No Fairytale Under Apartheid

Palestinian children's author Amneh Al Kelani visited Hastings to share her experiences of life under apartheid....
July 2023

Author Amneh Al Kelani writes books for Palestinian children, but they are nothing like children's books in the West.

In Amneh's stories young boys cannot play football with their cousins because huge walls divide them from their friends and family.
Drones appear in the sky from nowhere and shoot missiles which maim them and leave them permanently wheelchair bound. These may seem like shocking stories to any of us living a safe and predictable life but Amneh's stories are not shocking for Palestinian children. They are normal.

They are the everyday stories describing the violence, injustice and destruction which they see all the time, thanks to a brutal military occupation which scars and warps their childhood experiences.

The cover of one of Amneh's books showing everyday life under military occupation.
In Amneh's books, they can see their own world reflected back at them, and it is certainly no fairytale.

Former teacher and supervisor Amneh addressed a HRPSC meeting on Monday night at the Hastings Common Room titled 'Children and Imagination Under Apartheid.'

Her children's books cover a range of topics including the Nakba, Palestinian traditions as well as the daily violence of military occupation and are published all over the Arab world including in Algeria, Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon and the UAE.

Amneh said it was important for the children to identify with her characters. She also said that her books shared Palestinians experiences with the world and also served to connect Palestinian children to each other, to their shared values and ways of life.
We met with Deputy Mayor Heather Bishop in the council chambers.
In Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, where movement is severely restricted for Palestinians and the ID system prevents Palestinian children from visiting each other or other parts of the country, her work attempts to overcome barriers. 'Many Palestinian children can't go to Jerusalem,' she explained. 'I try to transport Jerusalem to them.'

As well as hard-boiled reality, Amneh's ten published works feature symbolism and allegory.

In one story, for example, the fox is put in charge of all the animals in the forest. The symbolic nature of the stories are designed to encourage children to think for themselves.

'This is a story about animals, about the forest,' she said. 'But indeed, it is not about animals, it is about the people who rule the world. I think all, or nearly all, the leaders in the world look like the fox. I don't know if this right or not. What do you see?'

Amneh was in Hastings as part of the Building Hope, Voices from Palestine tour organised by CADFA, accompanied by CADFA volunteer Joan Neary.

The pair enjoyed a full day of activities, including visiting the seafront, tea at the mosque, a visit to the Deputy Mayor's office and the council chambers, before giving her talk and sharing a meal with the group, prepared by Syrian-Palestinian Chef Momo, owner of Marrakesh Artisan.

Mother and grandmother Amneh was a teacher for 20 years, a supervisor for another 20 and now writes books full time. She lives in a small village north of Jenin which is completely encircled by the Apartheid Wall.

There is just one gate in and out of the village which is closed between 9pm every night and 7am every morning and anyone wishing to pass needs specific ID to be able to enter and leave.

The many restrictions placed on the villagers and their relatives appear arbitrary and cruel. Nobody is allowed to bring in more than two chickens or 2 kilos of meat at a time. Amneh's children who live in Jenin city cannot visit her village because they don't have the right ID and, after losing her own ID one time, Amneh couldn't get home.
She was forced to stay with her brother for six nights as she attempted to get a new ID issued. The absurdity of the situation was not lost on her: 'Is there anybody in the world who needs a permission to enter his own house?'

But Amneh was keen to point out that her own situation is far from special - she is just one of 600,000 Palestinians currently living under these strict regulations inside the Apartheid Wall.

Amneh also described the horrifying assault on Jenin at the beginning of July when a thousand soldiers, backed by tanks, bulldozers, helicopters and drones attacked the Jenin refugee camp in the middle of the night. As well as terrorising the entire population of the camp, going house to house with snipers and dogs, forcing thousands to flee their homes, the Israeli military killed 12 Palestinians, four of them children. One was a secondary school student who had passed his secondary school baccalaureate just days earlier.

Amneh said that while parents of the secondary school graduates should have been celebrating their children's success, this boy's mother was at his side in the cemetery, inconsolable with grief.

'This is for all in Palestine,' said Amneh gravely. 'There is no safety, no protection.'

Amneh then showed a film outlining the regular demolitions of the schools serving the Bedouin community living between Jerusalem and Jericho.

In the film, those running the school described how any attempt to make the learning environment more comfortable or enjoyable for the children - like plans to introduce play equipment or even shade from the harsh summer sun - attracted demolition orders from the Israeli army.

'It is not only the schools they want to destroy,' explained Amneh. 'They wanted to destroy our thoughts, our hope.'

But Amneh is not a woman prepared to see the educational aspirations of young people in her community quashed.
She runs a children's library in her own home where, each Sunday, local children come to her house to read and discuss the books she provides.

For Amneh, coming to the UK gave her the vital opportunity to share her experiences because, she said, the European media does not give an honest account of Palestinian life under apartheid.

However, she added, it would take her 75 years to describe the 75 years of pain and injustice caused by Israel's military occupation.

'For all people in Palestine life is a struggle,' she said. 'We are challenged. But we are the owners of the rights. This is our home, this is our homeland. I invite you all to visit Palestine and to see these things with your own eyes.'