There is a moment in Atef Abu Saif’s new book where he describes the moment the 2008-09 war between Israel and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip began. He was lecturing students at the time.
Less than a year after the most recent Israel-Gaza conflict – the main subject of the academic and novelist’s non-fiction book The Drone Eats With Me: Diaries from a City Under Fire – does this experience haunt him when he gives lectures today?
“When it comes to universities, when you teach during war, you see the distraction of the students because they don’t see the future,” he tells Times Higher Education. “In the 2008 war they were kids. They are now 19. So they’ve had three wars since childhood.”
This “dark picture of tomorrow”, the threat of the drone – which influenced the title of Saif’s book – “reminds you that the next war might disrupt your future”, he says. “It might not let you do what you want – you might not even exist.”
With this stark reality facing Gaza, how does one retain any semblance of normality? Saif, whose book often references his daily routines, says that trying to be normal is “one of our strategies to survive, because you live under the pressure you might be dead in the next minute”.
“I don’t want to sit under this pressure, so I wanted my life to go on normally as it does every morning and evening,” he adds.
As his book details, this meant smoking water pipes or playing cards with friends, perhaps watching the football World Cup on a communal television, or walking the short distance to his father’s home – although with hindsight he admits that this might not have been the safest course of action during wave upon wave of air strikes.
Besides creative writing, Saif teaches political and social sciences at Al-Azhar University in Gaza. Surprisingly, he says that university study is readily accessible for most people, despite the difficult conditions.
“Higher education is appreciated by normal citizens. It’s kind of a social protection and about securing the future,” he says.
“Despite all the circumstances in Gaza, the shortage of funds, the weak infrastructure and uncertain political circumstances, the city’s universities are functioning.”
Although he says that currently he can only really “make a difference” to the academy in Gaza, not beyond, Saif sometimes wishes he could “take a break” and work at a European university. This desire, however, is tempered by the realities of his volatile environment. Leaving Gaza would mean leaving his children behind, and thinking of making applications several months down the line becomes a luxury when short-term survival cannot be guaranteed.
“In Gaza, you cannot plan for tomorrow. So if I want to apply for a teaching job in Europe or somewhere, it’s very complicated,” he says.
After studying English literature at Birzeit University, an institution near Ramallah, Saif travelled to the UK and the University of Bradford, where he took an MA in European studies. He completed his PhD in political and social science at the European University Institute in Florence, but he says it was his time in Yorkshire that taught him most about independent thought and academic research.
A UK education is a passport to employment in the Middle East because British universities are highly respected there, he adds.
At Bradford, Saif learned that what you think and how you research is more important than what you are researching.
“Information is available everywhere – you can take it from the computer, from books – but you need to know how to rearrange it.
“I remember my professor said: ‘I’m not an expert in the subject, it’s you who is the expert. I’m teaching you how to think about your subject.’”
This is a lesson Saif passes on through his work at Al-Azhar. “I tell my students: ‘I don’t know everything, I’m teaching you how to swim in this sea. How much you swim, and how far, is up to you.”
It was not only academic enlightenment that Saif gained from his time in the UK. The cultural opportunities it offered allowed him to “bridge the gap” between the UK and his native country.
“I learned a lot, because in Gaza we didn’t have museums or cinemas. When I went to Bradford, I was 25 years old and I didn’t know what a cinema was…what a theatre, museum or opera was.”
The cultural disparity between the Palestinian territories and the UK was recently exemplified when Hamas-affiliated security services in Gaza prevented Saif from travelling to Casablanca, Morocco to attend SIEL, the 21st International Publishing and Book Fair. There it was announced that his novel, A Suspended Life, was one of six shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction – a highly prestigious honour, widely known as the “Arabic Booker”.
“I was very sad that I couldn’t join the fair; it made me sick,” he says. “What Hamas are saying is they don’t understand the value of culture in society and our lives.”
Through literature, “you have a Gaza that is not presented in the news – you have a Gaza that is full of life and creation”, he says. A Suspended Life tried to present “Gaza as a city which is not only producing the breaking news, the bloodshed and political quarrels: I try and present Gaza as a cultural city”.
But, he says, when this “voice” receives an honour, “I am not allowed to leave”.
The war is over for now, at least – although Saif says you can still see its “consequences on the skin of the people”. He adds that he is hopeful that he will be able to attend the International Prize for Arabic Fiction awards ceremony in Abu Dhabi next month and plans to continue writing regardless.
“I’m very busy with my writing and this makes me think I’m doing something for the future. I try and depict the feelings of those around me. I’m trying to make their minutes, their lives, immortal.”