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A Palestinian Writer in Search for Freedom

Nadia Harhash
Nadia Harhash. Photo courtesy of Nadia Harhash

“On my blog and in my books I write about my life: what it’s like to be a woman, who is a Muslim, who is living under occupation, while being divorced. These are not so much hardships, except the occupation. But combined, these factors are a hardship as hard as the occupation itself. It’s the patriarchal society I’m living in that makes it a burden to be a divorced Muslim woman.

“I want to be liberal. To be free. Freedom is something you choose, from the inside. I don’t wear a headscarf and I have a boyfriend. My life would be perfectly normal somewhere else. But not in Palestine.”

Meet Nadia Harhash, a Palestinian writer based in East Jerusalem. Her blog, called “Living in the Shoes of a Woman“, receives widespread attention in her home country, not least because of her coverage of Palestinian politics. Her posts are also published on the websites of Huffington Post English and Arabic.

“I was married for 13 years. I’m a normal person. People can get divorced. But in my case, it was like getting divorced from society, from everyone I know and don’t know. I had just hoped that both our lives would become better without each other in it. But suddenly, everyone was involved. A divorce threatens the very structure of our society.

“It’s like a mafia culture: it looks good on the surface, but actually my divorce threatened my mother, my sister, my friends. Everyone is having problems in their marriages: people cheat, women get beaten. But instead of supporting me, my female family members and friends started attacking me. I made them reflect on their own lives. I unveiled the truth. My mother was afraid that my sisters would want to divorce their husbands as well, and what would the people say? But I still went ahead with it. In the end, it’s my life.”

In order to get a divorce, Harhash could have gone to a Sharia court in Israel. “But instead I wanted to go to a regular family court, with Jewish judges. At the court, they dealt with me as a Palestinian instead of a human being. The Jewish lawyer of my ex-husband was a racist: he argued that my behaviour was not normal for an Arab woman. For example: I have a cat to take care of, and I wanted my daughter to be part of the Israeli Olympic swimming team. How could I raise kids and read Schopenhauer? he asked. The judge and the lawyer, an Ashkenazi imperialist, spoke Hebrew to each other. Apparently, this was stronger than the female bond between the judge and me. My ex even brought his new girlfriend to testify, even though he was supposed to be a traditional man. And the judge accepted this, because that’s normal for an Arab man.”

Harhash pauses for a second. On the terrace of the famous Jerusalem Hotel in East Jerusalem, a hangout for the more liberal Palestinians, her high heels, Burgundy snakeskin handbag and scarlet fingernails do not stand out.

“I grew up as a Muslim, in and around Jerusalem. Back then, I was religious. I still consider myself as a person with faith, but I don’t follow the rituals. There’s a very good Muslim inside me. Of course people point at me for not wearing a headscarf. But I follow the Islam of the prophet and the Koran, not the Islam which was explained by later scholars. And I don’t abide by the politics of control. I studied Islamic philosophy, and I specialized in women’s issues. This was about questions like: is Islam chauvinist? Is it degrading to women? I say: know your enemy. I can prove I’m not an infidel.

“It’s scary when people get killed for what they think. Some fundamentalists don’t accept me because I’m a woman. In Jordan, a cartoonist was killed. Caricatures are a red line, apparently. And the alarming thing is: people say he deserved it. This is ISIS mentality. We raise our kids to believe that their clan or tribe is better than the rest.”

As an activist, Harhash recognizes the irony of the situation: because of the Israeli occupation, there is no ISIS here. “Although Hamas and Fatah are not much better. They are all extremists, like Netanyahu. I would say the Israeli side is even worse. Nationalism and tribalism will take us nowhere. Israel wants to put all Palestinians behind a wall. There’s racism on both sides, but the Israeli separation is fascist. In the end, this will be one, racist state, like apartheid South Africa. We, the East Jerusalemites, are the poorest Israelis. According to Jerusalem’s Deputy Mayor Meir Turgeman, we’re not even human beings. We’re goyim [non-Jews]. His religious nationalism is exactly the same as ISIS. I am a nationalist myself, by the way. Not that I want to be one, but the occupation forces me to be. I’m not even a second-class citizen, I’m third class. So what other option do I have than to be a Palestinian nationalist?

“I mainly write about societal issues in Palestine. My blog is written in Arabic and English. I am one of the most widely read authors about Palestinian politics. I derive my credibility from my independence: I’m not affiliated to anyone. Maybe it’s easier for me to be critical, because I’m based in East Jerusalem. But I can still go to Ramallah, the de facto capital of Palestine. I’m on good terms with some people in the government. Although I use strong language, I try not to insult anyone. I don’t have an agenda, I’m just a woman who loves this country.”

One highly divisive issue in Palestinian politics was the attendance of President Mahmoud Abbas at the funeral of former Israeli leader Shimon Peres on 30 September 2016. “I wrote that Abbas didn’t represent me when he attended that funeral. Of course he shouldn’t have gone. Peres wasn’t a man of peace. He created the Nakba [the 1948 Palestinian exodus] and the settlements, and he was responsible for the Qana massacre in 1996, when 106 Lebanese citizens were killed. The attendance of Abbas insulted us as a people. It was a betrayal. I wrote: Abbas and his company are not real men, even though one of those people is a friend of mine.

“My novel, which was published last July, is called ‘In the Shadows of Men‘. It’s a biography of a woman; a Palestinian woman in this case, but it could be about any woman. I try to remove the layers of this patriarchal society, at the level of family, community, politics and religion. The most important thing was that my family loved the book. My sister is very proud of me, because of the liberty I’m displaying. I hope it will inspire all women.”