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I shall not hate, by Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish takes the reader into the dailiness of life on the Gaza Strip, where he has lived all his life. He shows the difficulties of getting an education when his family desperately needs the money he can bring home by working. He recounts the humiliations of crossing the border into Israel where he works as an obstetrician – sometimes it can take 24 hours and there is always the chance of being turned back. He reveals the poverty and the hopelessness of his fellow Palestinians.  Then, 3 months after his wife dies of leukemia, three of his daughters are killed by Israeli shells while they are talking in their bedroom.

As the title suggests, he refuses to hate. He learns as a 15 year-old that Israelis can be caring people when he works on an Israeli farm and is treated as one of the family. In an interview at the 2011 Sydney Writers’ festival, Abuelaish  expresses a rare burst of anger when the interviewer asks him how he can deliver Israeli babies, potential killers of Palestinians. He says that a baby is a precious new life and that no child is born violent or a terrorist.

How do I think about Dr Abuelaish’s story and the long agony of Palestinian refugees? This question has been nagging at me for a week now. I’ve read a number of cognate books recently – Mahboba’s promise, Three cups of tea, The hospital by the river. The difference between these books and I shall not hate is that Abuelaish is writing from inside the painthe others are all outside it and therefore they (and I more so) are distanced. I feel relatively easy about the other books –  I can donate to the charity attached to the book. Of course, I can do that with the Daughters for life foundation as well. But it seems inadequate.  

I hoped book club discussion would help to clarify my thoughts, but something quite strange happened. Everybody told a parallel story, after minimal reference to the book – a mother stationed in Gaza in World War 2, grandparents driven out by the Turks, a murdered girl and a Year 12 assessment task, Daniel Barenboim’s Palestinian-Israeli orchestra, the local fund-raising concert for Mahboba’s promise, membership 20 years ago of the free Palestine movement, good Jewish friends who went to live in Israel, Palm Island in the 1950s, the tensions under a three-day threat of bushfires. This has never happened before. We always focus on the book we read. Was it evasion? Were the actual events of Aubuelaish’s life hard for us all to cope with? And if that is so, why?

I look for help  in Susan Sontag’s Regarding the pain of others (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, NY 2003). She focuses her discussion on photos of atrocities. I scan it for words that might open up avenues to make sense of my responses: evasion, compassion, outrage, empathy, helplessness, frustration, sorrow, despair, indignation, pity, disgust, shame, shock, sadness. Some of these words resonate.

She encapsulates my problem for me: “How do I respond with emotional freshness and ethical pertinence?” She suggests that being human requires us to look at hard facts and startles me by saying that someone surprised by human cruelties hasn’t reached moral or psychological maturity.

I have many strategies to “avoid being moved”. Usually when I close a book “strong emotions become transient ones.” Sontag might say it’s normal to fend off thinking about the ordeals of others. Maybe this is what I’m fighting in my feeble way. Fighting to be haunted.

Sontag speaks of “the task of imagining” and an obligation to look at real horror.  Abuelaish doesn’t leave much for me to imagine. He describes his daughters after the explosion that kills them: her eye was on her cheek … her finger hanging by a thread of skin … (Mayar) had been decapitated … arms in familiar sweaters and legs in pants that belonged to these beloved children leaned at crazed angles where they had blown off the torsos.  As I copy this I feel invasive (Sontag calls this “the indecency of spectatorship”): I feel sick: I feel an urge to withdraw from the contemplation of this absolute awfulness. I draw back from the appalling act of imagination that seems to be required if I’m going to truly understand: putting my own children in that bedroom. I can’t do it.

When I previewed this post, my header was of burrawangs against spotted gums, in the peaceful bush near my unthreatened home. Other random headers show flowers, the ocean, rock patterns, birds – unspoilt things. I am writing this from a position of absolute privilege. How could I possibly understand life in a Palestinian refugee camp, carved off from the rest of the world by Israeli brutality and bloody-mindedness? My days are never a perpetual struggle for food and water, for education, for opportunity, for safety. I have what Sontag calls “the luxury of patronising reality”.

I don’t know that I’m any further forward. I can’t answer the main question: what does it mean to protest suffering? My final position is one of helplessness, and the shame that accompanies that. At least I didn’t, this time, “see the list in the morning paper and dismiss its recollection with the coffee.” But how can I take pride in this?

I can’t get out of my mind the accusation. Unless we alleviate we are voyeurs.

Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish website

Mahboba promise website

Three cups of tea website

Hospital by the river website