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The Inspiration behind “Stories from Palestine: Narratives of Resilience” by Marda Dunsky

Marda Dunsky has written a guest post to share the background and inspiration that led to her upcoming book Stories from Palestine: Narratives of Resilience.

I am a journalist and journalism scholar whose work focuses on alternative ways of seeing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I have worked as an editor on the national/foreign news desk of the Chicago Tribune, an Arab affairs reporter for The Jerusalem Post, and a professor of international reporting and print editing at the Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University. I am also the author of Pens and Swords: How the American Mainstream Media Report the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (Columbia University Press, 2008), an analysis of what the coverage routinely omits, underreports, and decontextualizes.

In Stories from Palestine: Narratives of Resilience (forthcoming from University of Notre Dame Press, March 2021), my own original reporting is the basis for in-depth portraits of Palestinians engaged in creative and productive works in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. Their narratives—which I have contextualized with quantitative data and historical background—tap into wellsprings of Palestinian humanity to challenge tropes of Palestinians living under occupation as being caught up in all-encompassing cycles of oppression and violence. 

(Watch the author’s video about the book, featuring many of the Palestinians she interviewed, here.)

When you know that there’s more to a story than what you have been told, more than what you have read and seen from a distance, what do you do?

For decades, I have traveled to Israel and Palestine as an adventurer, journalist, and researcher. Like many if not most Americans, my early understanding of the conflict was influenced by prevalent socialized ways of seeing, imbued by mainstream media representations and official policy iterations that weave geopolitics, cultural affinity, and the formula of a bilateral peace process into the mix.

My exposure to one Palestinian society began in Israel, where I worked for a time reporting on the Arab minority in the country. As my awareness and contacts extended over the Green Line, I was able to meet Palestinians in their landscapes of the West Bank, Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip – the venues envisioned once, and still by some, to be the geographic locus of a future independent Palestinian state.

Stories from Palestine: Narratives of Resilience is the result of listening to Palestinians in these three locales share details of their daily lives, biographies, professional endeavors, creative outputs, and worldviews. A common thread running through our conversations is the Palestinian perception of a gap between their lived experience and how outsiders, particularly Westerners, understand it.

“What they see on the news is completely different from reality,” one of my Palestinian sources told me. “Not everyone understands conflict and being under occupation. But in order to get the sense of Palestinian people to other people who have never been under occupation, you have to reach them through something relatable.”

During my fieldwork, the more I saw, the more I heard, the more I listened, the better I understood the cognitive dissonance behind media and policy discourses that often represent Palestinians merely as victims of oppression and/or perpetrators of violence. These discourses allow little room for representations of Palestinian humanity – of what is relatable to outsiders.

Palestinians are productive and creative and aspire to lives of freedom and dignity like people around the world. But these shared traits are often overshadowed by relatively superficial representations of Palestinians in their exceptional circumstance of living under occupation.

To convey relatabilities in these Palestinian lives, I have crafted the narratives of Stories from Palestine, and I have been able to do so based on several modes of privilege.

The first privilege has been the access my sources have granted me. They have been receptive to my interview requests, generous with their time, and patient in answering my many questions.

The second privilege has been my ability to meet most of my sources – allowing me not only to listen to their stories but also to see the places that shape their lives. These include an olive-oil factory and a university campus near Jenin; a brewery in Taybeh; a circus school in Birzeit; a bustling cultural center in a refugee camp next to Bethlehem; and the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem. Where physical access was not possible, voice-over-internet technology allowed me to be in direct and sustained contact with sources in Gaza and other locales. Palestinians in these venues appear in a short video I produced.

My ultimate privilege is to have had the capacities to conduct this rich fieldwork and then alchemize the interviews with contextualizing data and history in order to create the narratives of Stories from Palestine. They are based on fieldwork and other interviews conducted primarily in 2018-19. Illuminating and compelling then, these narratives are all the more relevant at present, given the changing Middle East landscape as this book approaches publication in early 2021.

I offer them here with gratitude to my sources; respect for the intelligence of my audience; and hope that these Palestinian narratives will lend something constructive and new to the story.

This blog post is part of the Enriching Scholarly Communication and Connections through Notre Dame Press project and has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this post do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at www.neh.gov.

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