Opinion: The need to let suffering speak is a condition of all truth

Three Palestinian American men were shot in Burlington on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023, according to police. Family members identified them as Tahseen Ali Ahmad (left) Kinnan Abdalhamid (middle) and Hisham Awartani (right). (Courtesy the Institute for Middle East Understanding)

Three Palestinian American men were shot in Burlington on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023, according to police. Family members identified them as Tahseen Ali Ahmad (left) Kinnan Abdalhamid (middle) and Hisham Awartani (right). (Courtesy the Institute for Middle East Understanding)


Published: 12-03-2023 6:00 AM

Robert Azzi is a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter. His columns are archived at theotherazzi.wordpress.com.

Benjamin Franklin wrote in his autobiography that he wanted to build a hall in Philadelphia “…the design in building not being to accommodate any particular sect, but the inhabitants in general; so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.”

Last week such a pulpit was denied me (not for the first time), not because I was going to preach “Mohammedanism” but because I was going to speak of Islam, Palestinians, and Israel at a difficult and trying time; speak at a time when far too many people of all faiths and persuasions are submitting to fears, prejudices, and false narratives rather than do the hard work of reaching out to embrace the humanity of peoples in conflict.

Peoples in conflict who live in a land between the river and the sea.

A friend, whom I once wrapped in a keffiyeh as an expression of love and solidarity, recently explained to me why they weren’t wearing it in public: “The more important and frustrating thing for me is that although I know what the keffiyeh represents there is a risk of it being misunderstood by so many and that scares me. On the one hand it feels so complicated and on the other so very simple.”

On the one hand, it feels so complicated, on the other so very simple.

It scares me, too, and I have stopped wearing my keffiyeh in public. I stopped on the day I learned of 20-year-old college students — Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdalhamid, and Tahseen Ali Ahmad — three life-long friends who have been together since the first grade in Ramallah, occupied Palestine, were shot in Burlington, Vermont.

All were speaking Arabic, two were wearing keffiyeh.

I was cancelled this week. Twice, in fact; once by a school, another by a local community that claims on its website it wishes to promote dialogue and understanding between diverse peoples.

The cancellations didn’t surprise me much. Of course, my feelings were hurt but that’s happened before. Over the years they’ve been hurt by unrequited lovers, unobservant friends and colleagues, unseeing photo editors, and unsympathetic publishers who might occasionally hold back a column until they can solicit counterpoints to my opinion.

Hurt by those who fail to understand that America is not about religious ‘toleration,’ but about religious liberty, that liberty denied to one is liberty denied to all, that ‘speech’ denied to one is speech denied to all.

Actually, I’m in rather good company.

In Germany, Palestinian writer Adania Shibli’s voice was silenced when a ceremony at the Frankfurt Book Fair honoring her was cancelled. She won the award for her novel “Minor Detail,” which begins in 1949 and includes an account, based on a true story which was described by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion as a “horrific atrocity,” of the gang rape and murder of a Bedouin girl by an Israeli Army unit:

” ... a group of soldiers capture a girl, rape her, then kill her, twenty-five years to the day before I was born; this minor detail,” Adania Shibli wrote, “which others might not give a second thought, will stay with me forever; in spite of myself and how hard I try to forget it, the truth of it will never stop chasing me, given how fragile I am ...”

Hundreds of writers and editors — including Nobel laureates Annie Ernaux, Abdulrazak Gurnah and Olga Tokarczuk — denounced the cancellation, saying that the Frankfurt Book Fair had a responsibility “to be creating spaces for Palestinian writers to share their thoughts, feelings, reflections on literature through these terrible, cruel times, not shutting them down.”

I’m in good company.

In New York City, the 92nd Street Y, canceled a reading by Pulitzer-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of “The Sympathizer” because he was one of more than 750 writers who had signed an open letter calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

“Given the public comments by [Viet Thanh Nguyen] on Israel and this moment, we felt the responsible course of action was to postpone the event while we take some time to determine how best to use our platform and support the entire 92NY community,” a spokesperson for the Y told Reuters.

I’m in good company.

Nathan Thrall, an American writer who lives in Jerusalem, had planned a speaking tour promoting his new book, “A Day in the Life of Abed Salama,” with the book’s subject, Abed Salama, a Palestinian father in search of his 5-year-old son who was in a bus accident in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

After Hamas launched its deadly attacks on October 7th, Thrall’s readings in London, New York, Los Angeles and Washington were either cancelled or postponed.

“You can simultaneously condemn barbarity and war crimes and the most horrific slaughter,” Thrall responded, “while also talking about [an Israeli] system that’s not going anywhere.”

While I feel I’m in good company I believe the intolerance reflected in the number of events — literary, musical, educational — being internationally postponed, cancelled, or censored is not just because of anti-Israel or antisemitic, real or presumed, bias.

I believe this is not just about a war between Hamas and Israel but is designed, opportunistically, to further silence critical voices that might promote greater understanding, or counter-narratives, at this critical time in the Levant.

It is to silence the voices of oppressed and occupied peoples and compel them to submit to the colonizer’s will, to allow privileged colonizers — and their enablers — to define the very meaning of language.

“It’s obviously a very sensitive issue,” said Aaron Terr of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression in the New York Times. “That’s exactly when free speech is so valuable. We should want to maximize expression on such a fraught and controversial issue. We should try to work out our differences through dialogue and criticism.”

“The need to let suffering speak,” Theodor Adorno wrote, “is a condition of all truth.”

The need to let suffering speak is a condition of mutual survival.