Amira Hass Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Occupation and Terrorism: Conversation with Amira Hass, Columnist, Haaretz; October 24, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Writing

Before we talk about the occupation and the suicide bombers, let's talk a little about the way you see your craft, the methodology you use and so on. You, in your work, have gone to live in the communities that you write about. Tell us about that choice as a way to do your craft as a journalist.

I think it's so natural for a journalist to do so. If I were asked to cover French affairs, I would go and live in Paris, and travel a lot in France, not write about France from Germany. book coverSo this a basic in this sort of journalistic work. Then, also, I have this research curiosity which I could satisfy by living there, because what it is, is an ongoing research. So I'm very lucky; I discover a new society and I discover all kinds of facets of this society by living in it, but still by being some sort of an observer and not part of the society in the real sense of the word. Of course, you become part of it sort of, but I'm always in this position of observer while living in the society. It's interesting.

Some have compared my work with anthropological work -- maybe more progressive anthropological work. So this, for me, has been very important also, personally. I do have an obsession with getting the taste of the flavor of things from inside. When I was twenty, I lived for four or five months in Romania. It was under Ceausescu. I felt this philosophical responsibility, I will tell you, because I came from a communist family. I didn't have any illusions about the regimes in Eastern Europe. I felt because I come from such a family and from such ideological background, I have a philosophical responsibility to taste life in the mutation or in this terrible dictatorship that evolved in Eastern Europe.

You wrote in the introduction to the Gaza book: "It has always been my conviction that history is made more in the currents of ordinary life than it is by rulers and their ceremonies."

I referred there to why I was not interested in the coming of Abu Mazen to Gaza, after he had one of a series of feuds and disagreements with Arafat. He came all of a sudden, so everybody was very interested in this. But for me, it just looked like a boring ritual of people who think themselves at the top of the Olympus. I prefer to be with friends who made their own history.

I can't resist asking you this question, because you come from a Marxist/Communist tradition: What is the relation of theory to observation and facts in your work? Clearly, you've headed, as you've already discussed, toward [an understanding] of the real situation, what people's lives are really like. But how do you think about theory in the back of your mind?

I think it exists in the sense [that] I always see the class conflict. I always see class tensions. I don't even have to theorize about it. It's all self-evident. That's why I was, very early on, very critical of the Palestinian Authority, because I saw the way that they were creating new classes in all sorts of corrupted and corruptive ways in order to build up a stronghold which supports the Oslo process. So I saw this.

At the same time, I saw the Israeli ongoing colonization very clearly. I saw it was done in order to establish Israeli Jewish privileges in the area. But then, because I'm very aware of my theoretical in-built assumptions (I cannot even help it; it's not that I'm a scholar in Marxism -- I'm not) I was very careful to collect a lot of information. I was very, very careful when people started telling me about Arafat's people starting to accumulate capital in the occupied territories while most of the people went through a process of impoverishment. I was very careful and didn't immediately write about it; because I'm inclined to believe this, I have to collect more information. So in a sense, I'm sometimes more careful about it because I'm aware of it.

Tell me a little about your craft as a writer. Your pieces are beautifully written. They are comprehensive and they detail every day life. There's an eye for things that people ignore. How do you do this? How did you come to do it so well?

Thank you. That's not the basic requirement of journalism.

Sometimes I see kind of a film, and then I feel I have to describe the film in words. If I were a filmmaker, that's how I would have done it with pictures. So that's my way. Then, also, of course, I don't only write features, I write op-eds. I know that I have to expose the analysis, but I prefer to expose it through examples from daily life, and not to burden with slogans. I'm trying to avoid slogans as much as possible, because I live in a society, both Israeli and Palestinian, that is really overcrowded with slogans and one-sentence exclamations. And I'm very ... I'm appalled by it.

It sounds like you keep many stories in your mind at one time, and choose when you actually write it up and publish it. So you're not driven by the headlines as many journalists are.

I don't need to be, because I don't cover daily news. I know some things are structural, and they might not get the headlines. They are structural, and they are developed within Israeli policy or within Palestinian tactics. So I pay attention to this much more than to what seems to catch the attention of everybody at certain moments, and then dies after two, three days.

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