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Fly a Kite for Refaat Alareer

Issue 287

We remember and share the words of the beloved Gazan poet and educator.

Amba Guerguerian May 16

On Dec. 6, an Israeli airstrike on a family home in northern Gaza killed Refaat Alareer, his brother, sister and her four children. 

In an Oct. 9 video, Alareer said to the camera in tears as bombs made loud explosions in the background, “You don’t know if this is it. We don’t deserve this. I am an academic. Probably the toughest thing I have at home is an Expo marker. But if the Israelis invade,” he warned, “I’m going to use that marker to throw it at the Israeli soldiers even if that is the last thing I will be able to do. And this is the feeling of everybody: We are helpless. We have nothing to lose.”

Alareer was a beloved Palestinian writer, professor and activist. A public critic of Israel’s occupation of Palestine, he worked with young writers to foster textured and nuanced literature from Gaza.

‘This is the feeling of everybody: We are helpless. We have nothing to lose.’

According to Geneva-based human rights organization ­Euro-Med Monitor, the apartment Alareer and his family were in on Dec. 6, which belonged to his sister, “was surgically bombed out of the entire building where it’s located.”

Israel has destroyed every university in the Gaza Strip and as of Jan. 20 had killed at least 94 professors. “Many of their ideas served as cornerstones of academic research in the Gaza Strip’s universities,” writes Euro-Med

“Nothing happens by accident,” an Israeli intelligence source told +972 Magazine in November. “When a three-year-old girl is killed in a home in Gaza, it’s because someone in the army decided it wasn’t a big deal for her to be killed … We are not Hamas. These are not random rockets. Everything is intentional. We know exactly how much collateral damage there is in every home.” 

On Feb. 26, Alareer’s daughter Shymaa, her husband ­Muhammad Abd al-Aziz Siyam and their three-month-old son Abd al-Rahman were killed by Israel in Gaza City. The Electronic Intifada reported they were the only people at the international relief charity Global ­Communities building when it was airstruck, the other occupants having vacated a few days prior. 

Shortly after the birth of her son, Shymaa posted a message ­addressed to her father on social media:

I have beautiful news for you, and I wish I could tell you while you were in front of me, handing you your first grandchild. Did you know that you have become a grandfather? … This is your grandson Abd al-Rahman, who I always imagined you holding. But I never imagined I would lose you so early, even before you saw him.

A poem Alareer wrote for Shymaa in 2011 when she was a child has been translated into dozens of languages and seen written on subway platforms and protest signs around the world lately: 

If I Must Die

If I must die, you must live
To tell my story, to sell my things
To buy a piece of cloth and some strings,
(Make it white with a long tail)
So that a child, somewhere in Gaza
While looking heaven in the eye,
Making it blush under his gaze,
Awaiting his Dad who left in a blaze—
And bid no one farewell
Not even to his flesh, not even to himself—
Sees the kite, my kite you made, flying up above
And thinks for a moment an angel is there
Bringing back love.
If I must die, let it bring hope.
Let it be a tale.

In the following excerpt from Gaza Writes Back: Short Stories from Young Writers in Gaza, Palestine, a compilation edited by Alareer in 2014, he writes that during the time of Israel’s offensive 2008–09 Operation Cast Lead, he discovered that “if ­Israel’s apartheid has to be fought, Israel’s narratives have to be challenged, and exposed.” ­Alareer continues:

“Refaat and I loved strawberries. We used to go to Beit Lahia in North Gaza, pick strawberries, then sit and eat. He would not forget to bring a lot of strawberries for his mother and wife and children,” writes poet Mosab Abu Toha, a dear friend of Refaat Alareer.The last time I heard Refaat’s voice on the phone was on November 27 … He told me about his car, that it was damaged. We used to go in that car to the restaurants and ice cream shops, as well as to the strawberry farms. … But now there is no car, no restaurants, no ice cream shops, no strawberry farms, no Refaat.”

It was then that I realized much of my mother’s wisdom. For years, she told me and my siblings many stories. I gave my mother a grumpy how-many-more-times-are-you-going-to-tell-this-same-story face as she retold the same story, again and again. In response, my Mother, who gave birth to fourteen of us—eight boys and six girls, me being the second eldest—started experimenting with the stories, not only by adding new interesting details, but also by zooming in and out as she saw fit, to serve her purposes. The stories became more engaging. My Mom, through this rare act of compromise, must have realized that the purposes of telling us stories are a lot more important than simply keeping us quiet or even correcting our bad behaviors, like making us eat vegetables because the boy in the story who did not eat was easily carried away by a giant fly …  My usually multitasking mother dedicated her everything to the story when she was telling one. The story appeared on her facial expressions, in her tone of voice, and through her gestures, and added solemnity to her already radiant face. My mother believed in her stories. And my mother’s stories became and still are part of our lives. It was only later in life that I realized my mother’s strong belief in the power of stories, and understood that there are several ways to tell the very same thing. Sometimes my mother asked us to tell our own stories or even to repeat one of hers. The stories gave my mother more authority and power; single voices, my mother must have believed, are blindly dangerous. As children living in the first Intifada, for us the stories of my mother and those of my grandparents were our solace, our escort in a blind world controlled by soldiers and guns and death. In part, they are responsible for the person I am today, although very few might have predicted that the reckless stone-thrower of the first Intifada would grow up to be an academic at university.

Despite the attacks, or rather more accurately because of them, I found myself telling my three kids, Shymaa, Omar, and Ahmed, either the same stories Mom told me, or different stories with similar themes, featuring my children as the heroes and saviors every now and then. Nothing broke the concentration except the intermittent “Boom! Boom!” sounds. That was how I spent most of the time, trying to make sure I was in the room least likely to take a hit from Israeli stray(!) missiles. The stories I told my kids and my brother’s kids, who crowded the place and helped make the cold room warmer with their breath, were not mere pastime pleasures, nor were they prepared in a scholarly way. They just came out. Stories in Palestine just come out. You decide to tell stories and the stories just appear. The characters start to gather and then everything, to the amazement of the storyteller, unfolds. If charity begins at home, so too do stories. As a Palestinian, I have been brought up on stories and storytelling. It’s both selfish and treacherous to keep a story to yourself—stories are meant to be told and retold. If I allowed a story to stop, I would be betraying my legacy, my mother, my grandmother, and my homeland. To me, storytelling is one of the ingredients of Palestinian sumud—steadfastness. Stories teach life even if the hero suffers or dies at the end.  For Palestinians, stories whet the much-needed talent for life.

My stories were both an end and a means. As I told stories to my children to distract, soothe, and educate them, for the first time I felt very close to my mother, to what happened to her, and to my grandparents. The stories were my window to my mother’s past, to my past, as I started living every minute she had to spend in the panic room her grandfather had prepared before Israel first invaded Gaza decades ago. My hair stands on end when she tells me of the many near-death experiences she or her family had to endure. The mere idea of my mother coming this close to death, just for being there, still transfixes me. …  But my mother has outlived Israel’s brutal invasion, and so have her stories. During the attack, the more bombs Israel detonated, the more stories I told, and the more I read. Telling stories was my way of resisting. It was all I could do.

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