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May 27, 2024
Social Justice

A void of words: the legitimacy of Palestinian voices comes through anger

Insight by Cecilia Dalla Negra - Orient XXI

«Today, my body was a TV’d massacre.

Today, my body was a TV’d massacre that had to fit into sound-bites and word limits.

Today, my body was a TV’d massacre that had to fit into sound-bites and word limits filled enough with statistics to counter measured response.

And I perfected my English and I learned my UN resolution.

-Just give us a story, a human story. You see, this is not political. We just want to tell people about you and your people so give us a human story. Don’t mention that word ‘apartheid’ or ‘occupation’. This is not political. You have to help me as a journalist to help you tell your story which is not a political story.


Today, my body was a TV’d massacre.

Today, my body was a TV’d massacre that had to fit into sound-bites and word limits and move those that are desensitized to terrorist blood […].

 We teach life, Sir.

 We Palestinians wake up every morning to teach the rest of the world life, Sir». 

[We teach life, Rafeef Ziadeh, 2011]

An entire territory reduced to rubble. Dead bodies of children clutched in the arms of desperate relatives. Doctors kidnapped and tortured. Mass graves, hospitals besieged and then razed to the ground. The facts should speak for themselves. But in Western’s variable-geometry empathy, they almost never do.

For a fact to speak, it needs a voice to tell the story. A voice that contextualizes and guides the listener to understanding, making the fact worthy of attention. To recount a massacre in Palestine live broadcasted, to whom must that voice belong? Who, on this issue, is entitled to speak?

"Facts absolutely do not speak for themselves, but they need a socially acceptable narrative that absorbs them, supports them and circulates them. And the narrative has to do with legitimacy and authority". It was 1984 when Edward Said, among the most prominent Palestinian intellectuals, wrote these words in an essay entitled "Permission to Narrate”. Barely two years had passed since the massacre of Sabra and Shatila, carried out by Christian-Maronite militias against the Palestinian refugee population in Lebanon with the complicity of the Israeli army. Several chronicles of that carnage were already emerged, several analyses of the Israeli invasion of Beirut had been written. Yet, even then, what was missing was the voice of the Palestinian people.

A void of words

"Paradoxically" Said argued, "never has so much been written about the Palestinians: they are there, but their narrative is not". What he was highlighting was an absence of speech, a removal: the creation of an empty space into which the Palestinian voice, over the years, would slip. Being removed not only from History, but losing its place in the present and in the enunciation of the future.

A voice that would increasingly become an object and never a subject of the dominant discourse. An object studied, analyzed, commented on. Demonized by those who are its enemies or even defended by those who are sympathetic to it, but always silenced by a Western hegemonic narrative considered more authoritative, more credible, the only true one.

Even then, Said's essay opened a reflection that would become as relevant as ever many years later. Since the spring of 2021, in particular, when the point of view of a new generation, determined to reappropriate its own history, and the language with which to tell it, would emerge in the international media in a disruptive and radical way thanks to Mona and Mohammed El Kurd among others, a brother and sister committed against the forced expulsion of Palestinians from the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, in East Jerusalem.

Through the social networks and thanks to their communication skills, Muna and Mohammed El Kurd managed to make clear the political analysis of a young generation no longer willing to compromise, to that calmness of manners basically expected, when not demanded, by the global audience.

A reassuring portrayal

After October 7th, the issue of the representation of Palestinians and their right to speak has become as timely as ever. Mobilizing the popularity gained in 2021, Mohammed El Kurd took again the floor, frontally questioning the narrative devices used by the international media system. In an essay published in the U.S. magazine The Nation, titled "The Right to Speak for Ourselves", El Kurd enters into a dialectic with Edward Said, recalling the analyses developed by the intellectual in "Permission to Narrate" and situating them in the present.

If Said in 1984 defined the use of the category of "terrorism" as "anti-narrative", as a tool to conceal the power structures and the relationship of oppression existing between hegemonic and subaltern subjects, El Kurd echoes him by explaining that "we Palestinians on television screens exist only in a false dichotomy: we are either terrorists or victims". In the first case, he tells us, the right to speak is excluded: the terrorist, as a non-human subject, is not entitled to speak. In the latter, he is occasionally granted a microphone. But at what price? His response is a realistic and merciless representation of Western mechanisms of dehumanization and empathic production.

"There are prerequisites these victims must meet. They are often women, children, the elderly. They carry US or European passports. Everyone will tell you ‘they would never hurt a fly’. They never charge or attack. Their campaigning is individualistic, centered only on their personal tragedies, incentivized by humanitarian need than political ideology”, he writes. And even where this pietistic, humanitarian framework is strategically used, in the attempt to rehabilitate those de-humanized subjects, the result will be the production of new, equally stereotypical categories. Such as that of the "perfect victim”, useful to satisfy the expectations of a Western public accustomed to a privilege that admits no exceptions, and which finds disturbing the expression of anger by the subordinate subjects. By shifting the focus from those who exercise oppression to the forms adopted by the oppressed to counter it, that subalternity is crystallized, reiterated, made inevitable.

“Any Palestinians operating in the public eye, especially Palestinians who have suffered Israeli violence, are expected to behave a certain way. You are supposed to be miserable—head bowed, wailing and weak and asking for mercy. You are supposed to be polite in your suffering. And I completely refuse this”.

The reassuring construction of a subaltern subject as the "perfect victim" did not often spare even movements in solidarity with the Palestinian cause, which, in supporting popular demands or resistance to oppression, contributed to dictate the limits within which that resistance can be carried out, or which were the only political subjects worthy of consideration, sometimes heroized.

The reappropriation of anger

The reflections of Mohammed El Kurd and the generation he represents are reflected in numerous political standings developed since the second Intifada, and emerged particularly after October 7th through youth political subjects and structures, in Palestine as in the diasporas. This is the case, among others, of the Al Shabaka think tank, which has long been conveying innovative and radical analyses and readings; the Palestinian Youth Movement; or again, the Young Palestinians of Italy collective, which have repeatedly reiterated the need to decolonize postures, narratives and practices towards Palestinian subjectivities and their legitimate claims, returning the mic to those who, more than anyone else, are entitled to speak.

This should be done not to pursue identity politics, but taking into account Western position: those who inhabit a condition of privilege do not have, nor will they ever have, the same reading as those who live on a margin crossed by colonial violence. 

These elaborations directly question Western approaches to other contexts; starting from the political and humanitarian tragedy of Gaza, they come back to us, call into question the ability to read the processes of decolonization and to deal with the anger of oppressed peoples.

In the aftermath of October 7th, El Kurd wrote on social media that decolonization was not a theory but an embodied practice, a process that was anything but theoretical, but extremely real for the people of Gaza, forced into an open-air prison for 17 years. What was being observed was thus a plausible anger that, by affecting a status quo based on privilege, had caused a rupture. And it was in that fracture, in that broken space, that the Palestinian voice began to reassert its legitimacy.

Palestinians, El Kurd reminds us, are not human because someone has decided that they are. "We are human not just because we cry when we lose our mothers or homes. We are human because we feel rage and disdain, because we resist. And I am honestly grateful for my disdain, because it reminds me that I am human. I am grateful for my rage, because it reminds me of my ability to react naturally to injustice”.

The right to speak for oneself

This reflection has also recently involved the Palestinian journalism. After 7 months of military offensive and distorted media report; after countless appeals made by the Palestinian Press Syndicate to Western colleagues, their standing also seems to have changed.

As freelance journalist Hossam Shabat writes on his accounts, "the problem is not that Western journalists cannot enter Gaza, but that they do not value us Palestinian journalists. My colleagues and I risk our lives every day to report on this genocide. Nobody knows Gaza better than we do. If you care about what is happening here, amplify our voices. We do not need Western journalists to tell our stories; we are capable of doing it ourselves."

This statement was echoed by Youmna El Sayed, Al Jazeera's Gaza correspondent, who in a recent interview with the daily newspaper "Il Manifesto" said, "In the West, it is thought that Palestinian journalists must necessarily be affiliated with some group, and therefore cannot be objective. This is ridiculous. When foreign journalists enter Gaza, they do so with the help of a Palestinian fixer, a Palestinian translator; they talk to Palestinian officials and the Palestinian population. Those stories, however, are considered reliable; ours are not."

These analyses leads back to the initial question: what makes a fact true, what voice is needed for it to be considered credible? About what happens in Palestine, who has the right to speak? As El Kurd sarcastically points out again, "we have been denouncing the apartheid system for years, but it took reports from Amnesty International and B'tselem for the world to believe us". It is a mechanism that happens often, unintentionally, to reiterate: whenever Ilan Pappe's Nakba studies are more valued than Walid Khalidi's one; whenever a voice of dissident coming from the side of the oppressors is more echoed than the one of the oppressed. If this selectivity is certainly understandable, appears to be definitively outdated today, where the rubble of Gaza displays the West's responsibility for failing to mobilize its privilege so that facts could finally speak for themselves, those directly affected could speak with a voice of their own.

"We have a country of words", wrote the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. "Speak, speak, so we may know the end of this journey”. 

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