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An Interview with Marda Dunsky, author of “Stories from Palestine”

Marda Dunsky is a journalism scholar and print journalist with expertise in the contemporary Middle East, and the University of Notre Dame Press is pleased to publish her new book, Stories from Palestine: Narratives of Resilience (March 2021). The book has generated a great deal of interest, including advance praise from Rashid Khalidi, author of Brokers of Deceit, who says, “This uplifting but gritty book illuminates human aspects of [Palestinians’] existence that must be understood if there is to be any hope of justice, equality, and reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis.” Dunsky recently answered some of our questions about the book and how it provides necessary context for understanding the conflict.

How did you get the idea to write this book? 

Stories from Palestine comes from my many years of exposure to Palestinian society as a journalist and scholar. The political parameters of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation since 1967 have long been chronicled in media coverage and scholarly works. But through my many trips to the region and contacts with Palestinians, as well as research I conducted for my previous book, Pens and Swords: How the American Mainstream Media Report the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, it became clear to me over time that vital elements of the story have gone missing. 

Stories from Palestine focuses on how Palestinians move forward in their everyday productive and creative endeavors while living under occupation in the West Bank, east Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip – the territories still seen by some as the basis for an independent Palestinian state. These pursuits are a vital human aspect of the Palestinian story. Such narratives have been, for the most part, under-reported and under-researched, keeping them largely absent from public discourse. As I stated in the blog post I wrote about Stories, “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?” So I set out to listen to Palestinians from many walks of life tell their stories and share their points of view.

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

These are unprecedented times in the United States and around the world. What can readers find in your book that will resonate with them during this era? 

It’s understandable that people living in relatively stable societies under relatively stable conditions (the current global pandemic being an obvious, disrupting exception) tend to view those living amid systemic and structural instability as being “not like us,” or even as “Others.” As I wrote in the blog, while interviewing my two dozen Palestinian sources for Stories from Palestine, “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.”   

So it’s my hope that readers of Stories from Palestine will find relatability in its Palestinian narratives that will resonate in this time of conflict and social divisiveness. I hope readers will find that Palestinians—and by extension, any people who at first glance are deemed to be “not like us”—are indeed “like us” in our common humanity, which is derived from shared desires to express ourselves, to achieve, to excel, and to be free. As one of my sources put it, “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.”

How did you research this book?

In striving for relatability, I interviewed Palestinian educators, artists, entrepreneurs, scientists, farmers, writers, and cultural innovators whose experience and perspectives shape the “narratives of resilience” in Stories from Palestine. I aimed for representative diversity in assembling this broad range of sources: women and men of various ages and stations in life who live in cities, towns, villages, and refugee camps.

I was able to meet and interview personally all but two of my sources in the West Bank and east Jerusalem; due to structural constraints on travel to the Gaza Strip, I conducted a series of remote, real-time voice interviews with my sources there. As I constructed the narratives based on these interviews, I paid special attention to quoting my sources at length, presenting their own words as the foremost element in telling their stories. I photographed many of my sources as I interviewed them and have produced a short video that introduces them and their stories.

It was also my aim that Stories from Palestine would not be a mere collection of individual stories but rather a contextualized, representative portrait of lives lived among the five million Palestinians in the West Bank, east Jerusalem, and Gaza. To this end I supplemented the interviews by researching and including data and information from a range of primary and secondary documentary sources. These include reports from various United Nations agencies and human rights organizations; data from Palestinian and Israeli governmental agencies and NGOs; academic histories of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and media reports. 

What did you learn while writing Stories from Palestine?

Regarding method, my fieldwork reinforced best practices for journalists and scholars alike: Listening to sources is key; there is no substitute for including their own voices when presenting their stories; and context must be established by referring to credible sources of methodologically precise and accurate reports, data, and works of historical research.

Regarding ethics, I learned that to be entrusted with someone’s narrative is a privilege. 

How does this book contribute to contemporary conversations or events?

Many people around the world are looking with hope toward the easing of strife and tensions brought on by the pandemic, and beyond that a turning away from divisive and disruptive strains of populism. Against this backdrop, it is my hope that Stories from Palestine will be one among many iterations of what can be gained by finding common ground toward conflict transformation. As people around the world work for reconciliation and healing, it is my hope that Stories, comprising narratives of Palestinian resilience as examples, will be relevant to that dynamic.

Whom would you like to read Stories from Palestine: Narratives of Resilience?

I would like journalists, scholars, and students to read the book and see in it the value of placing at the forefront, in sustained detail, the words, experiences, and perspectives of those about whom we write.

I would like those responsible for shaping and enacting U.S. policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in official appointed and elected positions, to read the book and consider the themes and ideas it contains as deserving of a legitimate space in formulating that policy going forward.

I would like Palestinian readers of the book to find accuracy and truth in its presentation.

Most of all, I would like readers among the general publicthe primary audience for whom Stories from Palestine is intended, no matter their degree of prior understanding and knowledge of the conflictto take away something new about how they think about Palestinians by engaging with their narratives, and to find inspiration to create change.

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