- Narratives of Destruction and Survival: Writing and Reading About Life in Urban War Zones
After a night of Israeli Defence Force bombardment in Ramallah, drinking coffee to fight off fatigue, Suad Amiry had a telephone-disrupted morning.1 Fifty-three phone calls from family and friends establish for them that Amiry is safe, despite her close proximity to Israeli artillery. We, her readers, can all perhaps identify with the grumpiness that comes from lost sleep and repeated interruptions by the telephone.2 What is unrecognisable to most of us, though, is the experience of waking in the early morning to the sound of tanks rumbling into our neighbourhood. The power of Amiry’s account of domestic life in Ramallah in 2001 comes to a large extent from the ways in which she engages us as readers with her routine domestic circumstances and troubles - dealing with an elderly parent, edgy friends and anxious neighbours - and uses the identification that this produces to shock us with descriptions of routine domesticity played out in a context that is otherwise unimaginable. Amiry’s memoir, and others like it, urges us to think ‘what would I do?’ when faced with the unthinkable and unimaginable.
The unimaginable under discussion here is urban warfare - armed violence played out within the confines the city. This paper is about autobiographical narratives describing life in urban war zones - narratives such as Amiry’s. It explores the possibilities and politics of the genre for communicating the experience of living in a city under fire. My argument is that although many of the material and social effects of urban warfare can readily be imagined by the reader, who by the act of reading is already engaging with another’s experience, their real power and significance lies not only in the descriptions of familiar urban lifestyles being slowly destroyed, but also in the identification they urge the reader to feel with the writer. They encourage us, with varying mixtures of subtlety and blatant expectation, to consider our own reactions under such circumstances. They enable this identification by connecting and juxtaposing the familiarities of contemporary (primarily Western or westernised) urban life, a life assumed to be broadly recognisable by the reader, with the unfamiliarities and unimaginable consequences that follow for people living this urban life in places that are being forcibly ripped apart. Furthermore, this is not just an issue of individual identification and the political purposes that this may serve (however significant that might be). This splicing of the familiar and the strange, through the medium of the narrative and through the message of the text, disrupts the normality of armed violence that discourses around urban military deployments try so hard to promote. This in turn makes such narratives more than individual survivor tales, and gives them a political force of much greater significance than critics of this genre and of these individual writers would suggest.3 They resist cynicism about the positionality, partiality and subjectivity of their authors, and they also resist the cynicism bestowed by those dismissive of the impulses that these memoirs provoke.
The narratives: some amongst many
The texts discussed here are autobiographical narratives or memoirs written by civilians whose cities of residence are being disrupted and destroyed by military action. Autobiography, ‘an unruly and even slightly disreputable field’, is a genre about which there are on-going debates about authorship, selfhood, representation and authenticity. 4 Here, I am interested in the function of these narratives, their purpose and utility.
These narratives are part of the literature of war, about which in turn there is an ever-increasing critical scholarly engagement, particularly in terms of the possibilities and limits of representations of armed conflict.5 The experience of armed violence is a constant in English language autobiographical writing, just as it is across other literary forms and genres such as fiction, poetry and reportage. Within this genre of autobiographical narratives about war, soldiers’ tales of combat dominate; for some, they occupy a privileged position within the genre, reflecting the cultural primacy of the figure of the male soldier.6 Their consistency as bookshop perennials, describing varieties of conflicts, military roles and experiences, is testament to their...