Spanning decades and encompassing war, mass exodus, epic migrations and the search for individual and collective identity, Ramzy Baroud’s new book The Last Earth tells the story of modern Palestine through the memories of those who have lived it.
In this interview, he draws upon the dozens of interviews that allowed him to produce vivid, intimate and beautifully written accounts that give ordinary Palestinians the opportunity to narrate their own history.
Can you explain a little bit about the political project undertaken in The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story?
In my new book, I attempt to offer an authentic Palestinian narrative, one that does not only challenge the Zionist discourse – ever violent, dismissive and undeniably racist – but also contests some of the existing narratives that purport to be speaking on behalf of the Palestinian people.
I believe that no one is more qualified to speak for Palestinians, but Palestinians themselves, especially the refugees amongst them – those who have paid the heaviest price for Israeli atrocities, and whose collective identity is shaped by seven decades of a relentless fight for freedom.
25 years of a frivolous ‘peace process’ and the competing narratives that resulted from this futile exercise, have increasingly rendered the refugees irrelevant, thus marginalizing the core issue of the Palestinian struggle. Without justice for Palestinians refugees, there can never be peace in Palestine.
My book is an attempt at articulating the story of the refugees, with one frame of reference in mind, and nothing else: the refugees’ own stories – how they perceive their individual struggles within the larger, more encompassing, story of survival and resistance.
The structure of the book is a departure from your previous studies of Palestine, can you explain a bit more about that?
The Last Earth is a narrative-non-fictional story of modern Palestinian history. It comprises the stories of complex characters whose accounts overlap in terms of the collective experience.
When each chapter is read individually, it presents a compelling personal story that signifies the experience of an entire generation; but when read as a whole, it tells the story of a people, whose history is not as simple as a historical timeline of conflict, but rather that of intricate human emotions – hopes, dreams, struggles and priorities that seem to pay no heed to politics, military balances or ideological rivalries.
But while it sheds light on the past, The Last Earth is not meant to be entirely the story of the past, but a serious attempt at bringing ordinary people to be active participants in shaping the present and the future.
In truth, this is not my first attempt at this kind of narrative; yet, this book is the most inclusive and rewarding of all past efforts. It involved a number of Palestinian researchers and hundreds of discussions and interviews with Palestinian refugees in Palestine and throughout the world.
How does this narrative non-fiction style manifest itself in your writing?
To provide a more vivid rendition of emotive personal histories, I have intentionally taken on the personality of each individual story-teller, internalized (as much as it was possible) and re-told their stories in a way that aims to respect the dignity of each narrative, while bearing in mind the receptivity of the readers and their ability to engage with the text.
The final product is closer to the stories of Rosemary Sayigh and Salam Tamari’s documenting of people’s history than to that of the typical narration of Palestine – subject to redundant political language and historical references devoid of the emotive human sentiment. At times, the narration style may seem somewhat similar to the work of Ghassan Kanafani, Ibrahim Nasrallah, and Abdulrahman Munif, where reality and fiction merge to form a whole new category of literature.
However, these stories with all of their characters and details, are true. What may, at times, read as a form of magic realism (for example, ‘Spirits of the Orchard’) is, in fact, a reflection of the strong belief held by some of the characters, who truly believed – or needed to trust in – the supernatural and the miraculous.
Even the timeline is a unique rendition of the perception of time held by the refugees. A refugee’s relationship with time is always unique, and particularly so among Palestinians, who have been living in a state of arrested development. It weaves the dimensions of inter-generational time, as it stretches from before the Nakba – marking the brutal birth of the Israeli State – to the destruction of the Palestinian refugee camp in Yarmouk, Syria, to the flight from devastated Yarmouk to Europe.
The stories were selected on this basis. The narratives needed to be rich, complex, diverse and representative in order to provide me with the needed space to mold them into complete stories, while keeping in mind that they must remain an honest reflection of the stories conveyed on to me.
Unsurprisingly, the narratives overlapped on many occasions. Even if the storytellers have never met, they were essentially describing the same events, from a different perspective, location or time frame.
What inspired the project?
Moreover, The Last Earth is the culmination of years of study as well, since it is the result of my Ph.D. research on ‘People’s History of Palestine’ with Professor Ilan Pappe, the well-renowned author, historian and Director of the European Institute for Palestinian Studies at the University of Exeter.
Professor Pappe is also the author of the foreword to the The Last Earth. Skillfully articulated, the foreword further cements the relationship between the book and the academic discipline of ‘History from Below’, which was one of the core of my research with Pappe at Exeter. In his foreword, Pappe writes:
‘This moving and perceptive book is a journey to the heart of the evils of occupation and colonization suffered by the Palestinians on the ground. It allows the people themselves to narrate authentically and with all the complexities their aspirations, suffering and struggles. Ramzy Baroud knows how to listen, contextualize and convey an inhumanity that has gone for too long and it is hoped that books like this would contribute to its end.’
The nine chapters of this book contain complex characters whose stories overlap, creating echo after resounding echo of their profound collective experience.
I am grateful for all the support I have received to make this book possible, especially the help of Daniela Loffreda and Yousef Al Jamal, who stepped in, in the process of researching, writing and rewriting from the very story. Daniela is not only an impeccable editor but, at times, she joined me in the writing process. Yousef was my partner in the research and interviews from the first to the last day. Daniela and Yousef, thank you.
A special thank you to all the Palestinians who shared their stories and trusted me with the most intimate details of their lives.
This book is a choral, a passionate tribute to all of them.
Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, media consultant, author and editor of the Palestine Chronicle. He is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, University of California Santa Barbara. He is the author of My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto, 2009), among others books. He has a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter.
The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story by Ramzy Baroud is available from Pluto Press.