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Can Reading Save us From a Harsh Reality?

l bronze Author: linawardani
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I grew up watching my grandmother, teta Mounira, sit in a corner on her favorite couch, reading one book after the other by her favorite writer, Tawfiq El-Hakim. The sun rays of Cairo reflected on her perfectly white hand-knitted cap and her black frail hair. 

She was the strongest woman I have ever seen, but when her eldest son, Uncle Zahran, died in the war with Israel in 1967, grief stuck with her, and she was bedridden and paralyzed for months. She slowly regained consciousness and mobile movement, but her heart and soul were deeply damaged. She suffered from Alzheimer’s until she died. The only moments she seemed present and could escape the misery were when she was reading.

All through my life, whenever I read Palestinian literature by my favorite writers, Edward Said, Ghassan Kanafani, or Mahmoud Darwish, I remember my grandmother and my uncle, and I remember Palestine. Every time I can’t comprehend the siege, the occupation, and the injustice, I remember Edward Said’s Memoir, Out of Place “Being myself meant not only never being quite right, but also never feeling at ease, always expecting to be interrupted or corrected, to have my privacy invaded and my unsure person set upon. There was always something wrong with how I was invented and meant to fit in with the world.”

In the last few months, Israel has killed 30,035 Palestinians, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry, injured over 70,000, and displaced 1.7 million people from the Gaza Strip alone. In the West Bank, hundreds were killed and displaced by occupation and settlers’ violence. I keep wondering how many mothers lost their sons like my teta Munira, how many families will be destroyed forever with generational trauma for years to come and when will this pain stop. 

Like most Egyptian families, we lost my uncle to the war. I never forget or forgive that.And that was part of why I went out in every protest supporting Palestine in their just case against the occupation. I have been in protests supporting the Palestinian first and second Intifada as a school student in 1993 and as a university student after what was known as the Mohammed El Dorra Intifada in 2000. And then the siege on Gaza in 2008 and 2009. Today, with the biggest war on Gaza, I find myself unable to even protest peacefully or vent out in any way. 

Like my grandmother, I grew up surrounded by books, everyone around me read, and I was no different. I used to love a bedtime story, and before I learned how to read, I learned how to recite my bedtime stories by looking at the pictures. Soon, the lullabies and bedtime stories became al maktaba al khadra, popular tales from the eighties, to maged and mickey comics magazines, and my absolute favorites were the five Adventures of Maadi, Loza, Nosa, Takhtakh, Atef Moheb, mysteries from al moghameroon al khamsa.

These were my friends and companions in my early years, elementary school, I felt too old to read children’s books and pulled most of my baby teeth while reading Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens, with a dictionary next to me trying to solve the mysteries of old English literature. I found a whole world of adventures in the books that took me to places far away. 

In my teens, Virginia Woold, Simon De Beviour, Nawal El Saadawy, Sonaalaah Ibrahim, and Mohammed El Makhzangy, were my companions in my rebellious days. In university, I was probably the only one who would escape a boring lecture not to go out with my friends, but to go to the library to read books they don’t check out.

Later, when I started working, I would save my annual leave to take two weeks off doing nothing but reading. Fiction was fascinating to me. And I had a palate that kept growing from the tales of One Thousand and One Nights, which I have read hundreds of times, to Dostoevsky to Kafka, from Marquez to Murakami, and Paul Auster, I travel the world, in the comfort of my couch, sipping tea like my grandmother. 

I was lucky to grow up in a house full of books, My mother was a librarian, and my father was a writer. Even my baby sister, Salma, was such a fast reader. She would lie on her belly and finish the book in a record time. No wonder she grew up to work in a newswire. She has always been very competitive, the good kind who would cheerfully tease you to catch up to her. 

Books have always been my savior from boredom, my source of inspiration, and my escape gate from the atrocities and injustices of the present, something I never understood or comprehended, just like my grandmother. And no matter how many books I read, I never understood why good people get sick and die, or why people go to war. How can there be so much injustice in the world? 

Today, not even a new book by Murakami can get me out of this reader’s block. I feel nothing but anger, shame, and sadness. Every time I look around me and see hundreds like my grandmother losing their children to war, famine, and destruction in Gaza.

From the Crusades to the Islamic Empire wars, from witch hunts to Nazis and Fascists, till today’s war on Gaza, history is full of atrocities, and it has always perplexed me how people can create something as beautiful and perfect as fiction and something as horrendous and brutal as wars and occupation. I keep reading,  trying to find answers and lessons, but above all distractions from an unbearable reality. 

Palestinians have endured over 70 years of occupation, injustices unfathomable and unforgettable, generations born in apartheid. I find myself now hand-tied, unable to express my anger, shame, and disappointment that I envy the dead because they can’t see the cruelty we are witnessing.

Borrowing the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s last letter to the Palestinian literary conference from his deathbed in 2008, describing what was a much less frightening siege than what we are witnessing today.  “They have never known normality. Their memories are filled with visions of hell. They see their tomorrows slipping through their fingers. And though it seems to them that everything outside of this reality is heaven, they refuse to leave for heaven. They stay, because they are afflicted with hope.”

I leave you with another poem from Mahmoud Darwish also

Halit Hisar A state of siege 

We’ll love life tomorrow.

When tomorrow arrives, we shall love life

As it is, ordinary, sly

Grey or coloured.. No resurrection. No afterlife.

And if there must be joy,

Let it be

Light on the heart and on the waist

“A practiced believer is not bitten

By joy… twice!”

Can Reading Save us From a Harsh Reality?

This article was previously published on kuwaitmoments.To see the original article, click here

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