[Baltimore Sun] As war rages in Gaza, Baltimore author Susan Muaddi Darraj won’t give up on empathy

Read Time:6 Minute, 44 Second

The American Book Award-winning author Susan Muaddi Darraj has been having trouble sleeping since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, and she’s pretty sure she’s not the only one.

“You’re feeling isolated,” Darraj, 48, of Cockeysville, wrote in an online essay titled “A love letter to my Palestinian family around the world.”

“You feel like you’re being eaten alive. You are experiencing survivor’s guilt intensely. Your heart aches. You scroll. You cry.”

Darraj copes with her anguish by doing what writers do: She puts her difficult, complicated feelings into words.

The Palestinian American author will appear Saturday at the 21st annual CityLit Festival to discuss her new novel, “Behind You Is the Sea,” a series of linked stories set in Baltimore’s Palestinian immigrant community.

The novel takes place at weddings, funerals and graduations and explores rifts that occur inside families and between social classes.

Darraj wrote her novel with the aim of introducing the wider world to the variety of voices that constitute the Palestinian American community.

Her book was published three months after the Hamas attack; though Darraj never intended to go on a national book tour during a war, she thinks that her work of fiction might in its own modest way point toward a remedy.

“The solution lies in seeing people as individuals,” she said.

“You have to start with recognizing that people and governing systems are different. Stereotypes live in generalities. The only reason we can ignore the deaths of nearly 40,000 Palestinians, many of them women and children, is by dehumanizing them. Not all Palestinians are spokesmen for Hamas.”

Darraj also practices what she preaches. Even as the carnage mounts, she tries to hold space in her mind to acknowledge opposing points of view.

She recognizes the suffering exacted on Israelis in the hostage situation, now in its sixth month.

For years, Darraj has assigned her students at Harford Community College and the Johns Hopkins University to read Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel, “Maus,” a classic of Holocaust literature.

“It’s important,” she said, “to acknowledge that a lot of Jewish people have suffered from generational trauma.”

In 2016, Darraj picked up an American Book Award for her story collection “A Curious Land,” which is set among the inhabitants of a Palestinian West Bank village. She thinks art can develop the mindset crucial for obtaining peace.

“Literature forces you to leave your own life for an hour and live in someone else’s life for a few chapters at a time,” Darraj said. “It can expand your compassion.”

While Darraj clearly loves her community, she isn’t immune to its flaws.

One of her new novel’s most powerful stories, “The Hashtag,” explores a young Palestinian American mother’s dawning realization that her husband recently participated in an honor killing — a story the author says was inspired by a real-life slaying.

But Israel and the plight of the Palestinians is mentioned just once in the novel. The collection’s final story features a Palestinian woman named Rita, who at age 15 was raped in prison after being jailed for a minor offense.

“As a Palestinian writer, I sometimes resent having to mention Israel,” Darraj said. “But our histories are so tied together that it becomes necessary. There are many documented cases of Palestinian women being assaulted by Israeli guards.”

Darraj knows that some readers will take offense at any criticism of Israel.

But Robyn Waxman, a 58-year-old family therapist and former longtime Baltimorean, thinks Darraj’s depiction of Israel “is pretty-even-handed.”

Waxman is Jewish and in the 1990s studied for a year at an Israeli college.

“Susan does not have an agenda, even when it’s been difficult not to have one,” said Waxman, who got to know Darraj years ago when their kids attended the same school. “She makes it really comfortable to have difficult conversations.”

Rebecca Cunningham, a New York-based podcaster, said she was touched to receive a text from Darraj after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Darraj wondered whether Cunningham, who had hired her to write for the “The Arabian Nights” podcast for children, was doing OK.

“Susan is just putting out there what is happening in Gaza,” Cunningham, 55, said. “She is fighting for the protection of her people and her homeland, and she doesn’t hold anything against Jewish people in any sort of way.”

Darraj, who was born in Philadelphia, has lived in the Baltimore area since 2001 and has three children.

She began writing her novel when the city was convulsed by the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, who succumbed to injuries suffered while in police custody. She thinks the tensions between the Israelis and Palestinians in some ways mirror the dynamics of her adopted hometown.

“I selected Baltimore as the setting for my book for a very specific reason,” she said. “This is a city that has a deeply racist past and present, a city of segregated neighborhoods.

“I wanted to write about what happens when Palestinians living in this diaspora raise their children in a country that already has a problem talking about race,” Darraj said.

Perhaps not surprisingly given the intense emotions raised by the conflict, Darraj has experienced some pushback in the past six months.

In October, she signed a contract to discuss her four-book children’s book series, “Farah Rocks,” at a New Jersey elementary school. In December she was told, forcefully, not to come. Though no reason was stated for the cancellation, Darraj thinks it was a response to her pro-Palestinian posts on social media.

“Nothing like that had ever happened to me before,” she said.

“I’m a Quaker and a pacifist. I think my politics are humane politics. I wanted to ask them: ‘What do you think I was going to say to your children? I wasn’t going to talk about the war. I was going to talk about books.”

Darraj also was among the more than a dozen prominent writers who in March withdrew from the prestigious PEN World Voices Festival to protest the free speech group’s “inadequate response” to the crisis in the Middle East.

In a March 20 “Letter to the Community,”  PEN America responded that its members have “sharply divergent” views on the war.

“As an organization open to all writers,” the letter reads, “we see no alternative but to remain home to this diversity of opinions and perspectives, even if, for some, that very openness becomes reason to exit.”

One way to cope with survivor’s guilt is to take action. For Darraj, that means donating royalties from her novel to humanitarian aid in Gaza. It means ceaselessly trying to awaken the world to the plight of her countrymen.

It does not mean allowing herself to become blinded to the diversity, humanity and suffering of Israeli citizens.

“I love other people very much,” she said, “but loving people means you don’t give up on them.

“Love is not an easy emotion. Love is work.”

If you go

Susan Muaddi Darraj will participate in a panel of six Palestinian writers discussing their experiences in the publishing industry from 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at the 20th annual City Lit Festival at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall at 1212 Cathedral St. in Baltimore. Free. For details and a list of panels and workshops, go to citylitproject.org.

Local Palestinian writer Susan Muaddi Darraj signs copies of her just-published novel “Behind You Is the Sea” at a Harford Community College event. (Kenneth K. Lam/Staff)

Local Palestinian writer Susan Muaddi Darraj has just published a novel called “Behind You Is the Sea.” (Kenneth K. Lam/Staff)

Local Palestinian writer Susan Muaddi Darraj has just published a novel called “Behind You Is the Sea.” (Kenneth K. Lam/Staff)

Local Palestinian writer Susan Muaddi Darraj reads from her just published novel “Behind You Is the Sea” at a Harford Community College event. (Kenneth K. Lam/Staff)



Read More 

About Post Author

0 %
0 %
0 %
0 %
0 %
0 %