At the Threshold of Humanity
Gaza is not an abstraction
A FEW WEEKS AGO, in a world that was significantly different from today, I was preparing a keynote speech. I had been invited to talk about my work in Innsbruck, in Austria, at a conference on the French language across borders. Following the Hamas attack on October 7, I received a message from the organizers demanding that I share the title of my speech and that I “refrain from mentioning the current situation and leave the political dimension out of [my] talk to avoid any eruption.” I responded that I could not participate under these conditions, my whole practice and life being at stake in what is unfolding in my country. The organizer insisted on calling me so that she could explain that “the current situation”—a euphemism—seemed very confusing and complicated to her, possibly a minefield, and therefore they just wanted to make sure that what I said was appropriate. “I realize,” she added, “that you wouldn’t say anything horrific. I just want to make sure.”
I have been thinking about this conversation in the weeks since, about what it says of the way we Palestinians are considered as living, breathing, writing, political beings. That I did not go to a literary event is a minor, ridiculous consequence of what is happening. But it may suggest a frame, a shape, for that which I still struggle to name for fear it will come true—which is happening now in Gaza and in the West Bank.
“Let us,” the organizer suggested over the phone, “find a positive solution.” Yet the quandary she created was unsolvable. All possible solutions entailed my silence. The only positive solution available was for me not to exist as I am; to go to Innsbruck and pretend that my country was not being bombed, starved, and devastated. To go and pretend that my life is not defined, as it always has been, by apartheid and colonization. Even if I had wanted to comply with what she demanded, I had no idea how to do it: not only because I am personally affected, as is the very existence of my family and nation, but also because the novel I was to discuss takes place in Palestine.
A few days after, I learned that the Litprom had canceled the award ceremony celebrating Adania Shibli’s novel Minor Detail scheduled to take place at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Although the literary world reacted with swift condemnation—and we must acknowledge solidarity where it emerges—the idea was understood by all: Palestinian thinking, writing, living, is sometimes tolerated but never welcome.
For years, we’ve known that our humanity, as Palestinians, was conditional in the eyes of the world—and even when granted, never fully recognized. We were occasionally given this privilege if we were polite, reserved, almost invisible.
In the weeks since this phone call, we have moved toward something that I find difficult to name. This thing became increasingly clear over the weekend as the West watched with thinly veiled satisfaction as Gaza was cut off from the rest of the world and Israel commenced ground incursions. The ongoing and perfunctory discussions around the need for a “humanitarian corridor” themselves void the word humanitarian of its human component; they are discussed as we would discuss the survival of “human animals.”
In the media, Gaza is an abstraction, a space designed for the violent death of an abstract people inhabiting it.
Most Western governments have demonstrated their unflinching solidarity with Israel. Gaza is enduring sadistic collective punishment on a scale we have never seen before. Yet President Biden, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and French President Emmanuel Macron flew in, with words of support, of eternal gratitude, with promises of funds; they offered firm handshakes and virile hugs, and nary a sentence about the massacres in Gaza. The disturbing silence of Western governments is a vicious acquiescence to Israeli exactions. In France, where I live and work, things have been particularly chilling. On October 12, the minister of the interior, Gerald Darmanin, ordered all prefects in the country to ban so-called pro-Palestinian demonstrations due to fears of public disturbance. Although the Conseil d’État later struck down the blanket ban, many prefects have kept them up, often on the flimsiest of pretexts. We could parse, here, the irony of European countries, self-proclaimed bastions of free speech, banning protests, cancelling award ceremonies, and demanding to review a writer’s planned remarks. But that is not the point.
Those who should be brokers of peace have greeted with disdain calls for an immediate cessation of hostilities. This, in effect, gives a green light to Israel to act with full impunity, exacerbating an unprecedented humanitarian crisis born of seventeen years of siege and numerous major military assaults.
This wanton carelessness and dehumanization is why we feel a compelling urge to document and describe everything, big and small, to make sure that people understand what is at stake: “But this was a child,” we want to say, “and this an adult.” Not a thing bound to die a gruesome death in a devastated city but a child who would have grown by the sea, who would have been, perhaps, a good swimmer and bad at math or grown to really love cars or cooking. “And this,” we want to say, “was a residential building, this a restaurant on the seashore, this a house with a garden, where someone played or got into a fight in the kitchen, and this is all gone.” These are people with names, we want to say, and faces too, and lives, and friends grieving them, if they are not themselves now dead; and cities, cities, entire, whole. Real cities and towns which they call their own and which are now graveyards. Pundits on television, meanwhile, talk of the thousands dead as justified collateral damage—but this, we want to say, is the gleeful obliteration of a seashore, of families, histories, cities.
In the media, Gaza is an abstraction, a space designed for the violent death of an abstract people inhabiting it. This death comes at the hands of a natural, impersonal force—not one of the most powerful armies in the world propped up by the most powerful state in the world, with a government, and a people electing this government. It is a convenient framing, one that shifts guilt away from Israel. The destruction comes from above, and those who die are meant to die. All is as it should be. To that, we offer a correction: Gaza is not an abstraction. It is a shore and beaches and streets and markets and cities with names of flowers and fruits, not an abstraction but places and lives and people that are being bombed into oblivion.
We as Palestinians stand at the threshold of humanity. Sometimes invited, but not always. I keep going back to that phone call, to a voice on the phone, hailing from the far and distant land of humanity, where I am a guest until proven otherwise. The voice on the phone, kind, conciliatory, understanding, kept repeating: “Please, Karim, let us find a positive solution.” The organizer didn’t exactly reject my humanity. It was simply a very inconvenient fact for her that I was a human; she had to contend with it and was very uncomfortable. She suggested that we could talk about things such as “exile, memory, transmission, borders,” but, please, without mentioning Palestine. I wondered how I could talk about exile without mentioning the material cause of this exile, which is a history of occupation. I wondered what “memory” consisted of in this context, if not survival in spite of a concerted, century-long campaign to erase all our histories. I wondered, also, if she imagined that it was great fun for me to talk about depressing subjects. Believe me, I would rather talk about anything else if I could. But I cannot.
What she was requiring of me was to render every single complication of my political and intimate being palatable and harmless, to stop being a liability to her. These are the contradictions that we are expected, as Palestinians, to solve within ourselves: to exist without talking about why we exist. In a way, she wished, very politely, that I could, very politely, cease to exist. What was I supposed to utter, then, at Innsbruck, if not the consent of my own vanishing? And today I understand what I felt as we spoke. The shadow of things I don’t want to name. I was neither angry, nor sad, nor indignant: I was desperate. I kept talking. I couldn’t hang up the phone. I couldn’t say, “No, I will not come,” and hang up. I needed this voice on the phone to acknowledge my humanity. For a few minutes, I was convinced that if we hung up, without this acknowledgement from her, without this recognition of me, I would vanish.
These are the facts: no water, no fuel, no electricity. Oxfam warned that the lack of water and the collapse of sanitation services will lead to outbreaks of cholera and infectious diseases. Hospitals, houses, schools, mosques, and churches are bombed indiscriminately (a callous word I am loathe to use, for what is to bomb if not indiscriminately?). As I write, Gaza has been plunged into darkness, all its communications with the outside world cut off. On live feeds and in photographs, explosions light up the skyline. Gaza has become a place designed for death indeed. And we, Palestinians and humanists around the world, wonder: Which will be the horror that will be deemed horrific enough to finally traverse the threshold into universal horror?
It seems there are not enough horrors inflicted upon the Palestinians to prompt the international community to demand, unambiguously, for a cessation of hostilities. The voice on the phone, like much of the world around us, was asking the same thing: please, let us find a positive solution. If only you could vanish, or—easier yet—if only you had never existed at all, and if only you could spare us the horror, the displacements, the bombings, the killings, the starving of a people that you are forcing us to unleash upon you. The world itself echoed in this voice on the phone telling me: there is a solution, if only you weren’t so stubborn, there is a solution, which is to vanish within the contradictions wrought upon you; if only you could disinvite yourself from the world, if only you did not complicate the world with your existence, if only I did not have to talk to you, if only I did not have to listen to you, if only.
*This text was originally published in English in The Baffler on October 31, 2023. K-oh-llective commissioned an Arabic translation by Yasmine Haj, which you can read here.
Karim Kattan is a writer born in Jerusalem. In French, his books include the novel Le Palais des deux collines, published by Éditions Elyzad in Tunisia. In English, his work has appeared in The Paris Review, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, +972 Magazine, The Funambulist, and more.