It is in times like this that I am reminded of the trauma of the Bosnian War (1992–1995). I had come of age during the Bosnian War, and I had followed the development of the war and its atrocities with a mixture of grief and incredulity. The young have a particular optimism about the primacy of right over wrong that is unencumbered by life experience, but in witnessing the unfolding of war – albeit from a safe distance – notions of justice, human rights, and self-determination vaporise as desperate needs lurch towards the elemental: life, water, penicillin. My own son is now grappling with the news of the war on Gaza and he asked me how I dealt with the Bosnian genocide; I had spoken about Bosnia with him from time to time so he knew I would have a response. I said that I read all I could about Bosnia, and I wrote poems as a way of making sense of what I was reading. It may not seem much – and truly the poems I wrote didn’t amount to anything – but in a forgetful world, remembering can be a revolutionary act. And now that I run a bookshop, I told my son that I make sure that books about Bosnia are always in stock. People nowadays rarely look for books on Bosnia, or Sarajevo, or Srebrenica, but I feel I have to keep these books on our shelves, lest we forget.
Some background: the phrase 'Lest We Forget' is associated with Remembrance Day, observed on 11 November to mark the end of World War I hostilities in 1918. This is a photo of my grandfather Ahmad bin Mohamed Ibrahim with other municipal commissioners on the steps of the Municipal Building (later renamed City Hall) in 1949 commemorating Remembrance Day. He is standing on the extreme right. All the men have on their jacket lapels poppy flowers that pay tribute to the fallen on the battlefields of the Western Front. Stocking books on Bosnia is how I wear the poppy.
This is the thing about war. Its effect is so destructive that whole generations make up rituals during peacetime to remind themselves and the generations that follow never to set in motion the march of folly. But we somehow manage to forget.
Like the titles on Bosnia, the books we stock on Palestine had also attracted few readers. This all changed in early October 2023. Books on Palestine, be they fictional narratives, poetry, analyses, and history, all vanished from our shelves in a matter of days.
The difference between the titles on the Bosnian War and those on the Palestinian situation is that the books on Bosnia chronicled a past event (to my knowledge the only accessible contemporaneous account is Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Wartime Sarajevo). All of the books on Palestine are about an ongoing injustice and struggle since the Nakba of 1948. This makes all books on Palestine written in the last 75 years contemporaneous. Moreover, there are books written about Palestinian history that span over four thousand years (like Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History by Nur Masalha), but even this is relevant to the conflict today. And still more books are being published. We will be stocking Minor Detail by the Palestinian author Adania Shibli who was cancelled from an event at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair in October, as well as A Day in the Life of Abed Salama: Anatomy of a Jerusalem Tragedy by Nathan Thrall that throws light on the iniquities of living in an apartheid regime. On war in general, we are expecting stock of Chris Hedges's new work The Greatest Evil is War in paperback, which is a follow up to his War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, published in 2014.
How do we navigate the totality of the 'Palestinian Question'? One-state solution or two-state solution? Oslo Accords, Camp David Summit? United Nations Security Council Resolutions, Trump's 'Abraham Accords', or maybe go back further to the Balfour Declaration of 1917? It can get quite overwhelming for someone just starting to learn about the issues and what during the Clinton-era was referred to as the 'Palestinian Peace Process'. Here is where works of narrative fiction grounded in actual events as well as the work of war correspondents like Hedges (who won the Pulitzer for his work and also happens to be a Presbyterian minister) have their place because they help us understand and help us come to terms with the human cost of armed conflict. Even for children, works of fiction such as A Child's Garden: A Story of Hope by Michael Foreman can be really powerful despite (or perhaps as a result of) not providing any specifics or historical background. For older children, I recommend Safiyyah's War by Hiba Noor Khan. It is a story for young independent readers about a Muslim girl in France in World War II who was part of the Nazi-resistance network that helped save the lives of hundreds of Jews at the historic Grand Mosque of Paris.
Every story its book, and every book its reader.
So, reader, these stories and the stories of the Palestinians should continue to be read now and in the future. Lest we forget.
Support the urgent humanitarian aid to Gaza by the Rahmatan Lil Alamin fund.