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Interview with Marcello Di Cintio, author of Pay No Heed to the Rockets

Out in stores now: Pay No Heed to the Rockets: Palestine in the Present Tense, the new work by multiple award-winning author Marcello Di Cintio (Walls)! 

Don't miss out on the book Quill & Quire calls "further testimony to [Di Cintio's] skill in handling one of the most divisive political stories of the last 100 years.

Order your copy from Goose Lane Editions, Amazon, Chapters/Indigo, or your local independent bookstore.

 About Marcello Di Cintio:

Marcello Di Cintio is the author of four books, including the critically acclaimed Walls: Travels Along the Barricades, winner of the 2013 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing and the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize. Di Cintio’s essays have been published in the Walrus, Canadian Geographic, the International New York Times, Condé Nast Traveller, and Afar. He lives in Calgary.

What was the driving force behind Pay No Heed to the Rockets? What were you trying to achieve?

Flag of PalestineWe only know two types of Palestinian here in the West: the stone-throwing youth with a keffiyeh tied around his face, or the wailing mother kneeling before the rubble of her destroyed home. The Palestinian is either a furious militant or a pathetic victim. Nothing else. I've long wanted to write a book about contemporary Palestinian that tells a different story, one that is not rooted in conflict. I wanted to write about Palestinians as the caretakers of their own unique culture. I also wanted to write about Palestine as a place of beauty, even though it is better known for its opposite.

I decided to orient my explorations around literary culture. That way I could start my conversations with art rather than war. Certainly, the conflict colours every aspect of Palestinian life, and nearly every discussion quickly led to politics, but at least I could start the conversations by asking "What was the first poem you wrote?" rather than "What happened to you at the Israeli checkpoint." Focusing on literary culture rather than politics also meant I didn't have to impose an "Us and Them" binary on everything. Wars and walls have two sides. A poem does not.

Besides, most authors and poets are reflective, eloquent and fully-engaged in the society where they live. I couldn't think of a better source for Palestine's stories than the storytellers themselves. 

That's a spectacular idea. What surprised you most during your research and interviews?

What surprised me the most was how much the events of 1948 still affect the daily lives of Palestinians. Seventy years have passed since the establishment of the State of Israel and the beginning of the Arab-Israeli war. By the time the final armistice was signed fourteen months later, Jewish forces had effectively erased over four hundred Palestinian villages and 750-thousand Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes. Palestinians and their supporters refer to this displacement as the Nakba, or "catastrophe."

For the Palestinians I met and talked to, the Nakba is less a historical event than an ongoing process of land appropriation, injustice and humiliation. What was put in motion seventy years ago is still in motion. The Nakba is not something that happened; it is something that is happening. The Nakba endures. I think that anyone who seeks to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs to understand this.

From your research, how have Palestinians, for lack of a better phrase, learned to live with the Nakba?

There is an Arabic word that comes up often in discussions with Palestinians about their life under occupation: sumud. The word means "steadfastness" and refers to the resolve of Palestinians to endure. Knowing they could have better and easier lives elsewhere, Palestinians stubbornly stay. Families eke out a living where they can. They save and sacrifice to educate their children. They find ways around the barriers — both physical and metaphorical — that stand between them and a fullsome life.

I hesitate, though, to celebrate Palestinian resilience. There is a danger here in romanticizing their suffering. Injustice should not be seen as mother of opportunity and innovation. Yes, Palestinians have learned to "live with the Nakba," as you say, but they shouldn't have to.

Do you see any end to the nakba? Do Palestinians see an end?

A long answer to a short question:

During the research for this book I met Abu Ahmed Sa'ad, an eighty year-old man who remembers leaving his village of al-Birwa in the spring of 1948. One night at the beginning of the war, a group of weary refugees from Haifa arrived on foot seeking a night's respite in al-Birwa. More refugees passed through in the days that followed, all escaping the fighting along the coast. As the Jewish forces approached al-Birwa, the villages families decided they should also flee. They took almost nothing with them. Everyone believed their exile from al-Birwa would be short-lived. They were wrong. They never returned to al-Birwa and village was eventually destroyed. 

Abu Ahmed took me to the site where al-Birwa used to be. An Israeli dairy farm stands on much of the village territory now. All that remains of al-Birwa is half a Muslim cemetery, a stretch of nearly-buried cobblestone road and the now-dilapidated village schoolhouse. Abu Ahmed pointed through the schoolhouse window and showed me where he and all his friends used to sit. When I asked Abu Ahmed when he realized he would never live in al-Birwa again, he said "I still hope to return."

This enduring hope is an example of the sumud I spoke of earlier. Palestinians are compelled to believe that they will one day return to their old fields and villages, regardless of how unrealistic this may be. I cannot see an end to the Nakba in which everything that was lost is somehow returned. To me, this is magical thinking. But I am not Palestinian. For a Palestinian, to stop believing is to surrender.     

What do you hope people take away from the book?

I hope this book gives my readers a deeper understanding of what it means to be a Palestinian living in Palestine at this time in history. I want readers to see Palestinians as complete human beings with rich cultural lives, not merely symbols of an intractable conflict. And I hope my readers can see some of the beauty of Palestine and Palestinians that I've been so fortunate to experience first hand.

Thank you very much, Marcello!

Gaza Strip interview Marcello Di Cintio Palestine Pay No Heed to the Rockets

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