◀Palestinian men wait to cross a checkpoint between the West Bank town of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, to attend Friday prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Friday Oct. 6, 2006./ AP-Yonhap
In Korea, Middle Eastern issues attract little attention, except perhaps when explosions affect oil prices and drivers worry about car maintenance expenses. Prime-time television news programs and newspapers briefly carry death tolls and images of smoking ruins but stop short of delving into the thoughts or feelings behind the angry, sad faces that live in the land called an ``explosive warehouse.’’
Against the backdrop of this general disinterest, the publication of ``Tears of Palestine (Palestainui Nunmul in Korean, Asia Publishers, 9,800 won)’’ is novel. The quality of the writing in the book, which offers 11 short essays by nine Palestinian writers of diverse backgrounds, may also come as a surprise to most of us who are not familiar with modern Arab literature.
South Korean writer Oh Soo-yeon and Palestinian poet Zakaria Mohammed initiated the project. Mohammed collected the pieces from his compatriots and contributed two pieces of his own. Oh translated them from English into Korean. ``As a writer myself, I cannot help admire how stylish and with what dignity they deal with issues that are so grueling,’’ Oh, an established novelist who won the Hankook Ilbo literary prize, wrote of the Palestinian writers in the preface.
Oh went to cover the war in Iraq as a member of Korea’s Association of Writers for National Literature in 2003 and spent months in Iraq and Palestine. The experience left her with a feeling of ``indigestion’’ because it was difficult to express a situation so terrible through literature, the 42-year-old said in an e-mail interview with The Korea Times.
Since then, Oh has published a literary book report, ``Abu Ali, Don’t Die,’’ and worked with The Bridge to Palestine, a group of Korean and Palestinian writers and civic activists.
``Koreans may be aware of the fact that people are dying in Palestine and feel certain sympathy or guilt but do not really feel attracted to Palestine,’’ Oh said. ``The goal of our group is to introduce each other’s culture and minimize the psychological distance.’’
The book will likely serve the purpose well. Asia Publishers, which also runs quarterly bi-lingual magazine ``Asia,’’ published the book as part of a series aimed at looking at Asian issues through literature. The literary achievement in every piece is remarkable despite their short lengths, perhaps all the more so because of the compelling truth and concrete feelings they are based upon.
The first piece, ``A Dog’s Life’’ by writer and architect Suad Amiry, for example, presents reality in a manner that hooks the reader immediately. She recounts how her dog got vaccinated by an Israeli doctor and therefore acquired the Israeli ``passport,’’ which made it possible to pass Israeli checkpoints. The sharp sense of humor culminates when Amiry says to an Israeli soldier: ``I am the dog’s driver. As you can see, she is from Jerusalem, and she cannot possibly drive the car or go to Jerusalem all by herself.’’ Poignant when she writes: ``… feeling so nervous that someone I know would see me sneaking into Atarout’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Looking at the sign I was relieved that Arabs were not considered animals.’’
Journalist Alie Zein’s ``Do Not Push Me Too Much’’ explains in a sarcastic tone why Hamas, considered an Islamic extremist group, has gained popularity despite the overall secularity of Palestinians. She threatens that if ``pushed too much’’ by Israel, which refuses to acknowledge Palestine as equal negotiating partner, and the United States and Europe, which she says lack sensitivity on Palestinian issues, she might end up voting for Hamas despite its many problems.
``The Interrogation’’ by Aisha Odeh, writer and politician, will provide a clue as to why some Koreans can feel so deeply associated with Palestinians. The harrowing descriptions of an Israeli interrogation of the writer, which involves extreme verbal and physical abuse, reminds one of similar stories of Korean independence activists during the Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945).
Writer Oh also thought about these shared feelings.
``Whether Asia, Arab, Africa or South America, we share the feelings of being in the `outer area,’’’ she said. ``Especially Palestinians I met said that while they think they are in the middle of Europe and Asia, they feel they belong to Asia more because of the history of suffering under imperialism and the reality of Israeli occupation. We hope for a situation in which Asia or Arab is mere geographic or cultural concept, without unhappy political connotations attached.’’
Like hope, great writing seems to come from people who are suffering the most. Other pieces in the book, such as ``Dust’’ by young, Israel- and Britain-educated writer Adania Shibli, ``Leaving Cactus Behind to Keep the House’’ by Jordan-educated poet Zuhair Abu Shayib, ``Storming a Town: A Diary of an Invasion’’ by sociologist Jamil Hilal, ``Fragments of Reality and Glass’’ by literary critic Hasan Khader are poignant and compelling while documenting the reality and voicing their anger and sorrow. So is ``I Saw Ramallah’’ by poet Mourid Barghouti, who, while studying in Egypt, was cut off from his homeland because of the war in 1967 and kept away for 30 years. He recounts the experience of his return.
To overcome a continuous situation in which ``there is a faint light and there is a great pain,’’ Mohammed thinks about a strange mythological bird ``Philist,’’ which throws its neck on its back and waits for snow. In ``The Drunken Bird,’’ he writes: ``I am like this bird looking backward, looking to the past. Indeed, all the Palestinians are looking to the past. Six million refugees are looking backward. They are looking to the moment when they were in their land. They are looking for their lost paradise. It seems to me that the bird is becoming a symbol for those people.’’
But Mohammed also thinks about what classic Arab writer Aljahith said: The ostrich will run much faster when it faces the wind, as it will throw its neck on its back and break through the wind.
``If this is right, it means that the Philist bird is not sending his head back just to look for the past, but also to run much better. It is looking back, to go forward!’’
By Seo Dong-shin
Staff Reporter (firstname.lastname@example.org)