Pay No Heed to the Rockets: Life in Contemporary Palestine
by Marcello Di Cintio
Counterpoint Press, 2018
Canadian writer Marcello Di Cintio notes in his stunning, important new book Pay No Heed to the Rockets something the vast majority of his readers might never have seriously questioned in their own thinking: the Palestine of the weekly news headlines completely obscures the Palestine of living daily reality. As Di Cintio writes, the very name of the place has become a rhetorical shorthand for the headlines, not the people:
I wanted to visit because all I knew of Gaza came from reports of cruelty, death, and destruction. Gaza is one of the world’s most overcrowded places. The 2016 birth of a boy named Waleed Shaath bumped the population of this tiny finger of land - forty kilometers long and only six kilometers wide at its narrowest point - to two million souls. But Gaza is more often defined by tragedy than the statistics of geography. The territory stands as a physical embodiment of despair. Gaza is where rockets fly and buildings fall and children die. There is no word imbued with less beauty than Gaza. No word less poetic. Gaza is the buzz of fighter jets tearing the sky. Gaza the drone of a drone.
Di Cintio goes to Gaza and talks with the people who live there, investigating their relationship with, and reliance on, the literature, journalism, and poetry in their lives. The result is revelatory, as is Di Cintio’s own often lyrical evocations of a Palestine bursting with color and scent and humanity:
During my days in Ramallah, I’d buy breakfast provisions from the shops a little up the road from my guesthouse. Plastic tubs of hummus and labneh, and tiny bags of za’atar - a salty blend of thyme, sumac, and sesame I ate with pita warmed over my stove’s gas burners. Sometimes I’d walk to the center of town fo a morning falafel or to stock up on Arabic coffee so freshly roasted the bag was nearly too hot to hold. Men gathered in the barbershops, mobile phone stores, or on the plastic chairs lining the sidewalks in front of cafés while their wives, sisters, and daughters shopped in the main market. Vendors hawked watermelon, muskmelon, and pale pumpkins. They splashed water on mounds of mint and declared the virtues of tiny eggplants and blooming zucchini. I bought cucumbers and tomatoes and tiny bulbs of baby fennel here. Green chickpeas encased in stubborn pods. Apricots. Ramallah is not the most beautiful of cities, but for all of this.
Pay No Heed to the Rockets is generously stocked with passages like this, clear and vivid sketches of the daily lives of ordinary Palestinians, their reading lists, their dreams and omnipresent fears. There have been many books detailing the the lives of the millions of people crammed into the confines of what critics have called an open-air prison, but none written by an outsider has delved so insightfully into the lives Palestinians live in their own minds, the dreams and mental challenges that help them to get through each day. It’s a heartbreaking achievement, necessary reading even in the extremely busy field of writing on this subject.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.