A Rebel in Gaza: Behind the Lines of the Arab Spring, One Woman’s Story By Asmaa al-Ghoul and Selim Nassib, translated from the French by Mike Mitchell
Los Angeles, CA; Doppelhouse Press, 2018, 224 pp., $28.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Hagar Scher
As a young girl growing up in Israel and Canada, I was fascinated by stories of World War II resistance fighters. I was particularly drawn to the story of Hannah Senesh, a young Jewish woman who joined the British Army and was parachuted into Eastern Europe to assist anti-Nazi forces. Senesh was eventually captured, tortured, and killed, and her story had a major impact on me, fueling my adolescent self-absorption. I spent hours imagining the choices I would have made had I been alive during World War II in Germany and Austria, where my grandparents grew up. Would I have put my life at risk to condemn injustice and save others? Or would I have made myself small in the hopes that doing so could keep me and my loved ones out of harm’s way?
Palestinian journalist-activist Asmaa al-Ghoul’s A Rebel in Gaza is a stirring account of bravery and resistance in our time. Her slender memoir paints a picture of a woman who has stuck to her convictions despite harassment, ostracism, verbal abuse, surveillance, physical violence, and death threats. Al-Ghoul’s unfiltered and vivid dispatches are themselves an act of courage, shedding light on the savagery of the Israeli siege of Gaza and decrying the rise of Islamic extremism and antiwoman repression in her beloved home.
“I wanted to be at the heart of stories of everyday life, of those that avoid the headlines, to present an account that might shock readers accustomed to the usual political clichés,” al-Ghoul writes in her foreword. “It is the heart that translates life and lays it on paper.” Written as a series of short, chronological chapters, A Rebel in Gaza pulls no punches in exposing the brutal everyday realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has terrorized the people of Gaza, but a large part of the book’s power resides in al-Ghoul’s refusal to relinquish joyous memories. She recalls the delight of sleeping over at her grandmother’s house, “especially when it was raining and the cooing of the pigeons woke me in the morning.” She writes about the hawker who sold barad, a luridly sweet and yellow lemon slush that figured prominently in my childhood as well. “Even when there was a curfew, during the occupation, the barad-vendor managed to get around the little alleys, out of sight of the army—and did we run to him!” She celebrates moments of happiness like getting her poem published in a Ramallah newspaper when she was just sixteen and winning a prize for a play she wrote, leaving her parents “shouting for joy.”
Al-Ghoul, who currently lives in exile in Europe, writes beautifully about the formative experience of coming up in an unusually crowded and confined space:
No one can relax in Gaza. The territory imposes terrible psychological pressure on people. Your family never takes its eyes off you, everyone’s talking all the time and interfering in your affairs … But despite all that, the greater pressure in Gaza makes you feel that people are watching out for you. They miss you if you’re away, and you miss them. Abroad no one is really concerned about you nor expresses such warmth toward you. I’ve been to America, Germany, France, Spain—all well-meaning countries, but they are oozing with indifference … Gaza wounds me and makes me suffer, and yet it is Gaza that draws me to it more and more every day.
I was born in Israel, and although I visit my parents, my siblings, and their families almost every year, I haven’t lived there since I was a teenager. For three decades, I have been a mostly silent participant in political conversations between people who have never lived in the region. I’ve gotten used to feeling sad detachment or hot resentment when people make strident proclamations, denouncing one side or the other, espousing clear-cut solutions that are anything but. The messy, muddled realities of everyday life which al-Ghoul insists on capturing cut to the heart, but they also lay the groundwork for her intersectional insights on the religious and nationalist politics of the Middle East. Her book feels like an invitation to connect at a level that transcends or, more accurately, runs deeper than our divides.
From girlhood on, al-Ghoul is chided for being “too strong-minded.” She recalls instances of being “smacked” for chanting the hypnotic call to prayer along with the muezzin, for not clearing the dinner table, for annoying her teachers in class. She writes eloquently about the times she has been harassed, questioned, and detained for refusing to wear a headscarf. Like many women and people of color, she begins to recognize a pattern, to see how each time she expresses her intelligence or questions authority or just moves through the world with physical confidence, she’s met by forces that seek to diminish, confine, and wound her. She writes:
I have also been told that in the history of humanity woman is the basis of life, the mother of the universe. Men have always feared her power and have disguised their “fear of her” in their “fear for her.” In order to protect themselves, they have confined her to the house and reduced her role to a strict minimum, making their religions perpetuate this structure of domination which wasn’t originally part of them.
Al-Ghoul’s relationship to her faith will strike a chord with all of us who feel alienated from and marginalized by dominant religious structures. When her family moves to the Emirates for her father’s job, she finds herself increasingly at odds with the “hard-line Islam” she is being taught in school. “Fortunately, I had my father to offset this,” she writes. “He would tell us marvelous stories about God, he would make us laugh, he didn’t force anything on us. ‘God isn’t the way they say,’ he told us, ‘He is the Merciful, the Compassionate. A person who gives up their heart to God is a Muslim, whatever their religion.’”
When the al-Ghoul family returns to Gaza in 1998 after eight years in the Emirates, she finds that her beloved seaside home is stricter than it was during her early years, “a society in the image of the Gulf.” She bears witness to the “so-called crimes of honor” that become more commonplace, backed up by legislation that upholds reduced sentences for men who murder their female relatives under suspicion of impropriety. In a particularly heart-wrenching chapter called “A Shameless Hussy?,” al-Ghoul recounts the story of her vivacious friend Imane’s conflict with her conservative father, a member of Fatah. When Imane’s father forbids her from attending college and she refuses to capitulate, he locks her in the bathroom as punishment. There, she drinks a deadly dose of cockroach poison.
Al-Ghoul uses these stories to make a crucial intersectional observation about the experiences of women in conflict zones.
The truth is that there is a profound correlation between “resistance” and “honor.” The “depraved” morals introduced by the occupiers are indeed seen as a permanent source of corruption for our society, which, as everyone knows, is “decent, moral and God-fearing.” The harsher the occupation is, the more resistance to the occupation expresses itself in a pathological hardening of attitudes in the manner of “honor”…. Resistance and honor are a regression which always means: the oppression of women.
Along with the many free thinkers in her family, al-Ghoul credits her love of books for allowing her to rise above rigid and regressive belief systems. Throughout her memoir, she name-checks writers who shaped her beliefs, including Milan Kundera (who “describes closed societies which repress beauty in all its forms”); Egyptian author Mustafa Mahmoud, a proponent of Marxism and moderate Islam; and Gamal al-Ghitani, who wrote the profound words “the migraine of liberty is better than the cancer of oppression.” Her ability to see through false dichotomies is evident in al-Ghoul’s writing and journalism, which is often perceived as a threat by the political establishment on both sides of the barbed wire:
Every time criticism of Israel was published … there was a massive and immediate counter-attack— as if there were a battalion of Israeli students keeping an eye on things around the clock. In Gaza, every time someone attacked the Islamist movement in one way or another, every time we called for a demonstration, dozens of people would rise up and respond as one, insulting and threatening us. The same mindset! That of powers that imagine they possess the truth and intend to silence any criticism.
A Rebel in Gaza is a beautiful and passionate dispatch from someone with profound insights into a region that remains ripped apart by statesanctioned violence and religious extremism. Like countless others in our time, al-Ghoul is exiled from the place that has shaped her into the extraordinary person she is, from the land that inhabits every corner of her heart and memory. Her book is a shot in the dark from someone who is no longer able to live in Gaza, but more than that, it’s a testament to the power of lived experience and to the importance of sharing stories if we are to shift our collective consciousness. I grew up less than 100 miles from Gaza, but I had absolutely zero concept of the place. Asmaa al-Ghoul has changed that:
We are the nation that takes the hardest knocks and that heals the quickest. We sometimes have wounds that go right to the bone, but we’re back on our feet the next day thinking about an outing, make-up, love…. We want to live our lives as we have lived through death—to the extreme. Gaza has always been rebellious. No one has ever been able to govern it for twenty years. It’s a crazy city, obstinate, addictive, I am her daughter, and I look like her. I am the one who won it, that war, and these are my children, the children of Gaza, because we’re still alive and I’m wearing a red dress.
Though our lives were shaped by two cultures at endless war with each other, al-Ghoul dares to build bridges, to pierce through propaganda, stereotypes, and bigotry, and to provide multicolored snapshots of a conflict that’s too often presented in superficial black-and-white sketches. Her stunning book celebrates women’s role in resisting hatred, in affirming life while oppressive patriarchal regimes perpetuate war and death. It’s a powerful self-portrait of a woman who refuses to cave, who, in fact, chooses to put on a ruby-colored dress and stand out from the crowd: a rebel from Gaza and for a more just world.
Hagar Scher is a writer and editor who lives in the Bay Area.