Telling stories out of troubles: a Palestinian woman’s evolution from activist to author.
When I tell the tall, slender woman that she does not look like a mother of three, she retorts brightly, “What, you mean you don’t see the stress lines and wrinkles?”
And so it is with this beguiling blogger-turned-author Laila El-Haddad — her quick mind is her one of many weapons of choice.
We chatted during her visit to the Kuala Lumpur Palestine Film Festival where she joined a line-up of guests that included an Italian film-maker and Algerian/Belgian photographer. Laila, described as an ‘American/Palestinian author, political analyst and social activist’ was invited by Viva Palestina Malaysia.
She is not, however, a woman who carries the gravity of self-importance with her like a desperate magnet.
She takes the subject of Palestine seriously – as one would when one has been put through soul-crushing ordeals — but she is warm, gracious and – just as importantly – a mesmerising raconteur.
Her kind, steady and patient gaze, fringed by impossibly long, dark lashes, belies her robust intelligence.
Born in Kuwait, Laila commuted with her family back and forth between Gaza, Saudi Arabia (where she lived for many years) and Bahrain.
In possession of the hawia, (pronounced hawh-wiyh-yah; it refers to the identity card for Palestinian residency in the occupied territories, issued by Israelis post-1967) Laila’s Gaza-born parents had to return frequently so as to renew the pass and to stay connected with the land.
“This meant my childhood was spent living in different spaces [with] different identities,” she states neutrally, elaborating that many Palestinians who were studying or living abroad were not so fortunate to be issued a pass.
Her Palestinian but US-based physician husband, for example, has been unable to return to Palestine (“he was a refugee,” she explains) for decades. His success now tells no hint of the hardships he endured in his early life.
“There are more Palestinians living outside Palestine than in it,” she declares, amusement spreading across her features when she sees my reaction. “There are at least 300,000 of us in Chile alone.”
This effortless airing of such grave facts, falling like dandelion clocks from Laila’s lips carried in the wind, feels much like the diaspora of Palestinians across the globe. It’s as if Atlas sprinkled Palestinians everywhere except in the place they belong.
The tragic and bleak outlook of forcefully-displaced Palestinians, however, has made Laila neither bitter nor brittle, as one would expect of a relentless, hard-core activist. No: the thirtysomething seems to know innately that sometimes pushing on a door isn’t the only way to open it.
Which is why the US-educated former journalist, more than anyone, is surprised at the life and momentum that overtook something as commonplace as her 2004 blog (“Remember this is before Facebook,” she laughs) that chronicled her daily ‘mom’ life. Some random force of nature has now made her book materialise from mere blog.
It was the first English-language blog out of Gaza, she adds, and “initially it was done to keep my husband in touch with what was going on, but it quickly became a window for the outside world – who had little reliable information besides what they were being fed in the media – and it was really more of a personal blog.”
The blog – initially titled Raising Yousuf and later renamed Gaza Mom as her brood increased in number — helped bring the Palestine situation to a “human scale,” she states without rancour, to help people see Palestinians as “human beings and not as terrorists.”
Clearly, Laila understands the power of assumption borne of misinformation. It was the beginning of her writing journey, one she felt where it was important to personalise the chronicles of Palestinian history from an individual perspective.
“I realised, for Palestinians, the personal is political – you can’t separate the two.”
The two are inexorably tied, she asserts, debunking some detractors’ claims that a person’s private life has nothing to do with political upheaval.
The reality is political strife does have an impact, if not an outcome, on a person’s everyday life; “Israeli politics determines who you can marry, where you can live and where you can move,” she reminds me.
Very few people in the Western world understood that, she adds, which makes it even more meaningful when she discovered the sheer volume of readers in and out of Gaza who were reading her words – including, much to her surprise, Israelis with supportive messages.
Even something “so mundane as border crossings,” she says, which were so fraught with obstacles they could test the patience of an angel, were vivid realities, the impact of policies and politics that few see beyond the mortar shelling and weapon-fitted aggression.
“And so I just put everything out there in my writing,” she finishes, sure-footedness adding finality to her tone.
Gaza was hermetically sealed between 2007 and 2010 and Laila “tried to go back” but couldn’t get inside, (“I was blocked and detained by the Egyptians even though I wasn’t a US citizen”) but when she finally did, in 2010, she realised there was a whole new generation of young Palestinians using social media to great benefit.
These are the little details “Palestinians take for granted that everyone knows [of these details] but they don’t.” These are the details that would seem horrific to any of us if we had to endure them on a daily basis, these deprivations of dignity.
“To this day there are Palestinians living in Malaysia who try to go back but they’re denied a visa by the Egyptians,” she states, but not harshly. It is simply a fact to be dealt with, another telling piece of the pragmatic and realistic person that she is.
Why are they being denied a visa, I prod gently. “Because of security,” she says a little exasperatedly, “even though the Israelis are not in charge of that crossing (from Egypt,)”
But these are people returning to their home base – how is that a security threat? “Exactly,” she says, eyes afire.
“It makes no sense.”
She recognises this manoeuvre as “divide and conquer,” she says, shaking her head at the deliberately-tricky impositions that Palestinians crossing from Egypt can only do so with an Israeli-issued hawia.
To put things in perspective, it’s like being told you can’t go drive into your own home unless your neighbour, who has sequestered your garden and appropriated half of your house, issues you a pass with which you are allowed to enter your own grounds.
How has all this affected her as a woman?
She laughs – a reaction I did not expect – and says with some incredulity, “I still cannot stop myself from offering my personal information everywhere I go, like I expect people to always ask me for identification.” She tells me how refreshing it is to “walk around here, in [another country]” and not have people stop her and ask for ID.
“So I ask, ‘are you sure?’” she laughs, and now I understand why. The things we take for granted – like not being stopped and interrogated – feel like a suspension of reality to people like Laila. She has managed to make her point in good humour, but without lessening its tacit meaning.
Laila is proof, I think silently as this fearless, bright woman openly shares her life story to me, that — to paraphrase Walt Whitman – a flower can grow even out of stony places.
- Laila El-Haddad’s book, The Gaza Kitchen, co-authored with Maggie Schmitt, published by Saba Islamic Media, is available at www.sabaonlinestore.com