“The Deafening Silence from Academic Institutions (…) Serves as a Disheartening Deterrent” – 5in10 with Loaay Wattad

Loaay Wattad is a Lecturer at the Department of Sociology and the School of Cultural Studies at Tel Aviv University, focusing on the sociology of Palestinian children’s literature in Palestine. His dissertation, Minor Literature for Minor Readers, offers a comparative analysis of Palestinian children’s literature. He has conducted extensive research in this field and built a unique database covering the past century. Loaay also completed his MA in the cultural studies department at Tel-Aviv University, focusing on analyzing Palestinian adaptations of the classic tale Little Red Riding Hood as political narratives for subversive resistance. In addition to his academic pursuits, Loaay is a translator and an active member of the Maktoob translators’ circle, dedicated to translating various literary works from Arabic to Hebrew. Furthermore, Loaay is the editor-in-chief of the Hkaya journal, which specifically concentrates on Arabic children’s and young adult literature. In the academic year 2023/24, he is a EUME Fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien.

Loaay Wattad, Photo: Private

1. How would you explain your research to someone who is not an expert?

In a nutshell, I am narrating the tale of Palestinian children’s literature since its “inception”. My exploration delves into its origins, probing the impact of political events and upheavals. I am intrigued by how it persists as a national literature despite its balkanization: the geographical and colonial fragmentation that segregates it into distinct regions, legally, economically, and politically. The ability to sustain a national cultural identity within this literary realm is undeniably inspiring, and my quest is to unravel the enchanting secret behind its enduring magic.

My dissertation constitutes an archival research that establishes an original database encompassing all works of Palestinian children’s literature in the last century (1920-2020). Utilizing a combination of methodologies and sociological approaches, the research examines compiled book lists through interpretive, thematic, and computational analyses. This unique database allows me to track “beginnings,” “trends,” “oscillations,” and other developments. The archival database further delves into this literature’s positioning within world and minor literature, emphasizing its role in political resistance.

Through data analysis, it is also possible to reveal literary themes that developed differently in each field. The immediate political reality and the ongoing state of emergency in Israel and the Palestinian territories make Palestinian children’s literature an alternative imaginary space for political discourse and present an approach that has far broader meanings than mere education or family entertainment. Such literature addresses questions of collective identity and Palestinian nationalism and suggests other ways to imagine the political scene as a concept beyond the boundaries of the discourse of “conflict”. Without other possibilities to imagine a different future, Palestinian children’s literature becomes a unique space that engages fantasy and resistance, cultural tradition, and social and political criticism. Moreover, it articulates the “Palestinian question” not as a matter of rights and power struggles between political entities but as a matter of life itself, the basic materials of necessity and existence.

Hence, my dissertation undertook a comprehensive analysis of Palestinian children’s literature over the past century, employing three key perspectives. Firstly, the political-economic lens delves into the literature’s evolution amidst changing colonial conditions across the West Bank, Israel, refugee camps, and the diaspora. The second perspective highlights the pivotal role of women as publishers and writers, influencing the field politically and culturally beyond conventional educational paradigms. Lastly, the third perspective centers on translations of Palestinian children’s literature, particularly from Hebrew, presenting unique challenges and navigating the intricacies of translating the Zionist narrative into Arabic. These perspectives collectively provide a nuanced understanding of the dynamic landscape of Palestinian children’s literature.

In my project, which I am pursuing during my EUME fellowship, I examine the interplay between fantasy and political realities in Palestinian children’s literature, investigating how fantastical narratives intersect with the challenging political landscapes faced by young readers. Palestinian children’s fantasy literature operates within immediate political constraints, offering a navigational tool for children to comprehend their environment. The narrative unfolds against the backdrop of diverse Palestinian realities, exploring daily struggles influenced by Israel’s decisions. Spanning different regions, including the ’48-lands, ’67-lands, and the diaspora, the study analyzes how these literary works shape the collective consciousness of Palestinian children and challenge Israeli-imposed constraints. Rooted in a contextual framework, the project explores liberated fantasy in Palestinian children’s literature.

2. What intrigued you when you started your academic journey?

My academic journey initially centered around the exploration of German fairytales and their adaptation within Palestinian public discourse, folklore, and fairy tales. I delved into the Brothers Grimm’s “The Goose Girl,” uncovering its transformation into one of the most emblematic tales in Palestinian folk literature, known as the story of Jbineh. Under the guidance of Prof. Zohar Shavit for my master’s thesis, I extended my research to Palestinian adaptations of “Little Red Riding Hood.” This investigation focused on how the narrative was strategically employed to convey political and critical messages regarding Israeli policy in Palestine and challenge patriarchal norms within Palestinian society.

Throughout my inquiry, I encountered assertions in academic writing suggesting that “there was no Palestinian children’s literature before 1948.” This assertion struck me as incongruent with the rich cultural history of the region. Motivated to explore this claim, I embarked on a comprehensive examination of pre-1948 Palestinian literary contributions, aiming to untangle the impact of colonial fragmentation on the formation of such narratives. Following insightful discussions with my supervisors, Prof. Yehouda Shanhav and Prof. Galili Shahar, I realized the necessity of broadening my project beyond folk literature and beyond “cultural studies” per se. Consequently, it evolved into a multifaceted, critical analysis of power, political economy, and material assumptions.

FArdi- “Jbeneh, Author: Manal Saabni, Illustration: Baraa Awoor, Editor: Loaay Wattad, Atafeal Books, 2023”

3. What were formative encounters or challenges?

My journey through study and academic growth as a Palestinian in an Israeli university has been a profoundly transformative experience. This held true both as a student and as a lecturer. For instance, as a master’s degree student in the Program in Research of Child and Youth Culture, I found myself in an excellent academic environment with outstanding lecturers and professors. However, it was undeniably a program with an underlying Zionist epistemology, open or hidden. The majority of courses delved into the revival of the Hebrew language and culture, issues related to the Yishuv period, Zionist themes, and the history of Jewish childhood in Europe, along with children’s literature in the shadow of the Holocaust. While navigating this predominantly Zionist framework presented significant challenges, it also allowed me to extract valuable methodological and research tools, shaping my approach to the study of Palestinian issues from childhood in Mandatory Palestine through the Nakba period to the present day.

Subsequently, another notable challenge arose during my experience as a lecturer teaching the course “Historical and Intellectual Sources of the Social Sciences” as part of my PhD in the Sociology and Anthropology department in Tel-Aviv University. Commencing with the 17th-century schism between religion and science, the course explored the representation of reality and the evolution of fundamental concepts in economics, politics, and society. The latter portion of the course shifted to non-Western thought and critiques of “non-modern” entities, establishing connections between the epistemology of the social sciences and the consciousness of modern individuals.

Teaching this introductory and politically charged course, as a Palestinian researcher, to an audience predominantly comprised of Israeli students fresh from their military service was undoubtedly challenging. Balancing a commitment to the course material with the inherent difficulty of discussing political science without addressing basic politics presented a delicate situation. The dual challenge of teaching the history of colonialism while simultaneously challenging the colonialist terminology surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian issue was particularly complex. I believe that my unique position as a Palestinian teaching this course on the foundations of intellectual thought in the social sciences played a pivotal role in fostering a critical perspective among both myself and my students. Furthermore, my familiarity with the foundational ideologies of Zionist education at the state’s inception through the lens of children’s literature enriched my understanding of the intricate web of concepts rooted in the foundation of national thought.

4.  What do you consider to be the role of the humanities and social sciences in times of upheaval, fragmented publics, and authoritarian transgressions?

I consistently approach this question through a historical lens, countering the frustration and anger that many colleagues and I experience within the social sciences and humanities today. The deafening silence from academic institutions, particularly in the realms of humanities, art and social sciences, in response to war, egregious violence, and explicit genocide broadcasted on our screens, serves as a disheartening deterrent, sapping motivation for any scholarly, literary, or artistic endeavors. In the face of this, I find solace in turning to history.

Throughout past periods of wars and extreme violence, writers, artists, intellectuals, and society at large persisted in their work. Their creations offer invaluable insights into the eras they navigated. Alan Paton’s “Cry, the Beloved Country,” for instance, serves as a testament to the stark reality of apartheid in South Africa. Similarly, Jean Améry’s intellectual reflections on his experiences in Nazi Germany and concentration camps, as articulated in his book “At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities,” remains a daily reminder for me of the profound meaning inherent in academic and intellectual pursuits during dark hours.

This legacy within the social sciences and humanities entails a commitment to writing and creating despite the tumultuous world events—not as a means of ignoring them, but with the explicit goal of catalyzing change. Over the last century, feminist intellectuals, particularly during moments of darkness and amidst violence against women, have played a transformative role. Figures such as Nawal Al-Sadawi, with her extensive medical and philosophical work against female genital mutilation, have influenced the pursuit of a better life for hundreds of thousands of women in Egypt and the Arab world. Fatema Mernissi’s writing and research continue to challenge Oriental sexism against Arab women in the Western world, while figures like Kimberly Crenshaw, Judith Butler, and Roxane Gay have mobilized their knowledge, research, and intellect to explicitly combat patriarchy and chauvinism globally. While their work may be subject to criticism and discussion, the undeniable importance of their presence in shaping public discourse and sustaining the ongoing feminist struggle cannot be dismissed.

5. What book, article, film, exhibition or song would you recommend, and why?

The book that immediately comes to mind when contemplating a recommendation is “Matigari ma Njiruungi” by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. In my view, this work should be deemed essential reading for individuals and, particularly, for intellectuals. Set against the backdrop of post-colonial Africa, the novel stands as a literary masterpiece that intricately explores the complexities of social struggles, political upheavals, and the relentless pursuit of justice. Ngũgĩ’s narrative prowess skillfully weaves a story that not only captivates readers but also serves as a profound commentary on the human condition.

“Matigari” follows the journey of its eponymous protagonist, a revolutionary figure embarking on a quest for justice in a society grappling with the enduring consequences of colonialism, despite its official end. Themes of identity, resilience, and the enduring human spirit in the face of oppression are eloquently explored. Ngũgĩ’s narrative style, both evocative and thought-provoking, unfolds a rich carpet of African culture, history, and the ongoing struggle for self-determination.

My recommendation of “Matigari” extends beyond its status as a literary gem; it serves as a poignant exploration of social challenges that transcend geographical boundaries. For intellectuals, this book offers a nuanced reflection on the role of literature in navigating complex social and political landscapes. It serves as a powerful reminder of the transformative potential of storytelling and underscores the responsibility intellectuals bear in contributing to the discourse surrounding justice, freedom, and the collective human experience.

As a Palestinian who grew up within the borders of the State of Israel, residing in Jaffa and studying at Tel Aviv University, I encountered many “Matigarian” experiences. Passing by an uprooted Palestinian village, or the remnants of Palestinian houses or even strolling through Charles Clore Park, I couldn’t help but envision the ghosts of the Palestinian residents of the alManshiyya neighborhood in northern Jaffa emerging from the park’s soil. Even studying at a university situated near the ruins of a Palestinian village called Al-Shaykh Muwannis added another layer to this “Matigarian” experience for me. Certainly, in the routine of daily life, one may choose to overlook the colonial experience and carry on with work and studies. However, at a profound level, every Palestinian and Israeli is acutely aware that the specter of the past will persist, much like Matigari haunting post-colonial Africa, casting its shadow on every moment.

Citation: “The Deafening Silence from Academic Institutions (…) Serves as a Disheartening Deterrent” – 5in10 with Loaay Wattad, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 22.02.2024, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/50542

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2024, 22. Februar). “The Deafening Silence from Academic Institutions (…) Serves as a Disheartening Deterrent” – 5in10 with Loaay Wattad. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 18. April 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/vvtm

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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