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Who was Refaat al-Areer, Gaza’s Beloved Writer?

December 30, 2023

Refaat al-Areer dedicated his life to writing about Gaza. He was killed in an Israeli airstrike in northern Gaza on 7 December, along with his brother, sister, and four of her children.

Al-Areer is not an individual case, more than 21,000 Palestinians have been killed in the war on Gaza. Like many, he was faced with two predicaments: stay at home in northern Gaza and risk being killed or try to flee without protection. Like many, al-Areer and his family declined to leave, because they “have nowhere else to go.”

“It’s an archetypal Palestinian image of a discussion, a debate on should we stay in one room, so if we die, we die together, or should we stay in separate rooms, so at least somebody can live,” he had told CNN in October.

Born in the Shuja’iyya neighborhood in eastern Gaza city, Al-Areer received his MA in Comparative Literature from University College London (UCL) in 2007 and went on to become a professor of Comparative Literature at the Islamic University of Gaza.

At Gaza’s oldest university, he taught Shakesepare and John Donne’s poetry, among other subjects. He also introduced his students to Malcom X, feminist literature, and even the works of Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai — always adamant to allow his students to experience the world beyond Gaza’s fences and borders.

“Echoing the title of Refaat’s book, Gaza Writes Back, we will continue to write back. We, his students and those who hold his words and memory dear, will persist in narrating his stories and ours. We will keep telling these tales until we claim our rightful place in the world, until we are free,”Jehad Abusalim, one of Al-Areer’s students wrote.

He was the co-editor of ‘Gaza Unsilenced’ (2015) and the editor of ‘Gaza Writes Back: Short Stories From Young Writers in Gaza, Palestine’ (2014). He also contributed to the 2022 anthology ‘Light in Gaza: Writings Born of Fire,’ with “Gaza Asks: When Shall This Pass?”

“It shall pass, I keep hoping. It shall pass, I keep saying. Sometimes I mean it. Sometimes I don’t. And as Gaza keeps gasping for life, we struggle for it to pass, we have no choice but to fight back and to tell her stories. For Palestine,” he wrote in the poem.

As an activist, he was also one of the co-founders of ‘we are not numbers’ – a project launched in Gaza following the 2014 Israeli attacks to help mentor and support the young writers in Gaza who want to tell their stories to the world.

He also played a crucial role in guiding numerous Palestinian writers, among them Yousef Aljamal, whose essay on Gaza will be featured in In These Times’ upcoming magazine issue. Aljamal affectionately refers to Al-Areer as “the giant of the Palestinian narrative coming out of Gaza.”

Before he was killed, Al-Areer wrote his poem “If I Must Die” which has been widely shared across social media, and has been translated into several languages, including Spanish, Italian, Tamil, Urdu, Tagalog, Greek, Japanese, Yiddish, and more.

If I must die,
you must live
to tell my story
to sell my things
to buy a piece of cloth
and some strings,
(make it white with a long tail)
so that a child, somewhere in Gaza
while looking heaven in the eye
awaiting his dad who left in a blaze—
and bid no one farewell
not even to his flesh
not even to himself—
sees the kite, my kite you made, flying up above
and thinks for a moment an angel is there
bringing back love
If I must die
let it bring hope
let it be a tale
فلابد أن تعيش أنت
رفعت العرعير

إذا كان لابد أن أموت
فلابد أن تعيش أنت
لتروي حكايتي
لتبيع أشيائي
وتشتري قطعة قماش
(فلتكن بيضاء وبذيل طويل)
كي يبصر طفل في مكان ما من غّزة
وهو يحدّق في السماء
منتظرًا أباه الذي رحل فجأة
دون أن يودع أحدًا
ولا حتى لحمه
أو ذاته
يبصر الطائرة الورقّية
طائرتي الورقية التي صنعَتها أنت
تحّلق في الأعالي
ويظنّ للحظة أن هناك مالكًا
يعيد الحب
إذا كان لابد أن أموت
فليأ تي موتي بالأمل
فليصبح حكاية

ترجمة سنان أنطون

Translation by Sinan Antoon

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