Palestinian poet Refaat Alareer had fond memories of Malaysia and had travelled around the country to visit smaller towns and enjoy the local foods.
Norma Hashim, a Viva Palestina activist who became friends with Refaat in 2013, revealed that the poet resided in Serdang during his time in Malaysia as a PhD student. He specialised in English literature at the Faculty of Modern Languages and Communication at Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM). His thesis focused on the 16th-century poet John Donne, aligning with Refaat’s passion as a poet.
“Refaat was initially bound for the United States of America (U.S.A) on a Fullbright scholarship but lost it because of difficulties leaving Gaza. However, he found it easier to come to Malaysia instead,” Norma shared.
“Reflecting on our past messages, he had expressed that he loved Malaysia. He fondly recalled our cuisine, like nasi lemak and nasi goreng. Despite this, his resolve lay in returning to Gaza. He felt a strong calling to educate young Palestinians, urging them to write in English to connect with the world,” Norma said.
She mentioned that their last meeting was in 2017 when she assisted him with Visa matters before his return to Gaza. He made it back just in time to celebrate Eid with his family, which consisted of his wife and five children.
Refaat and Norma however maintained their correspondence and collaboration. Even until his final moments, Refaat remained actively involved in a research project for the Hashim Sani Centre for Palestine Studies at Universiti Malaya.
Norma shared that the Hashim Sani Centre was set up to raise awareness about Palestine, noting the lack of similar institutions in Asia.
We had set up a Hashim Sani library in Gaza, held webinars, and ran youth writing programs but I’m unsure if the library still stands amidst Gaza’s ruins now.
She added that Alareer was deeply committed to his role as a teacher and mentor.
She remembered one of the first lessons Refaat taught her, a quote by African writer Chinua Achebe: ‘Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter,’ originating from Achebe’s 1958 novel, Things Fall Apart.
Norma highlighted that the lions symbolise Palestinians, emphasising the need for their narrative to counter the one-sided discourse that has dominated global perceptions.
“He was exceptionally bright, had a great sense of humour, and was constantly seeking to mentor Palestinian youth.Refaat Alareer often expressed that Palestine was 'occupied' not just physically but metaphorically, through narratives and literature. That's why his book, 'Gaza Writes Back' is so important. Click To Tweet
Refaat, serving as the editor of Gaza Writes Back, aimed to amplify the authentic Palestinian narrative by showcasing the voices of Palestinians, particularly after the 2008 Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.
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Norma observed that his book mirrored her work, The Prisoners’ Diaries, a collection of stories narrated by Palestinian prisoners.
“Our books are all about getting the Palestinian story out there. Refaat’s book mattered then and still does now. Sadly, upon revisiting it, I realized that everything they documented back then is still ongoing, and now it’s even more dire,” shared Norma.
Norma had played a crucial role in helping Refaat to launch the Malaysian edition of Gaza Writes Back in January 2014. Later, a Malay edition ‘Gaza Menulis Balas’ emerged, which greatly thrilled Refaat.
Norma observed that writing held a dual purpose for Palestinians: it served as both a healing mechanism and a form of resistance, enabling them to retake control of their narrative on a worldwide platform.To Refaat, resistance was a constant, and he chose to resist in the way he knew best: through writing and teaching young people to write in English to reach the world, remarked Norma. Click To Tweet
“Writing equals resistance. Gaza lacks military might, but words can wield power as potent as any weapon.
She conveyed her conviction that Refaat’s legacy resides in his mentorship of numerous young Palestinians and his role in co-founding We Are Not Numbers (WANN).
“He aimed to humanise Palestinians, urging people to recognise that they are beyond statistics; Every person holds significance, every life is valuable.”
He served as a professor of comparative literature at the Islamic University of Gaza and played a key role in founding We Are Not Numbers (WANN).
“He has left that legacy for young Palestinians who will continue to write and speak about their stories,” said Norma.
On December 8, 2023, Refaat, 44, and several of his family members were killed in a surgical strike in his sister’s home in the al-Sidra neighbourhood in the al-Daraj area in Gaza City.
Norma disclosed that he had moved to his sister’s apartment after receiving numerous death threats from a member of the Israeli Army. Before, he lived among hundreds of others at a school and chose to move to a more secluded area to prevent any harm to those around him.
She expressed hope that more people will be open to educating themselves about Palestine, and taking steps to grasp the root cause of the crisis.
“It’s crucial for people, especially in the West, to comprehend. Once you know, you can’t un-know,” she said.
You can purchase Refaat’s books Gaza Writes Back and Gaza Menulis Balas here.
All images supplied by Norma Hashim. Cover image sourced from Wikipedia.