I recently got the chance to chat with Palestinian writer and human rights advocate, Rifk Ebeid. Rifk has worked with various human rights organizations on media advocacy, and is a published author of the must-have children’s books “Baba, What Does My Name Mean?” and You Are The Color. The MuslimMatters editorial team was recently blown away with her insight on her critique and review of the film Huda’s Salon–so I knew I had to talk to her about the importance of Palestinian stories and storytelling.
Meena Malik: Assalamu alaykum, Rifk! It was so nice connecting with you when you reviewed the Palestinian film, Huda’s Salon for MuslimMatters. Your critical opinions of the film made me wonder…why is telling stories about Palestine and Palestinians so important?
Rifk Ebeid: Wa ‘alaikum assalam Meena, it was so nice connecting with you as well! There are so many reasons why telling stories about Palestine and Palestinians is important. For Muslims, in particular, Palestine is a holy land home to many of our revered prophets, and home to our first qibla, Masjid al Aqsa – a trust from Allahthat should be protected at all costs. But, although Palestine should be of utmost importance and urgency for the Muslim world, it is important to clarify that the violent Zionist colonization of Palestine is happening to ALL Palestinians; both Christians and Muslims. All Palestinians are being targeted because they are the indigenous people of the land. Zionism necessitates the Palestinians’ non-existence or erasure in order for Israel to exist. So, telling stories about Palestine and Palestinians is extremely critical precisely because our very existence is being threatened and erased. We have to cement our stories, in our own words, on our own terms, in the minds of all through any means necessary. If we don’t tell our stories, they will either be covered up or someone else will tell wrong version for us.
Since Israel’s inception, the story of Palestine has been usurped by our colonizers, and the gatekeepers of the media have kept our voices silenced. Today, we have SO much access and so many opportunities to share our message with the world, and we must be actively taking advantage of that.
MM: How would you say your background informs your thoughts about the importance of telling Palestinian stories? I’d love to know more about your ethnic/cultural background, family history, your education, and other work you’ve done.
RE: I am Palestinian. My mom is from Jerusalem and my dad is from al-Khalil (Hebron). I was born and raised in the US in a small city in Florida, and we were one of the only Palestinian families in the area. My parents always surrounded us with books about Palestine, and always talked to us about the news and what was happening back home. They were also unapologetically Palestinian, and never sanitized their message. We spent our summers in Palestine, and I think being able to have that opportunity to see first-hand what it meant to live under the boot of Zionist oppression really helped build an intrinsic drive to pursue justice. I have been told I have been talking about Palestine since pre-school, so naturally my educational path was in pursuit of doing what I can to serve my people. I have a BA in Political Science, an MA in Human Rights studies, a JD in law, and an MA in Speech Language Pathology. I believe that the overarching theme throughout my studies was the strong belief in the power of effective communication and using our voice to make change in our society.
What Makes for Good and Not-So-Good Palestinian Stories?
MM: Wow, your parents seem so awesome! What a great precedent to have set for you – a Palestine liberationist since pre-school! May Allah preserve them, ameen. What, in your opinion, are the ingredients needed to make good Palestinian stories?
RE: I think any story, whether Palestinian or not, requires heart. You have to feel that burn from within that there is an important message you want to share with the world. I think for Palestinians, we might feel an added layer of responsibility to “get it right,” as marginalized communities are constantly put under a microscope. But I believe that if you tell what you know, and don’t cater your message to anyone else’s standards or expectations, you will tell the most authentic story. Palestinians, like any other group, aren’t a monolith, so what I consider important ingredients may not be what another Palestinian writer considers important.
MM: I love that nuance there, and you’re so right–Palestinians are not a monolith and an abundance of Palestinian stories, just like for any other marginalized group, is really needed. Can I ask you the opposite of that question, then? What makes “bad” Palestinian stories, for lack of a better term?
RE: That’s tough to answer without being subjective. I like to read stories about Palestinians told by Palestinians. And I say this because we are the ones experiencing this world as Palestinians and whatever it means to be Palestinian, in all its layers and complexities. So we are the ones that would be able to offer the most authentic perspectives. I also find it very important to think about what message we are choosing to share with the world, what our intent is in sharing that message, and what our call to action is. Because our very existence is under threat, if the story is superficial or stereotypical, lacks depth, and doesn’t serve our cause in a positive and transformative way, then it is not the story to tell.
MM: It’s so interesting how you mention that the stakes here are so dire – what you’re saying is much more than just “authentic storytelling from authentic Palestinians.” We often hear praise about stories in books or TV/film that feature underrepresented groups, especially when people from those groups are involved. But Palestine is different because of the ongoing occupation.
Let’s address the issue of the Western gaze specifically when it comes to stories about Palestine. Stories, art, and film can all help convince people in the West and others who are blind to the struggle of the Palestinians; that they should care about a peaceful, just resolution for the Palestinian people. What’s the balance here?
RE: It’s a hard balance. You want your story to reach the masses, but you don’t want to cater your story to those masses. I shouldn’t have to write a story with someone else’s sensibilities and fragilities in mind. I shouldn’t have to alter my characters’ lives and experiences to match that of an entirely different culture just so that they care a little more. What is the point of telling an indigenous story or giving an indigenous perspective if it’s being sanitized? As humans, we can all relate to themes of loss, tragedy, despair, fear, justice, freedom, etc. These universally-felt themes can be wonderful points of connection between cultures. And these universally-felt themes will resonate with audiences when told through an authentic lens that keeps the character’s experience and emotions in mind, not the audience’s.
MM: That character-centric and story-centric approach is a really thought-provoking way to think about crafting stories. Thinking about it more, honestly the best stories I’ve read or watched are ones that don’t let the audience dictate the story and message.
Addressing the Difficult Realities in the Ongoing Occupation of Palestine for Children
MM: Let’s talk about a more serious subject now. When I was going through teacher training, one of my professors, Arlette Willis, was having teachers-to-be find literature to talk about genocide with elementary and middle school students. I know you’re a mother yourself, and you’ve written two children’s stories about Palestine. These stories tackle the struggles of the Palestinians and you didn’t back down from them. Why did you want to write these stories? How do you talk about horrific realities at an age-appropriate level, and why did you feel the need to do so?
RE: I wrote these stories because I wanted to give my children a resource that reflected their identity, history, and culture in a positive and proud way. They are going to face difficult circumstances, discussions, and experiences as soon as they enter school. I wanted to help lay the foundation for them to be confident in their identity, specifically as Palestinians, and to feel equipped to speak up. I didn’t back down from our struggles because this is a part of our lived reality as Palestinians. As Palestinians in the diaspora, I feel like the least I can do is teach my kids about what their family in Palestine is going through. I want them to know that they are a part of this global struggle for freedom and justice, and that they need to be active players in the pursuit of justice, and that starts with education.
Kids love to see themselves reflected in books; something tangible and “real” that celebrates who they are. What a boost of confidence it offers. I talk to my children openly about what is happening in Palestine, taking into account their personalities, their sensitivities, their ages, and levels of understanding. But always start with the basics: “We are from Palestine. It is our homeland. It was stolen. We will return. And we will always fight for justice.” Kids are incredibly smart. They understand the concept of fair/unfair. As for the question of “why?” Because when we became parents, we took on the responsibility of raising the next generation of future leaders that will impact the trajectory of their society and our world. We want to raise children who are aware of what is happening in the world around them so that they know how to process it as adults and how to recognize right from wrong.My most recent children’s picture book, You Are the Color, for example, tackles the subject of al-Nakba, or “The Catastrophe,” of 1948. This event is seared in the consciousness of every single Palestinian because it marks the mass ethnic cleansing, expulsion, and the attempted erasure of us as an indigenous population. It marks the start of one of the longest lasting, most abysmal refugee crises of our time, with millions of Palestinians scattered around the world or languishing in refugee camps, still fighting with strength and resilience for our right to return to our homeland. For Palestinians, al-Nakba isn’t just an event in history, it is a meticulously planned genocidal campaign against us that has continued unabated since Zionism’s inception. Children who read my book will get to know Thaer, a young Palestinian boy from Yafa, who was expelled from his home by a Zionist terror group during al-Nakba. They will learn about the injustice Thaer faced, while at the same time learn how he still finds hope, resilience, and strength in spite of the darkness he faced.
How Should We Keep Fighting for a Free Palestine?
MM: Rifk, I am so inspired and touched by your activism and resilience, especially in passing along pride and a sense of responsibility to your children as well as other children, Palestinian or not, who read your children’s books with their families. As we have been recently reminded with the assassination of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, it is so vital that Palestine and Palestinians are seen – to exist is to resist, as they say. Advocating for justice and fighting for the truth to always be spoken is as relevant today in the Palestinian cause as it was ever before.
Thank you for sharing with all of us about your thoughts on the importance of Palestinian stories. I wish you the best of luck with your children’s stories, and I can’t wait to see what your next story will be, inshaAllah. Before we go, can I ask you one more question?
What advice would you give other Palestinian diaspora/first-generation Palestinian-Americans to keep the fight strong and the message undiluted?
RE: Education. Education. Education. We have got to educate ourselves so that we can educate others. The more we know, the more we understand, and the better advocates we can be for our cause. In additional to formal education, we should also be open to seeking out and listening to a variety of Palestinian perspectives and opinions, as well as our oppressor’s lies and falsehoods, and any talking points in between. Knowledge is power. The more you know, the stronger you will be. When you know your facts and your history and your rights, no one can cause you to doubt yourself or to dilute your message. That education and knowledge base that you build will also allow you to be an active player in envisioning what it really means to liberate Palestine and what tangible steps you can take to help pursue liberation.
Source: Muslim Matters