Imagine a narrow school hall filled with teenage schoolgirls in the week after September 11th. They have read the opening of my novel The Other Side of Truth about two young Nigerians who seek refuge in Britain after the traumatic death of their mother. The students are calm, attentive, engaged. I am there to give them some background to my work. I show a picture of Nelson Mandela. They tell me what they know about his ideals. I speak about how it was for me to be brought up as a white child in what was known for many years as the world’s most openly racist country. I show pictures of black South African children demonstrating in 1976 for the right to be taught their lessons in English – a global language that could allow their voices to be heard beyond South Africa. A demonstration for a decent education that was met with terrible violence. Those photographs sped around the world. Armed police and soldiers shooting at children armed with placards, later with stones. I weave extracts from my fiction into my talk. A girl puts up her hand. ‘Is justice only a dream or is it sleeping? If it is sleeping, who will wake justice up?’ she asks. The question is profound. I do not know the answer. All I can offer is that we have to keep trying.
There are many more questions: ‘Writing is just like a gun. What do you think?’, ‘ As a white woman, how do you feel when you see white people breaking black people’s hearts and spirits?’, ‘For many centuries we have heard about racism. How can we change this?’ ‘Black people and white people all like the colour of flowers. What is your comment?’ I am struck by the imaginative engagement, the emotional and intellectual tension beneath calm demeanours as these young students grapple with life-size issues. What is further remarkable is that English is not their first language. Nor is this any ordinary school. The British Council in Jordan has brought me to Nuzha 1 School near Jaba Nuzha camp in Amman – and these are Palestinian students who know only what it is to be a refugee. They are third, some even fourth, generation refugee children whose grandparents and great-grandparents fled for their lives – losing land and possessions – as they escaped the terror meted out by Zionists in establishing the state of Israel. At the end of my session, while we are clapping each other, a child stands up and says she wants to say something. ‘Our family was killed in Palestine,’ she says. Her words are simple, plain, painful.
Later when I talk with Matar Saqer, Public Information Officer for UNRWA – United Nations Relief and Works Agency – I begin to get a glimpse of their trauma. Matar talks with passionate intensity about his own childhood, born and brought up in a tent. In their total dispossession, his parents placed all their hopes and aspirations on their son to become educated so that he might help them. It was a childhood of fierce hardships, growing up with the humiliation and suffering of one’s parents. Ironically, the only other person I have heard speak with quite such intensity about growing up with traumatised parents is a rabbi. His parents had survived the holocaust in The Netherlands but their distrust of strangers – and life – profoundly scarred his childhood. In the rabbi’s case, the future held out hope. Matar’s circumstances remain deeply conscribed and he tells me how fearful he is for his own children. From the time he was a child – queuing for rations, queuing for water, queuing at an UNRWA clinic, attending an UNRWA school, he and 3.8 million other Palestinian refugees have been totally dependent on UNRWA.
How do young people cope when they grow up surrounded by such desperation? Matar’s perseverance led him eventually to university. He chose English Literature and became a teacher in an UNRWA school. We talk about literature as a wonderful forum for developing our understanding of life, of different perspectives, of other worlds. Matar is articulate, passionate, humane, reflective. I returned to Britain, asking why do we not wish to hear more widely voices like Matar’s and those young Palestinians? Surely they must echo for us Martin Luther King’s words – with my slight rephrasing: We live together as brothers – and sisters – or die together as fools.
Beverley Naidoo is this year’s winner of the Carnegie Medal with The Other Side of Truth (Puffin)