PALESTINE SPEAKS: a human window onto what can often feel like abstract, complex issues

voice of witness logoI recently spoke with Voice of Witness executive editor mimi lok and Palestine Speaks editors Cate Malek and Mateo Hoke to do a short profile for The San Francisco Chronicle. But they each had a lot more to say than I could fit into the article, and I’d like to share some of it with you, below. You can read a story from the book here, and if you’re in the Bay Area be sure to check out the event they have on Wednesday, November 19th—Mateo will be in conversation with Shanna Farrell, oral historian with the Regional Oral History Office, at UC Berkeley’s J School (of which Mateo is an alumnus).

from an in-person interview w/mimi lok and Mateo Hoke @ McSweeney’s

LITSEEN: For those who don’t know what Voice of Witness is: how did it start, and why are you doing it?

MIMI LOK: Voice of Witness—the reason why we exist is we have a book series that’s based on oral history, so people who have been affected by contemporary human rights injustice have a platform for sharing their stories… and we have an education program that connects these stories and these issues with education for students; we also provide training for them to do their own oral histories. So it’s promoting a more participatory relationship to contemporary history as opposed to just [being] bystanders. And then they also get to communicate with their communities, their families, and the reason why we do all this, the end result, is to amplify the voices of those who usually don’t get the opportunity, and to provide a human window on what can often feel like abstract, complex issues. And in the process—because we take a very literary, sort of birth-to-now, almost novelistic approach, we hope that through the process of reading these stories and also doing oral history that people can have what they thought they knew about an issue or a group of people get complicated… in a good way.

And I think that what we hope is that the residual effect of this is to foster a more empathy-based, and nuanced understanding of contemporary human rights issues and social justice issues. As a result, we become better citizens, we become better advocates not just for the causes that we’re already supporting but for the underlying cause of all movements, which is to preserve human dignity and human rights, whether you’re an advocate for LGBT rights, or you’re working for housing, or you care about the situation in Gaza or Sudan or Burma—it all comes down to the same thing, I think. So that’s why the series covers a lot of different issues; we don’t have pet subjects, necessarily, we just want to have the opportunity to give a platform for exploring how… how policy effects everyday life. So that’s why we really push for the more personal, human perspective—but then everything’s fact-checked, everything is backed up by supplementary material; we have extensive appendices and glossaries and timelines, so if someone does want to take a more research-based approach, or if someone is teaching this or reading this at the college level, it feels substantial as well as human.

LITSEEN: This is such a big issue, and it feels like it’s been going on since the dawn of time. How did you approach the book?

click to read Jamal Bakr's story, from Palestine Speaks

Click Julien Lallemand‘s illustration to read Jamal Bakr’s story, both from Palestine Speaks

MATEO HOKE: What you said about it’s feeling like it’s been going on since the dawn of time, that’s something a lot of people have a feeling about when it comes to the Middle East, is that it’s just this dark place [and] the problems there go back so far that it’s just wholly intractable, and we wanted to shed some light on that mode of thinking, and just allow people a look into the lives of people who live there, who live in the West Bank, and who live in Gaza, and who live under military occupation there. So it’s really all about bringing their stories to a larger audience.

ML: —And humanizing it from this abstract, dark place… shedding light, and I think the best way to do that is to show that these people’s lives aren’t that different from anyone else’s when you get to the fundamentals: they care about family, they care about having a roof over their heads, they care about being able to work, having an education.

MH: I think the VOW model is good for that too, which is a big reason Cate and I wanted to work with VOW, is that kind of novelistic level of detail really does make a difference, rather than just your standard kind of tired journalistic model: here’s a story, and you don’t really get into the meat of who these people are or what makes them tick [that you get with that] kind of in-depth, novelistic approach.

ML: If I can speak a little about how we approached this book, it’s slightly different than how we’ve approached some of the other books in the series. Normally, after someone’s given us their proposal, we have a fantastic managing editor, Luke Gerwe, who’s been with us a couple of years, and we help the book editors flesh out the work plans—who are the people you want to interview? what kind of issues do we want to cover?—we have all these different lists, and in these guys’ case they already had a bunch of people they’d spoken to, they already had a sense of the kind of issues they wanted to highlight.

A group of girls talk together in an alleyway in the Dheisheh Refugee Camp. Bethlehem, 2011. credit: Mateo Hoke/Cate Malek

A group of girls talk together in an alleyway in the Dheisheh Refugee Camp. Bethlehem, 2011. credit: Mateo Hoke/Cate Malek

But unlike other VOW narratives in this series, oftentimes we start with the personal story and then sometimes the rights issue or issues in that story need a little bit of lifting out, and then we felt that this is a slightly different case where if you just ask a Palestinian to describe a typical day in their life you’re going to run down the laundry list of [human rights] violations, so we didn’t want to be heavy-handed and just roll out a laundry list; we really want to take the approach of daily life and inasmuch as is possible, a neutral or a measured kind of approach, so we’re really just asking people to say, well, tell us what your day is like from the moment you get up to the moment you go to bed, and in a lot of cases daily life is hard, and we make a point of just asking people to show rather than tell—first rule of good storytelling, right—we tend to want to avoid saying, see how bad this is; you just have to have someone describe how bad it is and then you don’t have to add any more to that.

L: What surprised you as the book started coming together?

MH: One of the things that’s surprising about the book is how funny it can be at times. People think of this as a dark place, as I said, and we have a lot of preconceived notions about Palestine in the West, particularly; Western media shapes how we think of it, and it’s often shaped as something scary and dark, and when you go and talk with people it’s the same around the world: there’s laughter, and there’s joy, and there’s all this goodness that’s just a very vibrant way of life that exists underneath this layer of military occupation. So, that was probably the most surprising thing for me, was just how funny some of the stories could be. And that’s one of the things I’m most excited to share about the book as well.

from an email exchange w/Cate Malek

LITSEENDid you ever feel threatened specifically because of the project? Were people afraid to speak with you?

photo by Timothy Faust

photo by Timothy Faust

CATE MALEK: We felt absolutely no sense of threat at all from any of the parties we spoke with for the book. In general, people were incredibly encouraging and pleased about the concept of the book and went out of their ways to help Mateo and I get what we needed. I think narrators were sometimes reticent when they first began speaking with us, but warmed up pretty quickly. I wouldn’t ever characterize the feeling as afraid. One reason for this is because we were working within a strong network of people, and we had introductions to almost all of our narrators before we went to meet them. This went a long way toward people feeling comfortable with us. Another factor was the narrators’ desire to get their stories out. In the West Bank, and especially in Gaza, there is a strong sense of disconnect with the rest of the world. I feel it too living here. And so I think most of our narrators wanted to break through that disconnect and share their stories. Most of the time we were more cautious than they were about including information that might cause them to be persecuted in the future.

L: I’m very interested in the (perhaps blurring) distinction between what might be considered characteristically and/or traditionally Palestinian and what is a result of or a sort of reaction to living under ongoing occupation. Is this something that many people expressed concerns about?

CM: I think the narrative this theme comes up most strongly in is Ibtisam’s narrative when she talks about how her students’ sense of space and geography has been changed by living under occupation. Distances, such as the trip from Bethlehem to Ramallah, now seem far to them because of the time it takes to travel to those places, even though the distance itself is short. The long-term effects of the occupation on Palestinian culture are certainly something people talk about and are concerned about. Another example would be Abdelrahman when he talks about the sheer number of Palestinians (and other Arabs as well) who have spent time in prison, and not wanting his son to experience that as well, but fearing he probably will. But generally, this is a hard question to pin down, and I think the experience of the occupation is too immediate for most people to really consider it.

L: What is it that you would most like people to take from the book?

photo by Timothy Faust

this + next photo by Timothy Faust

CM: Many, many more images and stories of Palestine than most readers have now. Both Mateo and I have had Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie’s quote in our heads as we prepare to talk about the book: “You can’t tell a single story of any place, person, or people. There are many stories that create us. The single story creates stereotypes. There are other stories that are just as important to tell. The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.I also hope that readers pick up on the urgency of the narrators’ stories. Things are really deteriorating rapidly in Palestine right now, and I believe many of the stories capture the hopelessness that Palestinians are feeling. Finally, I hope the book provides enough context that readers are better able to understand breaking news about Palestine, and starts to move readers beyond the cliches often expressed (why can’t they just get along, etc.) when discussing this region

L: How has working on the book (and, more broadly, connecting with all of the people you interviewed) changed what you try to bring to your own life?

CM: I think for me the biggest change has been a stronger focus on the importance of building and maintaining relationships. We spent huge amounts of time interviewing the people featured in the book in order to get the novelistic level of detail that Voice of Witness asks for. This interview process could often be intense, as sometimes we were talking with people about stories that they had never shared with anyone before. It could also be draining, as we were very directly faced with the sometimes overwhelming needs of some of our narrators. But, ultimately, it was an amazingly rewarding process. We were able to build trust with our narrators, which made the stories better. And when breaking news hit, such as the war in Gaza last summer, we had already established relationships with our narrators, making it much easier to get the story of what was happening to them in a respectful and less invasive way than if we were interviewing them cold without having met them before. I’m constantly working to bring this awareness of relationships into my daily life, and I haven’t figured it out yet. I’m pretty consistently torn between having coffee with a neighbor and trying to meet a deadline. But it’s a goal I’ll keep working toward.

photo of Palestine border by Timothy Faust