By Karen Dabrowska
THE HUMAN individual voice has been lost from the Palestinian narrative and Dina Matar is determined to put it back.
Her latest book: What it Means to be a Palestinian, Stories of Palestinian Peoplehood is a narrative of narratives, a collection of personal stories, remembered feelings and reconstructed experiences by different Palestinians whose lives were changed and shaped by history. Their stories are told chronologically through particular phases of the Palestinian national struggle, providing a composite autobiography of Palestine as a landscape and as a people.
The book begins with the 1936 revolt against British rule in Palestine and ends in 1993 with the Oslo peace agreement that, according to Matar, changed the nature and form of the national struggle.
It is based on in-depth interviews and conversations with 80 Palestinians male and female, old and young, rich and poor, religious and secular in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Israel and the Occupied Territories. Presented as remembered and personal narratives and as “social” histories, these conversations provide a deep and intimate account of what it means to be Palestinian in the 21st century.
Speaking about her book, at the University of Westminister's Communication and Media Research Institute in London at the end of February, Matar explained that she was re-writing history from the perspective of the person using the oral history method.
"This is a bottom up history of Palestine where the Palestinians represent themselves. The best way to talk about what it means to be Palestinian is to let the people themselves talk. I wanted to write in a way that is accessible to many readers not just an academic audience", Matar said.
She is convinced that memory can speak truth to power. There is no such thing as a single Palestinian memory but Palestinian memories are political at heart.
During her presentation at the University of Westminster Matar focused on extracts from her book.
Ellen Khouri, one of the interviewees told her: "I had many identities and I still do, but none of them is the right one, none fits".
The late Shafiq Al-Hout who lived in Lebanon after being exiled from Palestine asked: "What can you say to someone whose normal existence has been taken away from him? It took me a while to have a bed and a room to call my own. It might not seem that hard to you but believe me, living in a room with so many for eight years is hell.
And yet it is nothing compared to other experiences. I have been through a lot and you can read about my experiences and my journey into exile in my book. And now that I am an old man and more reflective I can tell you that my experiences taught me that you can survive anything. You can survive loss but not non-belonging".
The book also describes the experiences of veterans of the Palestinian struggle. Leila Khalid, the first woman to hijack an aeroplane, spoke about leaving Haifa and eating oranges in her uncle’s house. Her mother scolded her and told her "our oranges are in Haifa not here".
And there is an interview with an artist who spent 15 years in prison, in solitary confinement. "The Israelis thought we would come out of prison like rotten tomatoes but we came out as apples", he said.
A member of Islamic Jihad recalls an interview with an Israeli army officer who asks him where the Israelis should go if they leave Jaffa and Haifa. "I don't know", he replies. "Ask Hamas".
Dana Matar is a lecturer in Arab Media and International Political Communication at the Centre for Film and Media Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Before turning to academia, she worked as a foreign correspondent and editor covering the Middle East, Europe and Africa with various agencies. She is a co-editor of The Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication. She has published journal and book articles on the Palestinian Diaspora in Britain and news, culture, politics, Arab women and media and Hezbollah. Her new book will be published in October