Farhaana Arefin: I wanted to ask how you went about writing The Stone House, and specifically about your nonlinear narrative structure, how you play with time in the story. I guess this is a way of reflecting your relationship with Palestine’s history, the fact that you are writing about events that took place seventy years ago or fifty years ago, which are also taking place now. And that even if you might not have personally lived through the events that you’re describing in the book, it is still happening today, so you are experiencing it.
Could you say a little bit about this mode of presenting time and how it links to the idea of the Nakba as something that is ongoing? There’s this repetition of disaster, but also a continuity of resistance.
Yara Hawari: The book is initially set in 1968, a “non-year” in terms of the Palestinian political calendar. We have very sad dates that we mark on our sort of collective calendar, dates that are important to us and very symbolic: Nakba ’48, Naksa ’67, First Intifada, Second Intifada. 1968 just felt like a nice date because it wasn’t a hugely special year in Palestine.
I began here because it connects to a memory that my dad told me of a school trip to the West Bank in that year. This was the event in which I was able to root all the memories. Throughout the book, all the characters sort of time travel—they jump back in time in a nonlinear way because it’s reflective of how we remember things. We don’t remember things in chronological order. I think really the beauty of oral history is that we jump around, certain things will evoke certain memories. A smile, a taste, a song, a place . . . we can go back ten years ago, we can go back ten minutes ago.
I really wanted this to be reflected in the book. But through these memories, jumping back and forth, I wanted to demonstrate how certain things are continuous. And as you mentioned in your question, the tragedy and the trauma are continuous, reflective of the continuous colonial project in Palestine, just as Palestinian resistance is continuous.
I certainly hope that I didn’t give the impression that Palestinians are passive in the face of colonialism; there are always Palestinians resisting their erasure. It was particularly poignant that I wrote a huge chunk of the book during the uprising of May 2021, which is being dubbed as the Unity Intifada, when Palestinians once more went out onto the streets defying their fragmentation and resisting it, just as they have done at various points in history.
The ’60s were particularly poignant to write about during this recent uprising; there was this resonance of Palestinians reunited under the Israeli regime―defeated, but also united. And here we had Palestinians in 2021 refusing their fragmentation.
Farhaana Arefin: Absolutely. Could you expand on the context of your father’s school trip in 1968, the year after the Naksa?
Yara Hawari: My father went on a school trip in 1968 to the West Bank. It was the first time that he had gone to the West Bank, because a year before the Israeli regime invaded and occupied the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights. Up until this point, for twenty years, the Palestinian people had been cut off from each other. And so this invasion of the West Bank and Gaza was massive, because the Israeli regime and its colonial project had then managed to conquer the whole of historic Palestine and more.
But in another way, it was also a reunification—reunification under occupation, certainly. But it was a reunification of people who had been separated by the so-called Green Line. For my dad, this was a very strange thing to be experiencing. On the one hand, he felt the incredible defeat of pan-Arabism, through the defeat of Palestine essentially, and so it was very humiliating. It was a sort of final blow. But on the other hand, it was exciting to think that he would be able to reunite with other Palestinians from whom he’d been cut off for so long.
I think this really sums up the Palestinian experience, its very conflicting periods and contradictory emotions. On the one hand you feel excruciating pain, humiliation, defeat. And then on the other hand, you feel incredible joy. Being Palestinian is a trip; it’s a rollercoaster of emotions. That moment in 1968 summed it up very well; a sort of non-year in the context of the Palestinian people, but such an important year for my father.
Brekhna Aftab: I wonder if you could expand a little more on the experience of writing this book in the context of the Unity Intifada, and expand on why resisting fragmentation goes to the heart of the Palestinian struggle. Why is this such an important way of understanding Palestinian history and ongoing resistance, and what lessons can be taken from the uprisings of last year and happening today in Palestine?
Yara Hawari: I think fragmentation is one of the key mechanisms by which the Israeli regime is able to keep Palestinians oppressed and dominated. It’s not just geographic fragmentation—it’s also social, political, economic, legal. There are so many facets to this fragmentation. And that’s why they were so worried about the Unity Intifada. I don’t want to say this uprising was unprecedented, because we have seen such uprisings in the past, but it certainly hasn’t happened for a long time. The Israeli regime was caught off guard by the fact that Palestinians in Gaza and Jerusalem, in the West Bank, in Haifa were all mobilizing under the same slogans with the same banners.
This collective feeling was concerning for them because what they fear most is a unified collective Palestinian struggle. Not only Israel fears this, but also other actors including the Palestinian Authority, including the international community. We saw this fear of Palestinian unity playing out again with Israeli regime forces brutally cracking down on Palestinian worshippers in Jerusalem over Ramadan and Easter. One of the reasons that the Unity Intifada was able to mobilize in such a way is because of our use of technology, in particular social media platforms―we’re able to mobilize on a much larger scale and reach Palestinians in exile who we’ve never been able to reach before.
That’s not to romanticize social media because I also think that social media can be incredibly dangerous to liberation movements and social justice movements. But in this instance it did give us the tools to reach out and to mobilize in ways that were actually unprecedented. Keeping up that momentum is incredibly difficult. It’s not a failure of the people, it’s not a failure of Palestinian organizers and activists, but I think it demonstrates the strength of the powers that we’re fighting against: not only colonialism, but also capitalism and patriarchy.
Brekhna Aftab: I think that’s such an important point. I’d like to bring in the international solidarity movement here and draw out those connections with broader global struggles. Engaging with Palestine has been a route for many of us into a wider politics, rooted in internationalism, anticapitalism, and antiracism, and publishing on Palestine is an important part of Hajar’s project. We describe Hajar as a press “run by and for people of colour,” and while we understand this term has its own tensions and limitations, we know that if we are to pose any challenge to what currently exists, we have to find some way of working together and building collective power. Through learning about Palestine, we think that people will find a window to many other movements against exploitation and oppression, and for us, it was crucial to publish books on Palestine, written by Palestinian writers. I wonder if you could say a bit about connecting Palestine to the wider systems of oppression and exploitation that you mention, and how the left should relate to the Palestinian struggle.
Yara Hawari: I think Palestine is one of the few issues that is a good barometer as to whether progressives and the radical left are really progressive or really radical. It’s an issue along with a few others where people tend to make exceptions, tend to make excuses as to why the Palestinian struggle shouldn’t be supported in its entirety. I think it’s been a massive failing of a lot of progressive and leftist movements that they haven’t supported the Palestinian struggle for liberation in all its forms.
But in other spaces, it’s been a massive mobilizing force because Palestine is a place where all these oppressive systems meet—colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy. And so it offers an example of a sort of intersectional and holistic politics―you can’t be for the Palestinian struggle for liberation if you’re not also anti-racist, etc. This is not to say that Palestine should be at the center of all organizing spaces. Neither should Palestine ever be viewed in competition with other struggles against colonialism.
We’re entering an era when people are becoming more aware of what it means to practise an internationalist politics. Not only because it’s right and it’s ethical and it’s moral but also because it makes sense―we can’t have a free Palestine if we are still seeing other places in the world being colonized. It’s just not going to happen.
It is in the interest of imperial and colonial forces that Palestine remains colonized. The West views Israel as an imperial outpost in the Middle East. The arms trade, security technologies, all of these things are so intricately tied together. It can be overwhelming in some ways to think that all of these structures of power are working together to oppress the majority of people in the world. But then it can also be liberating to think that we’re actually all fighting similar structures that are connected to each other. This gives rise to the possibility of a domino effect.
I always say to people who want to know how to practise solidarity with the Palestinian struggle that there are very direct and concrete ways to support Palestine, including the BDS movement, including centering Palestinian voices and experiences. But I think this is just as important as changing local politics, the spaces that you are in―are they leftist, are they radical, are they truly progressive? Because you’re not going to have a liberated Palestine if the majority of the world is right wing and conservative. The liberation of Palestine is intimately tied to the liberation of everyone else.
Farhaana Arefin: Thank you so much for that. My next question is actually something that also struck me from your book launch a couple of weeks ago. You noted the role of nostalgia in Palestinian narratives; I am thinking about what you said earlier on how the experience of being Palestinian is that you simultaneously live in extreme trauma and pain as well as joy. In the book, those kinds of extremes are very much present.
For example, there are passages where Dheeba remembers her childhood, the landscape of Palestine, where she would go swimming with her friends, etc. Could you say a bit more about nostalgia in Palestinian storytelling, in history-making, and how the past is remembered in relation to what people want in the present?
Yara Hawari: I think nostalgia plays such a major role particularly among many who live in exile, the experience of a diaspora. And that’s certainly the case with Palestine. So much literature written in exile revolves around this idealizing and romanticizing rural Palestine in particular, idyllic Palestine, pre-’48 Palestine. And of course, it’s not entirely historically accurate. That’s why nostalgia has always had this sort of bad rep: you’re refusing to remember the difficult parts and instead just picking out the good bits.
But I think it’s also very telling of what people want and what they desire and what they miss. There’s a reason why we yearn for the good things, why we lament for rural, idyllic Palestine amid no space to live, no space to breathe. In that way, I think that nostalgia can be harnessed productively. It can be harnessed to build this idea of the future people want, of what Palestinians want.
Brekhna Aftab: I’m so glad you mentioned the future. We’ve both spoken before about Sophia Azeb’s piece in the Funambulist on Palestine and futurity. I’d love for us to end this interview by looking at some of the questions she asks in that piece: What does it mean to be Palestinian and what would Palestinianess be when Palestine is free? Why is this question so crucial to the struggle for liberation in Palestine?
Yara Hawari: It’s such a beautiful question in so many ways. I think it’s important to say from the outset that Palestinianess and Palestinians aren’t defined by tragedy, they aren’t defined by the Nakba. We were Palestinians before ’48, and we’ll be Palestinians after the Nakba is over. And I think after the Nakba is over, we’ll be defined by liberation. That’s such a beautiful thing to be known for as a people. It fills me with great joy to imagine that one day we will be a people known to the world as a people who liberated themselves, who suffered greatly, but continuously struggled and will continuously struggle after liberation.
Because there will be so much more to struggle for. And as Palestinian women, we know that very well. I think Palestinianess is somewhat defined by that, by steadfastness. I also didn’t think that my book was hopeful because there certainly isn’t a happy ending, but so many people have said to me that they found the writing incredibly so. To me, that was a bit surprising, but also pleasant to hear. Perhaps we are a hopeful people too.
This is part two of a two-part conversation. Read part one, “Everything in it is true,” here.