“The bombings continue and every day my heart is shattered”: authors Sally Rooney and Isabella Hammad reflect on the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict.
Sally Rooney: During the height of the crisis in Gaza in November, I was invited to participate in a public event with British-Palestinian author Isabella Hammad. The purpose was to discuss our roles as novelists and the impact of current events on writers and artists. Due to travel constraints, I proposed conducting our conversation through email and publishing it for others to read.
In both her literary works and her nonfiction pieces, including her recent lecture in memory of Edward Said titled “Recognising the Stranger”, given at Columbia University in New York in September, Hammad skillfully delves into the complexities of Palestinian life. Her debut novel, The Parisian, draws inspiration from the experiences of her great-grandfather, Midhat Kamal, who returned to his hometown of Nablus in Palestine after studying in France during the aftermath of World War I and the beginning of British rule in the region. Her second novel, Enter Ghost, centers around a production of Hamlet in the West Bank during the summer of 2017.
In the span of 14 days, during the beginning of December, our communication amounted to nearly 10,000 written words. The following is a shortened and simplified version of our exchange.
Sally Rooney expresses gratitude to Isabella for taking the time to have a conversation about the current situation in Palestine and Israel. It is a challenging task to discuss the extent of the violence, moral implications, and political and historical significance of these events.
I am deeply concerned about the recent incidents of civilian casualties, both in Israel on October 7th and on a much larger scale in Gaza since then. The severity and widespread nature of the attacks on civilians in Gaza, and the widespread acceptance of such violence by the international community, feels unprecedented in my lifetime. Additionally, I am disturbed by the simultaneous destruction of Palestinian culture and history, including the demolition of universities, mosques, streets, and neighborhoods, especially in Gaza City.
As we start our conversation, I feel the need to recognize that I am an “outsider” to this topic. A part of me wants to refrain from speaking and leave these discussions to those who are more knowledgeable. However, being a European, I am deeply involved in the situation. Israel’s political strength is heavily influenced by its alliance and trade with the EU. I am sure you are aware of this. Your fiction explores the complex and ongoing relationships between Palestine, Israel, and Europe in thought-provoking and ambiguous ways.
In your recent book, Enter Ghost, there is a lovely moment where two women converse about the intersection of art and political defiance. One of these women, Mariam, is overseeing a performance of Hamlet in the West Bank, while the other, our narrator Sonia, plays Gertrude. In this scene, Mariam expresses concern about the possibility that art could lessen resistance by portraying suffering in a gentler manner. Sonia suspects that Mariam doesn’t truly hold this belief; rather, she wants Sonia to offer a counter-argument because it aligns with what she wants to believe.
However, this exchange remains open-ended – and I believe it is beneficial as it allows for further thought. The desired “counter-argument” that both characters and readers likely yearn for is never fully expressed. Perhaps the novel itself serves as the counter-argument, as it juxtaposes its Hamlet-like scenes with ones of disturbing political and military suppression, yet still manages to evoke our empathy for the play’s success.
Can you share your thoughts on the connection between creative and intellectual work and political activism and resistance? How do you see the role of artists and intellectuals in the current climate? I struggle with using the phrase “a time like this” because I don’t believe there has ever been a time quite like this. Can you offer your perspective?
Isabella Hammad: Hello Sally. Lately, many people have been asking me similar questions – what should artists be doing in this moment? I wonder if this question is a way of expressing horror not only at the immense scale of violence being inflicted, but also at how it diminishes our humanity and makes art seem powerless. It’s easy to feel useless and hopeless, but I believe despair is not an option and is not morally justifiable.
When the recent outbreak of violence began, I found it impossible to think calmly or analytically. Instead, I felt the need to simply experience and acknowledge the tragedies and loss, believing that any other response would be distorted. However, the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, which started in 1948, continues at an alarming pace, with efforts to forcibly relocate them not only in Gaza but also in the West Bank. I am increasingly convinced that racism and the underlying factors that lead to this type of genocidal violence are rooted in thoughtlessness. Racism, in my opinion, is often not a deliberate choice but rather a form of ignorance: it is the absence of critical thinking. That is why it is crucial to communicate and articulate our thoughts clearly.
I strongly believe in the political importance of creating art at a slow pace, even though it may not always be tangible or predictable. However, I do occasionally doubt my faith in this belief. While some individuals may be better suited for taking quick action, the current extreme levels of violence will eventually subside and the pace will shift, making the contributions of those who work slowly valuable once again. In the meantime, there are also smaller actions we can take, such as speaking truth to power when those in power are being deceitful. We can also amplify marginalized voices and demand that history, facts, and humanism are given importance.
However, it is important to remember that artists and intellectuals are also individuals who are part of the larger society. It is crucial to uphold the fundamental democratic idea that the collective exercise of individual agency can be a powerful force. Unfortunately, there has been a lack of concern in recent decades about the significance of maintaining a consensus on democratic principles. It is as if these principles will sustain themselves without any effort from us. People in developed countries tend to have short memories. These principles and institutions were hard-fought and were established amidst immense global conflict. The Geneva conventions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which have only been in existence for less than a century, are now losing their meaning. This is a terrifying thought, not just for Palestinians, but for everyone.
In my novel, there is a scene where two characters discuss the impact of art in political activism. I personally believe that art plays a crucial role, so I disagree with Mariam’s stance on the matter. However, I do not think it is realistic to expect one piece of art to have an immediate and significant effect on the world; this seems like a misconception. Do you ever contemplate this concept?
Can you provide further information on the relationship between Ireland and the support of Palestinians? If possible, I would also like to know your personal views on the matter.
Reworded: The situation in Ireland is complex. While the Irish people show a strong sense of solidarity towards Palestinians, this sentiment is not fully reflected in our political leaders. As a nation state, Ireland is closely connected to dominant powers, creating a conflicting dynamic. For example, although a law was passed by our parliament to prohibit trade with illegal Israeli settlements, international pressure, particularly from the US, resulted in the government blocking its implementation. This highlights Ireland’s position as a former and partially current colony, with underlying sympathies, while also being a wealthy European country with a close relationship to the US. This contradiction has always existed but is becoming more apparent in recent times.
In my personal experience as an Irish author, I have always felt a sense of freedom to express my thoughts on Palestine. I have not faced any serious objections from anyone for what I have spoken or written. However, when I made the decision to participate in the cultural boycott by rejecting a book offer from an Israeli publishing company involved in the occupation, my opinions suddenly became controversial, not just at home but also on an international level. This was intriguing to me as it highlighted where the true political boundaries lie. It made me realize that my previous sense of freedom to speak out was based on the fact that no one paid attention to my words.
I am noticing a shift in the situation. It seems that even mild speech from influential figures in Europe and the US is now facing harsher political suppression. We are witnessing cases of actors, writers, and athletes losing their jobs for simply signing petitions or sharing posts on social media. At the same time, there is a significant increase in public protests and demonstrations against the violence in Gaza. I wonder if the growing efforts to silence public discourse on this matter suggest that supporting Palestine in the global north is becoming a significant policy challenge for Israel. Do you believe this to be true, or am I overly optimistic?
You mentioned the concern that international humanitarian law is losing its significance. I share your concern as it poses a danger. As we are both aware, Israel has chosen not to ratify many important agreements that make up international law. Additionally, they have blatantly violated even the treaties they have ratified, following the lead of the US. Despite this, no action has been taken. It has become clear that international law is ineffective in preventing the crimes of the US and its allies, and it also fails to impose consequences after the fact. Given this reality, what do you believe can be salvaged from the concept of international law? Is it just the ideals and principles? If so, why not call it “international wouldn’t it be nice” instead of labeling it as “law”? I apologize for sounding cynical, but it’s difficult not to be in light of current events.
It is accurate to say that international law lacks significance without the necessary determination to uphold it. Additionally, the discussion of human rights has consistently overlooked the struggles of communities in the global south. This concept was predominantly created by Europeans and did not acknowledge the impact of colonialism. It also failed to consider the rights of indigenous peoples, as it focused solely on the nation state as a framework.
In 1948, the Declaration of Human Rights was written and ratified, coinciding with both the Nakba [“the catastrophe”] and the establishment of Israel. This is an interesting fact, as 750,000 Palestinians were displaced from their homes that same year while the UN was drafting a document promoting global principles. Israel was later accepted into the UN with the condition that it adhere to resolutions 181 and 194, which state that Jerusalem should be internationalized and that Palestinian refugees should be allowed to return to their homes and receive compensation if they choose not to. However, Israel did not comply with these resolutions. This called into question the universality of the declaration and the exclusion of Palestinians from its protection.
Even if the origin of the discussion itself is flawed, shouldn’t protecting human rights still be considered a fundamental principle? I am aware that the discussion stems from the UN, which emerged from the League of Nations, which in turn emerged from European imperial power. The entire system is in need of reform, but could it not serve as a universal tool or framework that could potentially restrain the “might is right” mentality of post-imperial or neo-imperial nations seeking power? Do you believe that this is overshadowed by the way human rights discourse often acts as a cover-up for the wrongdoings of those in positions of authority?
The suppression of advocating for Palestinian rights in the western world has been ongoing for a significant period of time. However, it is now more openly and extensively occurring. This backlash may be a manifestation of fear, as the act of silencing speech suggests its potency. This could also explain the recent increase in repressive actions towards speech that is perceived as particularly influential.
Whether we should be optimistic, though, I don’t know. It’s good to feel encouraged, so long as that doesn’t lead to complacency. Solidarity with Palestinians may be waking up in what you call the “imperial core” (which is also what I think people are often referring to when they talk about “the international community” –especially the US, the UK, France and Germany), but at what cost? The numbers killed, maimed, people without any family, small children without parents… the mass graves. At the moment international solidarity has not even produced the bare minimum: a ceasefire. The bombs are still falling. My heart breaks every day. It’s unbearable.
SR: On a few occasions recently, when I’ve been feeling almost inured to the imagery of violence, some particular report or photograph or video has suddenly left me speechless, lost, unable even to think. I had one of these moments yesterday, seeing footage online of a mass grave. The footage showed a rough trench in which dozens or maybe hundreds of bodies had been laid, bound in blue cloth, and a mechanical digger was shovelling earth into the trench. I’ve since read that these bodies had been brought from al-Shifa hospital, which is now under Israeli occupation, to Khan Yunis, to be buried. How is it possible to describe such a scene? As if it’s happening in a film or a novel; as if I’m trying to tell you about something I’ve seen in an episode of a television show. But this is our world, the world in which soil is shovelled over the unmarked bodies of the dead.
I am struggling to comprehend this. There is no way to make sense of it. Every part of me resists what I am witnessing. I reflect on all the things I have written to you about geopolitics and public opinion in the west, and I realize how meaningless it all seems. Is it really worth discussing a celebrity’s Instagram post and whether it gives us reason for hope? Every time I check my phone, I am bombarded with images of destroyed neighborhoods, grieving mothers, and mass graves. It makes everything I have to say seem absurd and repulsive. In these moments, I lose faith in language, conversation, and dialogue. The only word that holds any weight for me is: No. All I want to do is repeat it to myself over and over again as I see these images of destruction and suffering.
How can we label the severe mistreatment of the Palestinian people, including mass killings, starvation, and psychological torment, if not as genocide? To have a meaningful discussion about this, we must first establish a common language and shared definitions. While international law may have its flaws, it still provides us with necessary tools. In a recent article, Palestinian legal scholar Rabea Eghbariah stated, “We cannot afford to overlook any legal means to identify and address the crimes being committed against the Palestinian people.” Despite my frustration and skepticism towards international law, I cannot ignore the crucial work being done by historians and legal scholars like Eghbariah and Israeli historian Raz Segal. This work is more important than ever in the current situation.
I am also reminded of Mario Savio, a prominent figure in the American civil rights movement. In 1964, while discussing racial segregation, he famously stated, “There comes a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you cannot participate. You cannot even passively take part. And you must put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus – and you must make it stop!” This sentiment also resonates with the actions of anti-war activists today, who are actively shutting down weapons factories, impeding military vessels, and physically obstructing the functioning of this machine. The bravery and importance of this kind of work should not be overlooked.
IH: I appreciate your honesty in your recent message. I am uncertain of how we will overcome this situation. I fear that we may never fully recover from it.
After the first three weeks I decided I really needed to get a grip. I’d missed my flight from the US, I somehow got the day wrong, I wasn’t eating meals and my tongue swelled so much it had the indents of my teeth on either side, I couldn’t hold a conversation and I forgot names and places, and then last week I was, for some weird reason, finally operating fairly normally – yes, in a daze and with a brick on my chest but I was even doing work, I was going on marches and undertaking a normal level of political activity until, I think it was the day I wrote my first response to you, maybe it was because writing that demanded that I think a tad more deeply again, maybe it was because someone had just texted me that a colleague had lost his parents and his older sister and all her children in the bombing but I just lost my shit, as they say. It was like the lid of the box flew off. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a meltdown like that before.
On a daily basis, I am consumed with a great sense of shame. Despite my efforts and limitations, I cannot escape the feeling of guilt while knowing that I am relatively unaffected while people in Gaza are experiencing mass killings.
In my initial message, I expressed that I initially believed communication and writing were futile, as you mentioned. Despite feeling overwhelmed, it is crucial that we continue to communicate and think clearly. It is our duty, especially when politicians claim that these matters are too complex for us to grasp. This is simply not true. Similarly, when they claim their actions are ethical or appropriate, they are also being dishonest.
Regrettably, the content shared on Instagram holds significant weight. The conflict involving Palestinians has consistently revolved around rhetoric and public relations. This endeavor has heavily relied on military backing from Western nations since its beginning. Without the approval of Western populations and the accompanying military support (totaling $172 billion in mostly military aid and missile defense funding from the US alone; Israel is the largest recipient of international aid), the existence of Israeli apartheid would not be sustained. Therefore, these actions and words hold significance. Language carries great weight, although in our hearts, the most crucial issue remains the tragic loss of human life.
I am glad that you mentioned Rabea’s work. The key point he discusses is the framework of the Nakba, which holds great significance for me. Every massacre has its own distinct characteristics, and it is crucial that the ongoing suffering of the Palestinian people is recognized globally using the terms they use. Despite being colonized, the Palestinians still have the ability to make decisions and take action, even if they face structural obstacles. There is a vast amount of insightful, strategic, and philosophical thinking and action within the Palestinian community that should be acknowledged and explored. The Nakba is a good starting point for this.