Stories of exile and resilience: Reclaiming the Palestinian narrative

Stories of exile and resilience: Reclaiming the Palestinian narrative

Written by Alia Chebbab

Illustration: Yafa, 48 Stories of Exile from Palestine, by Dina Fawakhiri

Seven months have passed since the Israeli military attack on Gaza began, with the death toll growing exponentially along with a rising number of injuries and widespread devastation. Amid this unabated genocide, Palestinians are seeking to reclaim their narrative and assert their voices. 

Since October, mainstream news sources have faced criticism for biased or incomplete coverage of the genocide in Gaza. Just these last couple of weeks, as journalists widely cover the pro-Palestinian protests in university campuses, we can’t help but wonder: where is the Palestinian community? From the start, Palestinian voices have been notably absent from the coverage of the genocide, and much of the reporting has lacked historical context, resulting in one-sided narratives. 

On the ground, journalists from Gaza have turned to social media platforms like Instagram to provide first-hand, unfiltered coverage of the war, allowing global audiences to hear the stories directly from the ground. Among them is Bisan Owan, who has been reporting daily from Gaza, showing the world the realities of living under attack. Her series of videos, opening with “It’s Bisan from Gaza and I’m still alive”, have garnered more than 40 million views across social media, and her courageous, unfiltered reporting have earned her a Peabody Award, one of the most important awards in broadcast journalism. 

In the United Arab Emirates, members of the Palestinian community and supporters have been joining forces to share stories of Palestinians in exile, and shed light on their lived experiences. A team of more than 60 contributing authors, illustrators, editors and graphic designers worked pro bono on the book 48 Stories of Exile from Palestine, curated by author and reading advocate Deema Al Alami. 

During the Women in Literature Festival organised by Ananke Magazine in April, I spoke to Al Alami and contributing author Nimati Emam to discuss the importance of capturing the journeys of Palestinian people who have experienced exile.

“The purpose of this book is to bring the English speaking community closer to our truth, to hear our stories from our mouths, not from someone else. Not from someone who studied about the Palestinian diaspora or the Palestinian exile,” Al Alami said. “I’m not a historian. I want to tell you stories about people just like you and me. People who have love stories, have ambitions, have hobbies. It’s pure luck that they were born in Palestine, and you weren’t. And this is what they went through.”

“These stories are our families’ legacies”

“What is happening currently in Palestine, both in the occupied regions and in Gaza was shocking to me – as a human being first and foremost. But also as a descendant of Palestinians,” said Al Alami, whose paternal grandparents are Palestinians in exile. “I had a lot of negative emotions: I felt despair, I felt sad, upset, disappointed, and hurt. And all of these emotions were stopping me from being able to be productive.”

deema al alami
Deema Al Alami

But after watching a video of Hajjeh Hadya, an elderly Palestinian woman from Gaza who was smiling and laughing despite being exiled and forcefully displaced from her home twice, Al Alami decided to make her a role model, and use the love Hajjeh Hadya expressed for her people and her land as an inspiration for the book. 

“Back in September, I saw a video of a very old lady in one of the hospitals in Gaza. She was injured, and had a bruise on her forehead. She had been evacuated from her home because there was a bombing nearby. And this old lady, with white hair, dressed up in  beautiful Palestinian attire was full of love, and full of laughs. She was actually teasing and flirting with a young reporter in the hospital.

“Two things stood out to me at that moment. First was how much love this person had in her heart – just like most of our grandparents, despite everything they’ve been through. And the second thing was the fact that she was very old. Hajjeh Hadya had two things with her: she had a picture of her current home in Gaza and an identification card showing that she was born in Tulkarem, a city in Palestine, in 1944. Unfortunately, most of the people who were born before the Nakba in 1948, are quite old. And if no one preserves their stories, they are going to die with them.” 

Hadya was later assassinated in front of her home while drinking tea, and this book, dedicated to her, is a way to keep her memory alive, Al Alami said.

Emam, who is the first generation of her family to live outside of Palestine, felt a strong responsibility to tell her family’s story. 

“These are the stories that we grew up with. These are the stories that make us. These are our families’ legacies,” she said. “I have a very strong connection, and a very good grasp of the reality of Palestine, before and after the occupation. So I felt the need to honour this reality and this understanding by sharing our story. 

“Recent events have shown us we are the children and the grandchildren of the Nakba survivors. We heard those stories, secondhand, but now we’re witnessing them: the exact same things are happening in front of our eyes. It brought up a lot of emotions. It made the stories that we heard a reality. And now we have the opportunity to do something – telling the story was driven by this sense of responsibility. So I shared my grandmother’s account, for the world to hear, and for the world to see that we exist.”

Storytelling is a powerful form of resistance

48 Stories of Exile from Palestine sets to represent the cultural and religious diversity of Palestine, and focus on the history of each contributor’s family, rather than the story of exile itself.

Nimati Emam
Nimati Emam

“When you meet a Palestinian who’s not in Palestine, there’s always a reason why they’re not there. And this reason is rarely voluntary,” Emam explained. “There’s always a backstory, and this is what literature allows the world to see. Some people made it outside of Palestine and managed to build a successful life – it’s successful, because they’ve survived. Being a Palestinian outside of Palestine and surviving is a duty. But the story that got us to where we are, the journey, is equally important.”

“When it comes to any group of oppressed people we automatically speak about them in numbers,” Al Alami said.” We say 33,000 Palestinians have been martyred, 77,000 have been injured –  it’s always numbers, numbers, numbers,” she said. “But behind every number there’s a story. And at a human level, if you have a heart and you read these stories, you’re going to connect with that human, and you’re going to understand.” 

For Emam, who is also a communication expert with more than 20 years of experience, language and the use of words is important. 

“When we say occupation, you immediately think of mass destruction, mass killing, mass exile,” Emam explained. “And this image is the result of a dehumanisation strategy. This is how it works: it dehumanises the group, so the individuals become less visible in this group. So the opportunity to tell the stories of individuals is very important to honour our parents and our grandparents, but it’s also part of our resistance, when we refuse to cast a blanket of generalisation on our people. So having the names of the people and of the cities, the emotions, written and narrated through these stories, is also part of refusing to be seen as only occupied people – we are people.”

“Freedom for Palestine is freedom for any oppressed group of people”

When asked how individuals or communities can engage in meaningful advocacy and support those who have experienced exile and oppression, Al Alami and Emam recommended starting by engaging with Palestinian people, and prioritising their voices over the narratives commonly presented by mainstream media.

“What we need to do is start to ask these difficult questions, like why is this person saying that? Who is this person? And not just relying on mass media. There are no excuses now for anyone not to be standing up for humanity – whether it’s the Palestinian cause or a natural disaster that happened,” Al Alami said.

“I have no doubt that, regardless of where you are, there’s a group there advocating for Palestine. You can find them easily online, reach out to them, see how they’re active, see what sits with you. Use what you’re good at to serve the Palestinian cause, or any humanitarian cause, because that would only make the world a better place – I believe that freedom for Palestine is freedom for any oppressed group of people.”

Learn more about 48 Stories of Exile from Palestine here


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