Husam Zomlot at the University of Glasgow. credit: University of Glasgow Facebook page

The power of resistance narratives of conflict

By Aleeza Siddiq

Stories can tell the histories of a lifetime. Aleeza Siddiq explores the way narration invites the ignorant West into the lives of those suffering the world’s horrors.

Last May, I attended a speech at Glasgow University given by Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian Ambassador to the UK, along with around fifty other Glasgow students. The speech commemorated 75 years of Al-Nakba, the displacement and destruction of around 750,000 Palestinian lives. He noted the numerical statistics associated with the struggles of the oppressed Palestinian people, which given recent escalations would be wildly outdated.

Although I cannot present you with the specific data gifted to us in that speech, Zomlot’s narration of his return to his father’s home stuck with me. He told of his father and grandfather’s history of displacement from the village Simsim along with many others, before moving us with his own story: a story of returning to this village, a village which was only a short car journey into what is now Israel. His village, destroyed. The land where their home once stood was only recognised by Zomlot’s grandfather, recognised only by a fig tree.

In engaging with Zomlot’s narrative, each student was engaging with a reality in which his father, once young, played around this fig tree, watching it grow. We, like the tree, were witnesses to this play. As Zomlot guided us through his story, we then became witnesses to the Nakba – the destruction of their village.

Zomlot’s story is paralleled by the novel Enter Ghost by Isabella Hammad, a celebrated Palestinian-British writer who recounts the return of an actress to her childhood home in Palestine. Hammad invites us into the everyday lives of Palestinian identities, planting undertones of their subjugation under Israeli occupation. In the first chapter, we witness the actress as she examines her grandparents’ old house, which now homes non-Palestinians. Her words “‘I was waiting for grief” allows us to feel the pain and loss felt by so many in the novel and beyond. Through the articulation of lineal history, sisterhood and a family haunted by a cruel past, we seek insight into Palestinian resistance, into life under a regime.

Both Hammad and Zomlot’s depictions keep the ghost of these villages alive. There is power in their ability to pressure the ignorant observer, to acknowledge the destruction of Palestinian civilisation by building images of these homes in our minds. Here is creation from the pain of destruction.

We naturally associate the struggle and sacrifice in war and freedom as physical concepts. We celebrate those who have given their bodies to war, who have placed themselves in the firing line. But there is a power in fighting on the page, demanding one’s rights as a human by transforming the powerlessness felt in a history of subjugation into powerful testimonies.

There are countless more instances of writers sacrificing personal histories and consciousness through fiction or nonfiction narratives. Mahmoud Darwish’s In the Presence of Absence, is another work by a Palestinian writer who transformed pain into poetry, whilst Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin deals with issues of race during the civil rights movements. These narratives tell of the devastating suffering of slaves to humanise those who were historically dehumanised. These pieces of literature are eyewitness testimonies which fight against the dangerous framing of the ‘Other’.

Not only can the ability of storytelling to revive the histories of resistance be recognised in this way, it has also been acknowledged in modern science. A brain synchronisation study conducted by Uri Haason at Princeton University found that when Person A tells a story to Person B, MRI scans simultaneously taking place on both Person A and Person B detected a parallel change in the respective areas of the brain responsible for perceiving empathy and processing emotion. This study evidences that one brain can be coupled up to the motor system of another, opening up the possibility that hearing Zomlot’s tragedy prompted my brain to mirror his brain patterns. There is an intimacy in transferring emotional experiences through narration.

The importance of these instances of brain synchronisation in narratives of the oppressed becomes apparent when we acknowledge the dangers and destructive power of ‘othering’. When Kelmen and Hamilton interviewed Lieutenant Calley in regards to the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, he justified his crimes with the statement, “I was ordered to go in there and destroy the enemy…I did not sit down and think in terms of men, women, and children”. Lieutenant Calley ‘others’ the Vietnamese victims as the collective ‘enemy’, rather than considering them as individuals with traits, occupations and relationships.

Similar thinking is implored with the constructed group identity of the Arab or the Muslim. Since 9/11, many identities associated with Islam have been labelled as an uncivilised, violent threat to the West. It seems too easy to dismiss whole groups of individuals as a collective, and distance them from the humanity that has been destroyed in conflict. Yet the human brain has the capacity to do the opposite, and this is what resistance narratives provide the opportunity for.

Isabella Hammad’s memorial lecture for Edward Said tells of potential anxieties surrounding the placement of a responsibility to educate on the oppressed, whilst acknowledging it as a solution to the ignorance of the West to these struggles. She notes that “the pressure is again on Palestinians to tell the human story that will educate and enlighten others and so allow for the conversion of the repentant Westerner”, appreciating that narratives evoke a moment of anagnorisis, an epiphany, a moment of recognition. The moment the soldier realises that the ‘other’, the Arab, is human.

Narrative novels are the closest some of us have gotten to standing as soldiers at the front lines of battle, staring the enemy in the face, noting the wrinkles and tired eyes of the ‘other’ and the history that lies behind them. It is our duty as members of the Western world, members of the ignorant world, to read these novels and internalise their narratives. It is our prerogative to seek anagnorisis, because the Palestinian, the slave, the revolutionary, have each sacrificed their mind and their family’s story for our recognition. Just as one sacrifices the body in war.


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