Journalist Laila El-Haddad talks about how her blog on life in Gaza morphed into a bestselling book.
Ten years ago, Laila El-Haddad, a Palestinian journalist, analyst and social activist, started a blog to cope with the pressures of her career and her role as a mother. Today, her blog has transformed into a book that takes you into a world both familiar and unfamiliar. You see her living in Gaza and covering its story. You see her recounting everyday events set against the backdrop of conflict, assault and anger. Published in India by Women Unlimited, Gaza Mama is both a personal diary and a selection of political articles. Excerpts from an interview:
Could you tell us a little more about how your blog transformed into the book it has become?
I grew up in Saudi Arabia where my parents worked. I went to the U.S. for college and met my husband, Yassine. He is a Palestinian with refugee status, which meant he was not allowed to visit Palestine. In 2003, I returned to Gaza to work for Aljazeera English’s new website as a reporter. I gave birth to my son, Yousuf, in 2004, on one of my trips back to the US to visit my husband. When Yousuf was about two months, I began my journey back to Gaza. I continued to commute back and forth every few months to see my husband.On one such trip, in the winter of 2004, my taxi driver informed me that the border to Gaza, the Rafah Crossing, was closed indefinitely after a bombing killed five Israeli soldiers.
This marked the beginning of a month and a half long exile in Egypt. During this period, I began a blog to keep my friends and family up to date. I started a separate blog with political commentary. It didn’t take long for me to realise that the personal is political for Palestinians. At that time my blog was called Raising Yousuf. Now it is Gaza Mom.
I wanted to help people understand dispossession, statelessness, violent settler colonialism, to help people see Palestinians as human beings rather than as abstractions or caricatures or statistics. The blog gradually morphed into a universal story.
In 2009, veteran journalist and publisher Helena Cobban approached me with an offer to help turn my blog into a book. Later, so did Women United Press. Obviously I wanted to include everything but I quickly learned after the publication of the first edition that “less is sometimes more”. So we decided to exclude some of the more newsy time-specific items in favour of more powerful personal pieces. I also updated the introduction to reflect the political changes since the book’s first publication.
You are a mom, a journalist, a Harvard graduate, a Palestinian. A bit about these identities and how they affect each other?
To be honest, I never consciously thought of my identity as a woman, or a graduate, or as a Muslim for that matter. But as time wore on, I realised that I wore a pretty unique hat. The roles are still all by happenstance, but I am more aware of them and certainly if I can use them to inspire others or gain access to spaces that would otherwise be difficult to enter and provide a voice to the voiceless, then so be it... I also realised that so few Palestinian voices or voices speaking on behalf of Palestine in general are women. And if so, certainly not mothers, even though historically speaking, women have been in the forefront of Palestinian activism, ever since the 1920s.
Looking back, I sometimes feel guilty (as all moms do, I guess!) that maybe I didn’t devote as much time as I’d have liked to my son. I inhabited a very lonely world when I was working in Gaza: there were very few female journalists, even fewer so who were mothers. But at the same time, I tried to equip him with the tools necessary to survive in such an environment, and by extension, the world.
Your book is, perhaps, one of the strongest examples of how the personal is political today and how the political scenario can affect family units.
Indeed. Our lives are inescapably political. Israel controls every aspect of our lives, down to where we can reside and how and whether we can move through individual area-specific ID cards, known as “hawyia,” issued by the military authorities. The hawiya is also used to prevent and restrict my movement from other areas Israel controls. It even nullifies any journalistic privileges I might possess. As one Israeli army officer once explained to me once, “We consider you as Palestinians, and therefore security threats, first; as journalists, second.” But most shocking of all, it is used to prevent thousands of Palestinians with different residency cards from living together with their spouses in their respective hometowns.
Through this book, are you putting a face to Palestine’s stories; not just your own but those of other Palestinian mothers?
I like to think so, yes. Again, I didn’t necessarily do so on purpose. After reading my account of being stranded in the Egyptian airport, one Palestinian man said: “Laila, you are not the first, nor the last Palestinian to have been detained and stranded at a border crossing; you were not even the worst case. But nevertheless, in your account of what happened, you became the voices of all of those Palestinians at once.”
It’s been almost 10 years since you started your blog. What has changed, what hasn’t?
I have simply not been able to devote as much time to the blog as I once did. Part of me feels that individual blogs are becoming obsolete, or at least are waning in readership, in favour of multi-author blogs, micro-blogging sites such as Twitter. At the time I started blogging, mine was one of roughly 12 blogs in the entire Middle East! At the same time, I see the value in keeping my site active, since it has such a strong web presence and searchability on Google. I also have been very busy with life: in addition to publishing another book this year (The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey), I also gave birth to my third child, Malaak, now eight months old!
Are there aspects of your book that are universal; that will be as much a part of the Indian social condition as of Palestine?
Absolutely! I think that perhaps one of the reasons it resonated (to my initial surprise!) with a global audience was precisely because of its universal themes of freedom, justice, mothering, social woes... I am particularly excited the book has reached India, because I think one can draw a parallel between India’s struggles for independence (and continuing post-colonial struggles), and Palestinian struggles of the same nature from Israeli settler colonial rule.