Song of the Caged Bird

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In the spring of 2012, I traveled to Birzeit – a Palestinian village not far from Ramallah – to begin a residency at the Palestine Writing Workshop. There I led a three-week creative nonfiction course called “Writing Real Life” to nine female students. The women had little in common besides the fact that they all lived in Palestine. They ranged in age from their early twenties to mid-seventies. Most were born in Palestine, some in America. Some had traveled widely while others had not. I felt fortunate to have such a diverse group of students to work with.

I felt fortunate, too, to be back in the West Bank and wanted to find my own project to work on. I’d written about Palestine before. My last book, Walls: Travels Along the Barricades, was inspired by Israel’s ‘separation barrier’ around the West Bank and includes a chapter on what it means to live in the Wall’s cold shadow. I didn’t want to pen another overt political piece during my residency, however. I wanted to write about the Palestinian experience from a starting point other than the conflict. In the West, Palestinians are only ever portrayed in the same context of anger and deprivation. Nearly everything we hear about Palestine is borne of this one narrative. Palestinians have been simplified by their perpetual struggle. They are characters in a single story.

And yet my students wrote very little about the Occupation. This surprised me. When left to choose whatever stories they wanted to write, they opted for narratives about personal relationships and household dramas. Instead of checkpoints and refugee camps, they wrote about family vacations and school memories. Some stories were serious and others lighthearted, but the conflict only occasionally revealed itself in their work. Their assignments provided my first glimpses of a complete Palestinian life.

Inspired by my students’ writing, I decided to seek new narratives on the bookshelves of Palestine. I wanted to write about the Palestinian relationship to literature and the written word. I traveled to Nablus where I toured the Prisoners’ Library, a collection of books belonging to First-Intifada-era political prisoners. I visited the Khalidi Library in Jerusalem where one of the city’s most enduring families maintain a remarkable collection of ancient, hand-scribed tomes. I paid homage to the tomb of poet Mahmoud Darwish, the world’s most celebrated Arab writer and a kind of secular saint to the Palestinians. I met with the owner of Educational Bookshop to in East Jerusalem, participated in a night of poetry reading at a Ramallah garden café, and met with a Palestinian-Canadian family whose personal library was confiscated by Israeli officials during the chaos of 1948.

I found the conflict everywhere I went, of course. The Occupation saturates every aspect of Palestinian existence. But I discovered, too, what it means to read and to write while in the midst of an ongoing struggle. I learned how words themselves can be dangerous and contraband, how books are something to fight for, and how writing a love poem can be an act of resistance. I learned how a physical book can be regarded as a near-holy relic of a culture that is both sophisticated and enduring. Most of all, I learned how Palestinians use literature to write themselves a complete life.

I’ve compiled my literary experiences in Palestine into an ebook of reportage called Song of the Caged Bird: Words as Resistance in Palestine. The book is published by Hazlitt, the digital imprint of Penguin Random House and is available in Kindle form from Amazon.com and Amazon.ca.

Song of the Caged Bird also has a Facebook page where I will be posted news about the book as well as links to stories relating to Palestinian literary culture. ‘Like’ it here.

Read an excerpt from the book on the Hazlitt page here.