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Palestinian writer and psychologist discusses dangers of dehumanizing Palestinians


Hala Alyan recognized something familiar after Hamas attacked Israel and Israel began its punishing response in Gaza that's been going on for two months now. Media coverage of the bloodshed and suffering in the besieged Gaza Strip was once again painting the lives of Palestinians in broad strokes, a faceless people somehow complicit in their own suffering. Alyan, a Palestinian American novelist, poet and clinical psychologist, wrote in The New York Times how in this moment Palestinian people are being stripped of their humanity. I called up Alyan to talk about what she wrote.

HALA ALYAN: There was kind of what I think of as sort of the first phase emotionally, for myself at least and for a lot of people that I know, which was sort of this frenetic, like, oh, my God, like, people are not seeing things, right? We must get them to see. We must get them to understand. We must get them to humanize. We must get them to understand what is at stake if the dehumanization continues. And I think it feels like there is a new chapter now where it's more grim and it's more heart-wrenching in some ways, which is that I think a lot of us are having to accept the fact that many do see, you know, that it isn't so much a matter anymore of how can we get people to witness something, that many people have seen it and have - you know, they've seen the names written on limbs. They've seen the hospitals be evacuated. They've seen the infants left behind - that many have seen it and have deemed it to be an acceptable cost.

FADEL: Wow. So you also write about how you don't hesitate and you don't want anyone to hesitate to condemn the killing of innocent people, innocent children, innocent civilians, Jewish life, Palestinian life. But you also raise the point that if you only find shock and distress among certain brutalized bodies, then what does that say? If you could just speak more on that.

ALYAN: We're all raised on different stories and different narratives about ourselves, about people in the world, about who is safe, who is not safe, who is worthy of protection, who is worthy of being humanized. None of us are exempt from that. And it is our responsibility to start to investigate the narratives we've been told. You know, it's our responsibility to pay attention to, oh, when I hear a member of this community say something, when I hear them start to tell their story, I feel something in me close up. I feel immediately a flare of something defensive. And so when that happens, when you feel that closing off, that looking away, the not wanting to witness, I would say the first thing, perhaps even the most powerful thing, is just to notice that it's happening, to start to say that's so interesting. For me, when people who are blank start to tell their story, I immediately assume they're not telling the truth. We saw it with Biden when he made that statement about the numbers of Palestinian dead.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I have no notion that the Palestinians are telling the truth about how many people are killed.

ALYAN: And it was done so easily, you know? I don't - there was, like, no flinching in doing it. And the real problem with dehumanization - right? - the really sneaky thing that dehumanization does, perhaps the most damaging thing it does is it delegitimizes the dehumanized from being able to speak on their own experience. We are no longer considered legitimate sources of information. We're not considered legitimate sources even of our dead or our suffering. And so it puts people in a position where they are effectively being silenced without having to do the more direct efforts of silencing.

FADEL: Because no matter what they say, there's doubt around it.

ALYAN: There's a question mark. There's a turning away. Wanting the humanization of my people isn't a zero-sum thing. It doesn't mean that I want to take that humanization away from anyone. The idea that Palestinians should have equal rights, should have equal access to resources - that's something that I want for everybody. And I would be wary of spaces or narratives that try to pit the desire for equality against equality elsewhere.

FADEL: Your book "Salt Houses," a novel on a Palestinian family - it was praised by a lot of readers as humanizing. People would come up to you and say it was - it's a human story. You humanize the conflict. If you could just talk about hearing those words and your reaction to them.

ALYAN: I mean, I think there's something about being reminded that a group to which you belong has been so thoroughly subjected to certain kinds of language and characterizations and tropes that people forget. They forget those are real people, that right now people digging through rubble are real people. They are people like you and like myself and like anybody listening to this. They love their children just like we love our children. They want life just like we want life. They get thirsty. I don't get any less thirsty than somebody that's in Gaza. I don't get any less hungry, you know? I don't bleed any less. And I think that there can be this way in which, especially when the numbers start to balloon, you know, and they become higher and higher and it starts to intensify - like, I think there's something in that where people - it starts to become kind of a conceptual topic, right? The innocence of Gaza, you know, becomes kind of, like, a talking point, or it becomes a matter of debate or - that alone is heart-wrenching.

FADEL: To feel like you have to prove your humanity or watch people who look like you, who share a language with you, who share a history with you, have to prove their humanity.

ALYAN: Yeah. It is a constant exercise in heartbreak. It's very painful to think about how about a month ago, children - children - a child is a child - gathered and spoke in a language that was not their first language...


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Since the 7 of October...

ALYAN: ...In a press conference to basically beg the international community for help.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: We come now to shout and invite you to protect us.

ALYAN: And help didn't come.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: We want to live. We want peace.

ALYAN: I think perhaps one of the most painful parts of this is asking the question, why are so many unmoved by that?

FADEL: Hala Alyan is a Palestinian American writer and clinical psychologist. Thank you so much for speaking with me.

ALYAN: It was my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

FADEL: For more coverage and for differing views and analysis, go to npr.org/mideastupdates.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.

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