Don’t Look Away

Selma Dabbagh

I wonder whether there is a right way to respond to grief, to loss, to a risk of genocide of one’s people. Whether one should go out or stay in, whether it is unseemly to visit cinemas and theatres, to eat out in restaurants, or to laugh. I know a young woman in London whose home was bombed in Gaza City on 10 October. Her family are (or were, the last time I spoke to her) in a tent in a school in Khan Younis. They have no walls, she says. No roof. Some days they eat nothing but a small tin of pineapple, or mushrooms. It is getting cold. Like thousands of others, they had no chance to pack anything from their home before it was bombed. On one occasion there was fighting outside the school, men fearful for the safety of their wives, their daughters, trying to get them inside the gates. The bombing is non-stop. ‘Some days I find everything very funny,’ she told me. Some evenings she spends in tears, but everything is unstable. ‘I feel I am going mad,’ she said. ‘I can’t stop laughing.’

‘You need to go out,’ I was told by a friend who has filmed undercover in Afghanistan. She is no stranger to political turmoil or to loss. ‘You have to.’ My daughter says the same. She has heard me watching news clips in the middle of the night. I went to a reading of Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal in Notting Hill. ‘MacNiece,’ the convenor said, referring to the poet’s writing on the Spanish Civil War, ‘didn’t believe in advocating for or against, but in a more nuanced approach.’ The audience murmured approval. In the rug-strewn bar afterwards, I imagined the severed arms of toddlers raining into their wine glasses and upsetting the olive bowls.

In the accounts coming out of the Gaza Strip, as well as evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity, people tell of the persistence of a sense of community, of kindness and hospitality, of people sharing food, providing assistance and opening their doors to others: a solar-powered house with all the phones and laptops of the neighbourhood being charged in the living-room; a five-seater car fleeing south with 21 people in it, many hanging out of the boot, stopping to pick up an old man walking crying in the street; a hungry boy by the roadside with enough pride left to refuse a half-eaten biscuit; aunts found burned in the rubble with children in their arms; murdered university professors who had spent their spare time teaching children for free as the school system was so lacking.

In London, I went to see Annie Baker’s Infinite Life at the National Theatre. Women in California in ugly clothes fast for days staring at a parking lot. They hate fasting and vomit bile. It doesn’t seem to help. Their pets are in clinics too. The smell of bread wafts in from the bakery over the wall. They are in pain. They compete about how much pain they are in. They have not been touched. They do not touch each other. They have had bad sex, or no sex, or dream about sex with a tortilla chip up their arse. A woman struggles with reading Daniel Deronda and lies on her back trying to make herself come. She can’t. It hurts too much.

On 2 December, I spoke at a panel at the Bristol Palestine Film Festival. The original venue for the event, the Arnolfini Theatre, cancelled the festival’s booking on 21 November, saying that the theatre ‘could not be confident that the activities would not stray into political activity’. The festival scrambled for new venues, finding them at the Watershed and Sparks. I shared a stage with the rapper Lowkey: last year there was a campaign to get his music removed from Spotify.

The fight for artistic spaces that will engage with Palestine is a global one. In Sydney, when three actors in Chekhov’s The Seagull wore the keffiyeh during the curtain call, there was outrage from sponsors and the press. But as Louise Adler, the director of Adelaide Writer’s Week, put it, ‘there is a long, honourable and important tradition of artists being engaged in the world they inhabit, and art that is not made of this world … feels to me rather vacuous. I'm not sure what we expect from contemporary theatre if we don’t expect it to engage with the issues of the day.’

My friend the doctor Ghassan Abu Sitta is back in London, reunited with his family, juggling press interviews, going back to work, winning prizes, speaking at the Houses of Parliament and advising humanitarian charities on how to support Gaza’s destroyed health system. Nothing appears to have been discovered under Shifa Hospital after all. Ghassan spoke of the ‘lunacy’ of the images showing guns behind an MRI scanner. ‘You never put metal next to an MRI,’ he said. Nothing of significance was found at the hospital. Babies were left struggling in incubators with nothing but kitchen foil to keep them warm. The Israelis destroyed another hospital for no reason, and arrested and killed more doctors and health workers.

Ghassan has also submitted a statement providing evidence of alleged war crimes to the Metropolitan Police, who have taken the unusual step of encouraging victims and witnesses of terrorism, war crimes and crimes against humanity both in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories to submit evidence. Karim Khan KC, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, has visited Israel and the West Bank. Three Palestinian human rights organisations called him out for saying he was in Israel when he was standing in Occupied East Jerusalem. Israel, which is not a signatory to the Rome Statute of 1998 that established the ICC, didn’t allow him to go to Gaza. The question was why they allowed him to go to Israel or the Occupied Palestinian Territories at all. Neither the UN Special Rapporteur for the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, nor the UN Permanent Commission of Inquiry, have been able to get access. When, in 2015, the Palestinians joined the ICC, the Israeli government took punitive financial steps against them, by withholding taxes.

Last Friday the UN Security Council voted on a resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire. The US vetoed it. The UK abstained. The death toll has now reached 18,000.

In January 2022, a Byzantine church with an intricately tiled floor was discovered in Jabaliya camp in northern Gaza. The British Council partly paid for its restoration. Last month the Arab Network of Civil Society Organisations to Safeguard Cultural Heritage reported its total destruction. The report also itemises the complete destruction of other sites including the Porphyrius Orthodox Church, several Ottoman mosques, souqs and schools, as well as the partial destruction of the English Cemetery and the St Hilarion Monastery. The Gazan Centre for Manuscripts and Ancient Documents was bombed and the archives at Birzeit University in Ramallah were burned. Theatres, cultural centres and bookshops have been reduced to rubble.

There is a desire to eradicate Palestinians here: past, present and future. And much of it is going on in the dark. Communications are often down and patchy at best. And there has been a literal shooting of messengers: at least sixty journalists have been killed in Gaza since 7 October. ‘We are a group of people being killed,’ the photojournalist Motaz Azaiza posted on Instagram last week. ‘We are a cause fighting to survive. How alone we are.’

‘The situation is just getting worse in an unimaginable way,’ Plestia Alaqad wrote at the same time. ‘I feel that everything is so pointless. I don’t know how to deal with death anymore. I feel I don’t have the privilege to be sad.’ Sunday, 10 December, as well as international Human Rights Day, was Alaqad’s 22nd birthday. ‘That means I am four aggressions (2008, 2012, 2014, 2023) old,’ she wrote. ‘All I wish for is to have some rights. All I wish for is for Palestine to be free. All I wish for is to be in my house.’

In Australia, Louise Adler said that her grandfather was murdered in a concentration camp and her father was part of the resistance in Paris from the age of 14. ‘His legacy to me is that it is important and it is vital for us not to look away,’ she said. ‘That we all have a choice. That the world looked away during the Second World War and Jews – six million of our people – were murdered in that looking away and that it is incumbent upon humanity to look at what is happening in Gaza now.’


  • 31 December 2023 at 1:19pm
    James Lever says:
    "'MacNiece,' [sic] the convenor said, referring to the poet's writing on the Spanish Civil War, 'didn't believe in advocating for or against, but in a more nuanced approach.' The audience murmured approval. In the rug-strewn bar afterwards, I imagined the severed arms of toddlers raining into their wine glasses and upsetting the olive bowls."

    I was the 'convenor' referred to. The quotation Ms Dabbagh attributes to me is entirely inaccurate, and would not anyway have been referring to the Spanish Civil War, about which Louis MacNeice was clear-mindedly pro-Republican. The inference she draws – that MacNeice's Autumn Journal was presented to a complacently apolitical audience as an example of the virtues of not taking sides – is untrue. I hope the poem was left to speak for itself, and if my introduction emphasised the difficulty of an antifascist artist's position in 1938, it was only to underscore the fact that MacNeice's poem – with its self-contradictions and uncertainties – endures as a description of the experience of a political sceptic arriving at a moment where a side must be chosen despite misgivings. I should add that MacNeice, who was a citizen of a neutral country, returned to England in 1940, attempted to volunteer for the Royal Navy (being rejected for poor eyesight), and spent the war working for the BBC. Ms Dabbagh is entitled, of course, to imagine the severed arms of toddlers raining into the wine glasses and overturning the olive-bowls of those who had listened to Autumn Journal that evening – the proceeds of which, incidentally, were donated to the refugee charity Safe Passage UK - but to imply, as she does, that either the poem or its presentation advocated a position of non-involvement, or attempted to assert the privilege of art to recuse itself from politics, is simply false.