It hit me one day last year. Time is running out.
My plans to travel to Palestine in 2020 with my father and children were cancelled. I had to face the reality that my father will never enter a free Palestine in his lifetime nor likely walk the streets of his village with my children holding his aged, calloused hands, listening to him narrate the stories of his childhood as he did to me ten years ago.
All I have is an oral history sealed in the body of a man dispossessed and denied his homeland.
So I showed up at dad’s house with my iPhone.
We sat in his backyard on a sunny Sydney winter day, nursing cups of murky Nescafe—the only coffee he will drink—and I said I want to interview you and he said about what and I said your life and he said okay but you ask the questions, and I said okay and then I went blank because how do you record a life? How do you decide what questions matter? How do you repress the panic that you might forget a detail, a piece of family history that will be buried when your father dies and which you’ll never be able to find out about, cut off as you are, from homeland, from family, from the yellowed papers and documents rotting in an empty house in a village you are denied the right to return to?
I decided I would document our family tree. Tell me their names I asked. Dad started hesitantly, self-consciously, sitting with his Nescafe in one hand, a straw Bunnings hat on his fuzzy white hair, until suddenly I saw him cross the threshold from suburban Sydney to Palestine, into his village of Burqa, in a grey limestone house with an arched green front door nestled on a huge block of olive trees. He’s three years old, sitting on his mother’s lap, crying because a kid hit him in the alley. And then it’s a torrent of memories: coming first in a class of seventy and being rewarded with a ballpoint pen—the first person in his village school to ever own one, a pen that cost my grandfather half a month’s income; a younger baby brother who died of typhoid and whose giggle Dad can still remember; receiving a scholarship with the UNRWA to study in Egypt … on and on he went.
We sat for hours. The sun retreated, the Bunnings hat came off, and dad would not stop talking, knowing that his oral encyclopedia is the one thing Israel cannot destroy. We moved through 1945 to 1975, to Dad’s political junkie memories of Whitlam’s dismissal. By then, we were drained, chasing fragments of a diasporic life: Palestine, Kuwait, Egypt, Australia. It’s only part one, I told him. I’ll be back for more.
I arranged for the interview to be transcribed with an online company. When it arrived, I delayed opening it. I wanted to savour the transcript, wait for the right time.
I ended up opening it after an especially painful week in July 2020. With two other Palestinian activists, we organised a historic statement of solidarity for Palestinian people signed by over 900 academics and artists including prominent Indigenous leaders, elders, artists and writers in response to Australia shamefully being one of only two countries to vote against a UN Human Rights Council resolution condemning Israel’s intention to illegally annex significant parts of the occupied West Bank.
Overland journal instantly agreed to publish the statement. The statement was also picked up and reported on in the London based The New Arab. But mainstream establishment Australian media ignored the statement and silenced us, either flatly refusing to publish the open letter or, in the case of one particular platform lauded as one of the as one of the most progressive media outlets in the country, ignoring our tweets, emails, direct messages. I documented this here for Meanjin.
We speak, we are not heard.
I was exhausted. I opened the transcript, seeking comfort in my father’s voice.
Speaker 1: It’s the 19th of July 2020. Okay dad, we’re going to start right from the beginning. Can you tell me the full name of your mom and dad and how far back you can remember the family tree? Can you tell me their names?
Speaker 2: Well let’s start with mom and dad.
Speaker 1: Okay.
Speaker 2: My mother’s name [inaudible]
My father, [Mahmud] [inaudible].
Speaker 1: And your grandparents?
Speaker 2: [Inaudible]. [Inaudible]
Speaker 1: What were your sibling’s names?
Speaker 2: I had five. [Inaudible] [Inaudible] [Inaudible] [Inaudible] [Inaudible]
I am a writer. I can’t help myself. I see metaphors everywhere.
What will it take to be heard? How is our suffering, oppression, ethnic cleansing to be translated and transcribed? We say 750,000 in 1948 and they transcribe ‘Israel has a right to exist’. We say military occupation, illegal settlements, annexation, and they transcribe ‘Israel has a right to security’. We say ‘apartheid’ and they say, ‘the only democracy in the Middle East.’ We say boycott, divestment, sanctions, and they translate, ‘anti-Semitic.’
What is the audibility of justice for Palestine? I ask this not of the Zionists, but of the so-called ‘progressive left.’ I spent Ramadan and Eid watching videos across my social media feed documenting ethnic cleansing, pogroms and bombs. There is noise; perfectly audible noise: the chants of ‘death to Arabs’; settlers pounding down doors of Palestinian homes; the cry ‘you are stealing my house’; the sound of teargas and stun grenades in al Aqsa mosque; the sound of rocket fire, buildings collapsing, haunting, terrified screams.
I can hear it all, so loud that it’s as if I’m at a concert, but instead of being turned inside out by the music, the tremors of Israeli terror violently reverberate in my chest, my head, my throat, my mouth. The terror is so audible I can feel it in every part of my body, all the way here in Australia.
But the silence of establishment media, of so-called progressive journalists, artists, activists and academics who five minutes ago were all ‘decolonisation, intersectionality, anti-racist!’ is deafening. For silence in response to the cries of a brutalised, besieged population is excruciatingly audible. It’s a soundscape of signals that suffocates voices, effaces testimony. The acoustics of silence over the slaughter of Palestinians relies on the melody of dehumanisation.
What will it take to be heard above this melody? It hasn’t taken the frenzied, shrieking lynchings and pogroms by Jewish mobs in Tel Aviv or Lod. Nor the buildings and homes exploding into ear-splitting smithereens in Gaza. It hasn’t taken the sound of children’s bodies torn apart by bombs, limbs flinging against debris.
It’s not a question of apathy. Would that it was. Apathy can at least encompass an acknowledgment of the moral legitimacy of a cause whilst tuning out as background noise a people’s anguished screams for help. No, for Palestinians, the soundscape of silence questions the very right of Palestinians to scream, to demand to be heard. The clear audibility of a liberation struggle is drowned out by the booming lyrics of ‘two sides’, ‘it’s complex’, ‘conflict’, ‘clashes’, ‘balance’, ‘but what about Hamas?’ and ‘Israeli security.’
It’s hard not to feel broken. I do not know how to face the fact that 73 years of settler colonial violence and ethnic cleansing does not vibrate in people’s ears, heads, hearts and chests so loudly that they will do everything in their power to stop it. I no longer know what it will take for the sound of a Palestinian family being ripped apart by a bomb, or a family pleading to remain in their homes, to ring in people’s ears. I do not know how to face the fact that people I personally know who profess to be progressive, human-rights loving, anti-racist, decolonial, intersectional, open-minded refuse to so much as whisper one word: Palestinian.
Our names, our lives, our dreams, our aspirations, our trauma, our rights are transcribed over and over again: inaudible, inaudible, inaudible.
What will it take for you to hear us?
Randa Abdel-Fattah is an internationally award-winning author, former lawyer and a human rights and anti-racism advocate.