Tag Archives: Palestine

Freedom to Write for Palestine

Last week I gave the opening remarks at Freedom to Write for Palestine at Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan. This memorable gathering of writers was brilliantly curated and produced by Omar Hamilton and Sharif Kouddous of the Palestine Festival of Literature, and it was recorded for posterity. Writers Against the War on Gaza and Amplify Palestinerounded out the organizing team, and everyone’s efforts came together beautifully. Publishers Weekly and New York Magazine did great coverage of the event, placing it in the context of the controversy surrounding PEN America’s terrible response to the genocide in Gaza and the efforts of writers to hold the organization to account.

Here is an excerpt from my introduction:

While PEN America has organized a street rally in support of Ukrainian writers imprisoned and killed by Russia and taken a delegation of Ukrainian writers to meet with Congress, it has yet to organize any public event on behalf of Palestinian writers who have been imprisoned and killed by Israel. PEN International, English PEN, and PEN South Africa called for a ceasefire in Gaza five full months before PEN America did, and PEN America’s call came only after over a thousand writers had signed a letter denouncing the organization for its inaction. PEN America’s priorities so often align with the U.S. government’s own foreign policy goals that one writer quipped, ‘PEN America has been turned into an outpost of the U.S. State Department.’

While the leadership at PEN America is being roundly denounced for its double standards on Israel and Palestine, many of its staff members’ work in this area and on other issues is being stymied and undermined. We would like to give a shout out to PEN America United, the union representing PEN America’s staff, which has been trying to get a fair contract for over eighteen months. PEN’s Chief Executive Officer’s salary was disclosed to be $465,000 in 2022, and in recent contract negotiations management proposed a $48,500 minimum starting salary for staff, well below industry standards and hardly a living wage in New York City. In addition to her annual salary, which has likely increased over the past two years, PEN’s CEO earns an additional undisclosed six-figure yearly sum for serving on Meta’s Oversight Board. As one sign at a PEN America United rally phrased it, “Are fair wages banned too?”

The evening raised over $8,000 for We Are Not Numbers (WANN), a youth-led organization in Gaza that trains a new generation of Palestinian writers. At the top of the program, Michelle Alexander read a poem by my friend and WANN mentee Haya Abu Nasser. When WANN alumni Mahmoud Alyazji read a remembrance with an accompanying film about his best friend Mohammed Zaher Hammo, who was killed in an Israeli airstrike with his family, there were audible sounds of weeping in the audience, and I venture to say there was not a dry eye in the house. After musician Huda Asfourplayed a final song to close out the evening, which was by turns inspiring, moving, and galvanizing, we all headed out into the world with firm resolve to continue fighting for Palestinian freedom.

In the meantime, the situation in Gaza has grown increasingly catastrophic as Israel drops bombs on displaced, starving people living in tents, and gives confusing, impossible evacuation orders to families with no place to go. Repression at home continues to be brutal as riot police are summoned to break up peaceful student Gaza solidarity encampments. I have made a chant by the Columbia students a new motto, “Disclose, Divest. We will not stop. We will not rest.”

Nancy Kricorian


Columbia’s Gaza Solidarity Encampment

I have been meaning to write about Columbia’s Gaza Solidarity Encampment since last week, and if I had written this last weekend, the tenor would be very different. Two nights ago, the encampment was destroyed by the New York Police Department, and the students barricaded in Hamilton Hall were arrested along with others in the encampment and outside the university gates. At the same time, hundreds of students were also brutalized and arrested at City College twenty blocks north. But for almost two weeks, the encampment on the Columbia Quad was a beautiful space of community and learning where Palestinian freedom was the focus. And students at Columbia started a movement that has to date spread to over 150 campuses around the country, and their principled actions were seen and appreciated by Palestinians in Gaza and around the globe. My Palestinian friend Haya, who escaped Gaza and is now in exile in Malaysia, wrote: These students are so strong and so great; I swear they’re teaching a generation how to fight for freedom. They are talking about Columbia University’s protests everywhere on Arabic website and my friends’ Facebook pages.

When the students took over Hamilton Hall in the early hours on Tuesday and renamed it Hind’s Hall, after a six-year old Palestinian girl whose desperate and doomed calls for help were heard round the world, I could only think back to the 1985 blockade of Hamilton that I was part of (and my post on X/Twitter about this went viral). I wasn’t one of the organizers, but when my friends and I heard what had happened we immediately ran to the newly named Mandela Hall and were there in shifts for the next three weeks. In 1968 the students had barricaded themselves IN the same building, but we were outside with the exterior doors padlocked. In the daytime there was a festival atmosphere, and at night it was mostly calm, although I remember at least one night when we were afraid the NYPD was going to come in to clear us—it turned out to be mostly a scare tactic. There was a lot of surveillance by Columbia security–which seems quaint now. Back then it was men with cameras. Now they have surveillance drones buzzing overhead and have deployed new—not always reliable—facial recognition technology. And Columbia’s president in 1985, Michael Sovern, came out to speak with us, unlike the current president, Baroness (yes, she is a literal Baroness) Manouche Shafik. I remember singing a version of a freedom song, “Sovern can you hear us, we shall not be moved, like a tree that’s planted by the water, we shall not be moved.” And we all despised him because he represented everything oppressive about the institution. But in retrospect, compared to the Baroness, he seems downright cuddly.

My spouse teaches at Columbia, and we live near the campus. James has been speaking out repeatedly and strongly about the misuse of accusations of antisemitism to smear and undermine the student movement, hurling all his Jewishness against the conflation of anti-Zionism and antisemitism. It was so awful two nights ago when hundreds and hundreds of cops streamed into the Quad and the surrounding blocks. Our entire neighborhood was a closed military zone. And I heard they were using tear gas, but apparently not. “No tear gas was used, but flash-bang devices designed to distract were used as police moved in, the NYPD spokesperson said.” Flash bang devices. So sad that the beautiful encampment was cleared, and all those students were arrested and that there will be cops on the campus until May 17, at the request of Manouche Shafik.

What transpired on Tuesday night was much scarier and uglier than what we faced in 1985. The current students are principled and brave in the face of this unconscionable level of violence and repression. On the night of April 24, I went to the encampment for a teach-in on the Armenian Genocide led by the students of Columbia Armenians for Palestine. They talked beautifully and movingly about the 1915 Genocide, the ethnic cleansing of Artsakh, and the connections between those tragedies and what is unfolding in Gaza right now, as a trapped civilian population is being bombed, starved, and immiserated. While they spoke in turn, they held up three flags—Armenia, Artsakh, and Assyria. Their solidarity was authentic, intelligent, and inspiring.

These students are watching a genocide stream in real time on their smart phones, and they are seeing the bankruptcy of all our institutions: political, academic, and cultural. They keep insisting that all eyes should be on Gaza, not on them. Gaza is their Vietnam. And the Baroness who runs Columbia—along with billionaire trustees and cartoon villain politicians egging her on—has radicalized a generation. 

Nancy Kricorian

P.S. If you are in NYC, please join us next Tuesday, May 7 at 7 p.m. for FREEDOM TO WRITE FOR PALESTINE at Judson Church. Roster of writers and tickets available here. I’ll soon send an update on the Authors for Change at PEN America Campaign.


Is This Democracy?

Our kids are watching a genocide in real time on social media, and they see the moral bankruptcy of our institutions—government, media, academy, cultural organizations—and they are enraged. Gaza is their Vietnam. Last weekend hundreds of protesters took over the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art in mid-town Manhattan, dropping banners that said FREE PALESTINE and LONG LIVE GAZA. They filled that large hall with chants for freedom and against the corruption of the museum’s trustees. It was a bold, beautiful action and a feat of brilliant organizing. But the U.S.-made and subsidized bombs continue to rain down on Gaza, children are dying, people are starving, and nothing we have done these past months seems to be having an impact on the depraved and cruel slaughter.

On social media, Palestinian poet Mosab Abu Toha wrote, “I don’t know what democracy means for the Western world! Every time we hear Westerners making fun of the Arabs that ‘they don’t have democracy like us!’ That we in the Arab world cannot protest against dictators, etc. Well, I don’t think you in the West have democracy at all. How many times have people taken to the street demanding a ceasefire in Gaza!? What did your western governments do to listen to your democratic action? On the contrary, they never stopped supporting our slaughter with bombs and cash, they hurried to cut funds that attempt to help us in our tents.”

Through We Are Not Numbers, for the past month I have been mentoring Haya Abu Nasser, an extraordinarily talented young Palestinian writer who is internally displaced in Gaza and living in a tent after having been displaced four times. Haya has only intermittent access to the Internet and to electricity, and is under constant threat of bombardment. All of our communication is via WhatsApp messaging, and every morning I check to see if she has answered me, to make sure that she has survived another night. She wrote a beautiful and devastating essay entitled “Surviving Beneath Gaza’s Tempest Skies” about her daily life. I have recently begun submitting her poems to literary magazines. The first fruit of that effort was placing “Remember Our Names” with Scoundrel Time, and this poem was featured in LitHub Daily on 6 February. Since then we have placed two poems with Evergreen Review and one with Guernica for upcoming publication.

As the heart breaks and breaks again watching a horrific genocidal campaign against the Palestinians of Gaza, a campaign that has the full-throated support of the Biden Administration (ignore the bleating complaints and look at the weapons and cash being sent to keep the murder machine running), my best hope is our solidarity and witness. Read this nuanced and melancholy piece by my friend Mashinka Firunts Hakopian about Armenian-Palestinian solidarities. Don’t look away from Gaza. Don’t stop speaking out for Palestine. As Vasily Grossman put it in his magisterial World War II novel Life and Fate“Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil, struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is humane in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.”

Nancy Kricorian


Two Fronts

Armenian Refugee camp at Ras al Ain

I have been distracted, lately cycling between rage and grief, while having difficulty sleeping. Images and stories about Israel’s horrific genocidal campaign in Gaza are the stuff of nightmares. I often think about my Armenian genocide survivor grandmother’s stories about her experiences during The Deportations. They were starving, the dead and dying were all around, and she ended up one among 8,000 orphaned Armenian children in a refugee camp in the Syrian desert on the outskirts of Ras al Ain.
 
I wake up in the middle of the night to check Instagram and WhatsApp to see if my friends in Gaza have posted updates or responded to my messages. I want to know whether they have survived to see another day. One of them has lost thirty pounds because of how little food there is. Another has been displaced four times and is living in a tent.
 
Since 2015, I have been part of the We Are Not Numbers literary mentorship program that pairs established authors with young writers in Gaza. Enas, one of my former mentees, left Gaza for the first time in her life to attend the Palestine Writes conference in September, and was unable to return home—she’s living with an aunt in New Jersey and is worrying around the clock about her family, who are displaced in Gaza with little access to clean water, adequate food, and medicine, and under constant threat of being killed in Israel’s indiscriminate bombing campaign that has to date murdered over 11,000 children. I helped raise money for Hossam, another mentee, who has a large social media presence and is therefore a particular target, to get across the border with his family, but the list is long and the wait seems interminable. I started with a new mentee, Haya, several weeks ago, and I’m sick with worry about her and Hossam. I recently worked with Haya on this moving piece about what daily life is like for her right now.
 
In addition to this brutal reality, repression on the Columbia and Barnard campuse are entirely bonkers, and my spouse James, who has been teaching at Columbia for over thirty years, is spending hours writing letters to the new “Task Force on Anti-Semitism.” This task force includes no actual experts on the subject—and there are a few of those on the faculty who might have been invited to join. The task force is co-chaired by known Israel boosters, and when James asked them how they define anti-semitism, they replied that they don’t have a definition. They are just getting a sense of the feelings and the vibes on the campus. Meanwhile, two weeks ago several Israeli students used a banned chemical weapon against a protest on the Quad, sending close to a dozen students to the hospital. 
 
On the German cultural scene, it seems that collective guilt about the Holocaust has morphed into a feeling that Germany must stand by Israel no matter how genocidal the Israeli government’s actions are. An artist friend, who lives half-time in Berlin and half-time in Brooklyn, has been sending us weekly updates about the cancellations and other forms of punishment being meted out against writers and artists who call for a ceasefire or advocate for accountability. She told us about her friend the Bosnian-Serbian novelist Lana Bastašić (I read her award-winning novel CATCH THE RABBIT recently and was very impressed) who has been subject to this harsh discipline. This week I saw Lana’s principled and humane statement on Instagram, which was then published on LitHub.
 
It is clear that we need to be fighting on two fronts—and excuse me for using military metaphors, but this really does feel like a struggle for survival. We must redouble our calls for a ceasefire and our efforts to push the Biden Administration to stop arming, funding, and providing diplomatic cover for a genocide in Gaza. On the same day that the International Court of Justice ruled that South Africa had presented a plausible case of genocide against Israel, the U.S. government announced it was “pausing” its support for UNRWA, the largest and most effective aid agency on the ground in Gaza, increasing the threat of more deaths by hunger and disease. You can donate to UNRWA’s life-saving work here. And at the same time that we take action to stop a genocide, we must also push back against the silencing of advocacy for Palestinian freedom. 
 




Antidote to Despair

Manhattan Bridge, 26 November 2023

Several weeks ago I saw a post on X (formerly Twitter) that asked, “Anyone else struggling to maintain ‘Work-Genocide’ balance lately?” Watching mass murder in real time on social media is a circle of hell I never thought to inhabit. I cycle between grief, rage, and shame as I witness U.S.-made “bunker buster” bombs raining down on trapped civilians in Gaza while our government underwrites, arms, and provides diplomatic cover for Israel’s genocidal campaign.

Right now, we are engaged in two struggles—one is to get what UNICEF has called a war against children in Gaza to stop, and the other is to push back against McCarthyite repression on campuses and in workplaces. Close to home, Columbia University’s administration has been using repressive tactics against student groups, and our friends at Palestine Legal have been working from dawn until dusk to defend people around the country who are being doxxed, harassed, threatened, and fired for speaking out against what is happening in Gaza.

And while eyes are focused on Gaza, settler and Israeli army violence in the West Bank has reached unseen levels. At the same time, the Armenians of Jerusalem are facing an existential threat as a despicable land grab is underway in the Armenian Quarter.

Tired of my own hand-wringing and too many hours spent on Instagram looking at horrific images, I joined a large pro-ceasefire demonstration last Sunday that shut down the Manhattan Bridge for over three hours. As horrible as the situation is in Gaza, there was joy and power in joining with 1,500 like-minded people to chant, “Down, down with occupation! Up, up with liberation!” The only antidote to despair is action—and the most powerful and effective actions are taken with others.

P.S. For further reading, I recommend the articles below.

Anne Boyer’s beautifully written letter announcing her resignation as the poetry editor of the New York Times Sunday Magazine because of the paper’s poor and biased coverage.

My friend Adania Shibli interviewed by The Guardian’s John Freeman on language, writing, silence, and Palestine

My friend and former mentee Hossam on Life and Death Under the Bombs in Gaza. You can follow him on Instagram.

My friend Patty Kaishian’s beautiful piece, “Guardians of the Land: Understanding the Genocide Against Armenians in Artsakh.”