Recently, I became a writing mentor with We Are Not Numbers, a project run by EuroMed Human Rights Monitor which observes and documents rights violations in the Middle East and North Africa, leveraging international law in order to seek redress. Not Numbers matches young people in Gaza with writers abroad to help develop their writing skills and give voice to their experiences.

To my delight, I’ve been teamed up with Anas Jnena, a 20 year-old third-year literature student at Al-Azhar University. Sensitive and softly-spoken, Anas is gifted with a sharp mind and incisive wit along with a gentle, boyish smile that spreads cautiously to reach eyes that have seen horrors I can barely imagine. At the moment Anas is working on a piece that will mark the anniversary of Operation Protective Edge, last summer’s 51-day Israeli assault on Gaza.

Anas Jnena

Arguably, fifty years of perpetual crisis in the minuscule territory at the hands of successive Israeli governments and their shrill Western backers flouts the grammar of ‘past’ and ‘present’ implicit in commemorations like this one. Still, the alternative to participating in these rites is collusion in the denial, obfuscation and unrelenting cynicism that constitute the lethal weaponry of hasbara. And so we take steps to remember.

My interest in working with Not Numbers might seem obvious since it unites my background as a writer and editor with my profound concern about Palestinian dispossession and Israeli colonialism. But for me there’s a deeper impulse at play which reflects my longstanding engagement with how art-making expresses humanity, and the terror such expressions ignite for colonial powers hell-bent on rendering the occupied ‘ungrievable,’ as the American cultural theorist and academic Judith Butler puts it. Indeed, this was the subject of my Masters dissertation, Cultural Intifada, which was written in 2006 during Operation Summer Rains, another Israeli siege of Gaza which you’ve probably forgotten by now. Butler elaborates,

Certain lives are grievable, and others not, and this works to sanctify the violence we inflict, and to disavow any conception of our own precarity…This is a kind of pernicious schism that conditions the culture of war.

The current wars depend not only on the unrepresentability of the war dead, but also on a systematic effort to produce certain populations as “ungrievable.”

The ‘war zone of the mind’ that’s generated and reinforced by this paradigm works in complicated and nefarious ways. Not only does it seek to whitewash barbarism; it strains energetically to render the question ‘whose lives count as lives?‘ rhetorical. ‘It involves a lot of envy as well,’ says Amira Hass in Haaretz, commenting on the Israeli culture ministry’s decision to suspend funding for the Al-Midan Theatre.

Envy of the ability of those we oppress to overcome the oppression and the pain, to think, create and act in defiance of our image of them as inferior. They don’t dance to our tunes like miserable weaklings,’ Hass writes.

(Hass’s piece, entitled ‘In Israel, we walk amongst killers and torturers’ is mesmerising and visceral, and I’d urge you to read it in its entirety if you have a few minutes.)

It strikes me that these toxic impulses are also on vivid display in the glee of violent Israeli settlers who attack Palestinian farmers and uproot their olive trees. Sure, these violations deliberately target the fragile livelihood of tens of thousands of Palestinians, but they burst with latent content, too. As the late poet Mahmoud Darwish told the journalist Adam Shatz more than a decade ago, ‘the Israelis don’t want to teach students that there is a love story between an Arab poet and his land.’

On the contrary, within the reductive nationalism that has swallowed up Israeli society, there can be only one connection with the land, and it is theirs. I think this strategy of essentialism is also behind the imperative to reduce ‘Jewishness’ to a single overriding position, which means extending the right of return to Jews the world over, whilst ruthlessly casting into the wilderness Jewish dissenters as treasonous and ‘self-hating’. Judging by Michael Oren’s new book, the ranks of the latter group are swelling.

Clearly, the stakes are high for anyone who dares give voice to a narrative challenging the tale of Israel and Palestine that colonises our discourse. Here is Anas’s story about his friend Ahmed who worked as a smuggler in the tunnels of Rafah, at the border between Gaza and Egypt. (For several years now, the Rafah crossing has been closed for months at a time.)

Facing the question: What makes life worth living? by Anas Jnena

I first met Ahmed in early 2012, in a small park in Gaza’s Shuja’ya neighborhood – a place where my friends and I usually meet whenever there is a power cut in our neighborhood. The night air was dry and cool and I was waiting for my friends to arrive. On that particular day, however, they were late. Being the person I am, I patiently waited for them. I found a medium-sized rock with a flat surface at the corner of the park and decided to sit while I lost myself in a sea of thoughts. I was planning a prank to scare one of my best friends, Hamza.

In the still darkness, I was sure nobody would ever notice me. I saw someone approaching and immediately thought of Hamza. I could already feel the excitement deep in the pit of my stomach as I imagined his face when I pulled my prank on him. But much to my surprise, I saw Ahmed instead.

That was our first meeting. He said hello to me; I returned his greeting. He looked calm and experienced, even though he clearly was not the educated type. His features were not what you would call attractive, but there was something about his face that captured my attention. I loved the way he smiled; it was sort of crooked, his black eyes got small and his lips curved inward as if he was sucking on a lemon. Even today, whenever I see Ahmed smile, I know it is genuine and not forced. Since Hamza hadn’t arrived yet – though he had promised me he would be on time – I decided to take this opportunity to strike up a conversation with him. It was at that moment I got to know Ahmed, and his life story was something I did not expect.

Click here to read the rest of Anas’s story, along with those of other young writers from Gaza.