Palestine’s Pen against Israel’s Swords of Injustice

6 November, 2023

Opinions published in The Markaz Review reflect the perspective of their authors and do not necessarily represent TMR.


Mai Al-Nakib


By now it is no doubt a platitude to claim the power of the pen over the sword. Even worse, in the context of 75 years of Israeli brutality against the Palestinian people, we might call it naïve or even unethical. Since the 7th of October, 2023 in Gaza alone, we have witnessed Israel’s criminal use of white phosphorous against civilians; their dropping of explosives equal to the strength of two nuclear bombs; their murder of over 9,000+ Palestinian human beings and counting (many remain under rubble), with more than 3,600 of them children; the targeting and murder of over thirty journalists and media workers, in addition to dozens of their family members. In the face of these and so many other unspeakable war crimes instigated by a seemingly incontestable power, the output of pens seems futile.

Despite the rubble to which this region has been physically, psychically, economically, and socially reduced, the force of its cultural narratives are on the rise and gaining momentum.

Yet, as the Israelis well understand, the sword has always been guided and buttressed by convenient and convincing narratives: Biblical and British colonial narratives; those of victimhood and persecution; of terra nullius (nobody’s land); of democracy and freedom; of terrorism and Islamism; of exceptionality and superiority; of humanity against barbarity; and on and on, ad nauseam. For over 120 years, Zionist pens have produced reams contriving stories of justice, inevitability, and finality. Such manufactured narratives are convincing to those who have everything to gain by their legitimation. European nations during and after the two world wars — given their antisemitic impulse to rid themselves of the Jewish problem once and for all and to obscure their shameful complicity with the German Holocaust of six million Jews — assuaged their false narrative of guilt with a skewed narrative of justice. (Lest I be accused of antisemitism, please note that my argument is against Zionist narratives and not Jewish ones, for which I hold nothing but respect and admiration). Once the imperialist baton was passed from Europe to the United States in the middle of the last century, Zionist narratives dovetailed seamlessly with the fantastical American narratives of exceptionalism, democracy, and triumphalism, in the names of which the Middle East has been — and continues to be — ripped to shreds.

Despite the rubble to which this region has been physically, psychically, economically, and socially reduced, the force of its cultural narratives are on the rise and gaining momentum. The pens of novelists, poets, filmmakers, musicians, social media activists, journalists, and academics are producing reams of their own: singular, fascinating stories of lamentation and celebration; horrors and marvels; violence and survival; attack and intransigent resistance; and so much else besides. More than ever before, these narratives are travelling beyond the region — sometimes because their authors have migrated as a result of the ruination of their countries; other times as a result of more accessible translations; and primarily because of the use of social media by today’s savvy youth, who have in their hands — for the first time — the tools with which to challenge the orientalist narrative that strangled their parents, grandparents, and generations before them. 

Never has the power of this 21st-century pen been more evident than in the intolerable context of the decimation of Gaza by its Zionist occupiers. Voices from inside Gaza — those of children, journalists, social media activists, doctors, priests, and many others — are reaching the West despite the hostility of its leaders; the biased mainstream media conglomerates; and the shadowbanning and direct censorship by social media companies. Gazan voices are affecting members of an ideologically interpellated populace, raised on the Zionist narratives listed earlier, coupled with anti-Arab, anti-Islamic sentiments. Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims, Jews, and allies in the West and across the globe are amplifying these voices from Gaza, speaking truth to power despite threats to livelihoods, reputations, and lives — as the tragic murder of six-year-old Wadea Al-Fayoume lays bare. We are witnessing the ideological landscape shift before our eyes. There is no question that the devastating onslaught against Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank — their outright genocide by a power that acts with impunity and without censure by Western leaders — must be at the forefront of activist efforts and political decisions. Yet crucially, these demands by the “weak” against the “strong” have only become possible thanks to the tireless efforts of Palestine’s pen.

In a 1993 conversation with David Barsamian titled “The Pen and the Sword,” Edward W. Said lamented the fact that the Arab and Islamic world had not done enough to represent contrasting versions to the stereotypes disseminated in the West (90). He went on to add, “I’m an optimist. I think people can be made to change their minds and that experiencing a different and alternative view of the Islamic and Arab world can in fact open people’s minds in the West to another perspective” (91-92). That is precisely what seems to be unfolding despite the increasingly desperate efforts of the Israelis to hold on to and control their narrative — a desperation that smacks of failure, a sure sign that their narrative jig is almost up. In its place emerge Palestinian narratives of dignity in the face of ruthless bombardment; of the tender love for family, friends, neighbors, children, and cats; of the selfless humanitarianism of doctors, journalists, and young social media activists, many of them students who should be studying and living out their dreams instead of trying to convince indifferent Europeans and Americans that they and their people are human beings who deserve to live just like everyone else.

When Israel targets Palestinian journalists in Gaza, as they have done for decades and are intensifying now, it is fighting against the steady displacement of Zionist narratives by Palestinian ones. Israel has always understood the power of Palestine’s pen to expose injustice. By assassinating journalists today, Israel remains true to a modus operandi that dates back to the establishment of Palestine’s liberation movements. Writer, intellectual, and activist Ghassan Kanafani and cartoonist and journalist Nagi Al-Ali were its early victims — their pens and hearts stopped by Israeli bombs and bullets. Yet Kanafani’s voice, Al-Ali’s voice, the poet Kamal Nasser’s voice, along with the voices of all murdered Palestinian scientists, scholars, journalists, and politicians, have carried through the decades, the output of their pens continuing to inspire Palestinian resolve.

“To every situation,” Said reminds us, “there’s always an alternative. What one must train oneself is to think the alternative, and not to think the accepted and the status quo or to believe that the present is frozen” (105). In these darkest of times, Said’s injunction may seem impossible, and yet the writing coming out of Palestine today demonstrates that the alternative has already arrived, at the very least, in narrative form. Palestine’s pen has done more than its fair share of imagining and offering alternatives. Now the responsibility falls upon every human being with a conscience and an ounce of humanity to demand immediately and unequivocally the physical survival of the Palestinian people in Gaza and the West Bank, and to insist upon the right of Palestinians in diaspora to return to their homeland.

The era of unjust swords must end.


Mai Al-Nakib was born in Kuwait and spent the first six years of her life in London; Edinburgh; and St. Louis, Missouri. She holds a PhD in English literature from Brown University. She was an Associate Professor of English and comparative literature at Kuwait University, where she taught for twenty years; she recently left this position to write full-time. Her research focuses on cultural politics in the Middle East, with a special emphasis on gender, cosmopolitanism, and postcolonial issues. Her short story collection, The Hidden Light of Objects, was published by Bloomsbury in 2014. It won the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s First Book Award. Her debut novel, An Unlasting Home—published by Mariner Books in the US and Saqi in the UK—came out in paperback in April 2023. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in various publications, including Ninth Letter; The First Line; After the Pause; World Literature Today; Rowayat; New Lines Magazine; and the BBC World Service. She divides her time between Kuwait and Greece.

Edward SaidGaza warGhassan KanafaiNagi Al-AliPalestinewarWest Bank


  1. This is such a brilliant piece! We need voices like this now! Just, resonant, moral, sharp, urgent, penetrating and powerful. Thank you Mai Al-Nakib.

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