and I found some of Omar’s belongings on the ground, including his cell phone. So when I checked the numbers he was trying to dial as he bled, the number of my parents’ land line came first. So Omar was trying to reach us, to reach the family, probably to say a last goodbye, but he couldn’t.
So this story is to immortalize him and to remember him through fiction.
Killing Omar was not the end of the story. Two years later, my mother delivered another baby boy and, as expected, named him after my oldest brother. So I ended up with two brothers named Omar. One is the youngest and one is the oldest, one who used to take care of me when I was young, and one who is now being looked after by me. So the story’s also about my youngest brother.
JAY: Why were the Israelis attacking the refugee camp that day?
ALJAMAL: This was in 2004, a year before they withdrew from the Gaza Strip. So every week, every two weeks, they would invade one of the refugee camps and kill ten, eight, 14 Palestinians and leave. And this was their habit–destroy houses and farmlands and leave and shoot as many Palestinians as they can.
JAY: In the story, Omar dons a kind of uniform and picks up a gun. There was some kind of defense force for the refugee camp?
ALJAMAL: Right. He was part of militants who used to guard the refugee camp at night to defend the refugee camp in case Israel invades the refugee camp. And that night, Israeli snipers penetrated into the refugee camp and occupied one of the buildings, and then military vehicles and helicopters followed. So he was trying to defend the refugee camp, and he was with two of his friends. One was killed with him and the other survived, and he told us the story.
JAY: So this is during the occupation of Gaza. You grew up under that occupation.
ALJAMAL: Right. I was born in 1989 in the Gaza Strip, and I have stayed my entire life in Nuseirat Refugee Camp. And I left Gaza six months ago for my education.
JAY: How many people lived in the camp, or do?
ALJAMAL: The camp is home for 85,000 Palestinians, nine square kilometers inhabited by 85,000 Palestinians. The refugee camp is very crowded.
I live in Block A. It used to be a British prison during the British Mandate of Palestine. And there is one way to get out of the block where we live. It’s very crowded. Streets are narrow. Electricity goes off sometimes ten, 12 hours a day. Ninety percent of Gaza water is unfit for human consumption. For a long time, especially after 2007, when the siege was imposed, people depended on tunnels, smuggling food into the Gaza Strip, because Israel would close most of the crossings connecting Gaza with present-day Israel.
The situation is miserable. Israel attacks Gaza every time [crosstalk]
JAY: But it’s worse now. Those tunnels have been mostly closed down by the Egyptians, haven’t they?
ALJAMAL: Yes. The Egyptian military closed, according to the UN, more than 80 percent of the tunnels. And so now people have very, very little to [afford].
JAY: How old was Omar when he died?
ALJAMAL: He was 18 years old.
JAY: How old were you?
ALJAMAL: I was 15.
JAY: And, as you describe, he was your best friend.
ALJAMAL: Yeah, he was.
JAY: Many young men have died that way in your camp.
ALJAMAL: Right. Hundreds of people, at least in Nuseirat Refugee Camp, were killed that way, shot by Israeli soldiers either at checkpoints when there were settlements in Gaza or when Israel would invade the refugee camps. But also many other people, thousands of people, civilians, also died by Israeli air strikes. And others were prevented from seeking medical attention by Israel, and they were denied permits and passed away as a result–since 2007, more than 500 Palestinians, including my oldest sister, who was 26 years old, who passed away because of the Israeli siege and lack of medication.
JAY: What happened? She was trying to get–to find care?
ALJAMAL: Right. She fell sick, and she was newly married, and she applied–she needed a minor surgery. Because of the siege, the equipment were not available in the Gaza Strip. So she applied to get a permit to travel to Jerusalem (and by the way, my mother is originally from the West Bank), and she was denied a permit by Israel. As a result, she passed away. She managed to travel to Egypt, but it was too late. She spent a week waiting for the Israeli permit, and then Israel decided to deny her a permit. And as a result, her health deteriorated, which led, later, to her death.
And this is applicable to all Palestinians who want to travel to the West Bank, patients and ordinary people. My mother is originally from the West Bank, and she was denied a permit to visit her family for 12 years. Her parents passed away in 2003 and 2008, and she was denied a permit to participate in the funeral procession. And her family lives just two-hour drive away from us, which is ridiculous.
JAY: It’s not that long ago that both your brother and your sister died. I’m not feeling from you a sense of fury. And I don’t know–is it–how deep beneath the surface is your anger at this?
ALJAMAL: Loss is loss everywhere. And I still feel angry and I still feel sorry, but I believe in writing as a way, the only way to reveal anger and to educate people around the world so that this tragedy stops, so that this doesn’t happen to my other brothers and probably children in the future, so that this doesn’t happen to my people, to my friends back home.
JAY: How do you see the future unfolding? And what role do you think artists can play in this?
ALJAMAL: The Gaza Strip and the West Bank are the two remaining paths of historical Palestine. And if we look at the West Bank, now Israel is confiscating more lands. And if we look at Gaza, Gaza is under Israeli–tightened Israeli siege. Israel is going on with its settlement construction in the West Bank. The West Bank and Gaza are divided geographically, in the first place, by Israel, which had brought about the political division.
I think the only way out is to impose a comprehensive boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel as an occupying power to force it to end its siege and military occupation and allow Palestinian refugees to go back to their homes. I don’t think that the two-state solution is applicable now, given the facts on the grounds, the wall in the West Bank, the almost 500 checkpoints, half a million of settlers, and increasing land theft and natural resources by Israel. This is impossible. The two-state solution is dead, and the only way out is one-state solution imposed by the international community.
JAY: That is a long and difficult, tortuous path, in the sense that the international community–and I put quotation marks around that–is the United States and its allies primarily, and right now they don’t seem inclined to do anything to push Israel in any direction.
ALJAMAL: This is very true. This happened in South Africa, and the United States and Israel supported the apartheid regime until the very end.
JAY: And this is even more strategic for U.S. interests.
ALJAMAL: That’s right, keeping in mind that the U.S. interests in the Middle East and Israel being the closest U.S. ally in the Middle East. But I think if this has to come, it will come from the grassroots level.
JAY: I’ve been in the West Bank, I’ve been in Ramallah, and I was in Israel a couple of years ago, and one thing that struck me–and I hadn’t been–I’d been to Israel maybe ten years or so before that–the right shift in public opinion in Israel, the overt level of racism in the discourse, just in a day-to-day way. You could hear people say things against Palestinians that you wouldn’t even hear in the American South now about African Americans, the level of overt racism. But there is a section of Israeli public opinion that, it seems to me, may not have to be so consolidated in such a right-wing position.
What I’m getting at is: do you see any role for Palestinian artists–writers, particularly–to try to speak to Israeli Jews and kind of humanize all this? Because right now it’s–the dehumanization of Palestinians in Israeli culture is hard to grasp, how far that’s gone.
ALJAMAL: I think Palestinian writers, academics, artists play an important role. And the last few years, and especially with this book, Gaza Writes Back, I think Palestinians are doing more and more to speak to all people all over the world about the plight of Palestinians, including Israelis.
JAY: Yeah, but the way you phrase it is kind of what I’m getting at–“including Israelis.” But I mean really try to talk to Israelis, not at the level of the state, but people to people, to try to humanize the Palestinian voice, ’cause, you know, to the extent that one could get it to Israelis (but I think one could), that seemed to be missing, from what I could see.
ALJAMAL: Some of the stories in the book try to get into the psyche of Israeli soldiers, to get into their beds, bedrooms, and kitchens, and houses. This book is to educate all people, including Israelis. And for a long time, Palestinians have been talking to Israelis and Israeli officials, since I was born, and this didn’t bring about any tangible solution. We are ready to work with all people, including Israelis, if this path will lead to justice and equal rights, because nowadays Israel uses these programs, bringing Palestinians and Israelis together, and at the same time, nothing is going on on the ground–more, you know, land confiscation, checkpoints, killings, imprisonment. So if we come to agree on a common ground, Palestinians and Israelis, and especially Israelis, if they recognize Palestinians’ rights to return to their homes in 1948 in what is today Israel and give equal rights to all Palestinians, then Palestinians will have no problem talking to the Israelis.
JAY: Okay. Thanks very much for joining us.
ALJAMAL: You’re welcome.
JAY: So, once again, the book is Gaza Writes Back: Short Stories from Young Writers in Gaza, Palestine. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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