Earlier this year, Virgin Atlantic removed a word from its in-flight menu and apologized for any offence it may have caused after some passengers threatened to boycott the airline. The offending word? Palestinian. It was used as an adjective to describe the couscous salad offered on some routes. If the provenance of an airline appetizer can cause such outrage, imagine what Marcello Di Cintio is stepping into with a book that not only acknowledges the lives of Palestinians but celebrates their creativity and gives the authors among them starring roles in his narrative. Seen from this lens alone, Pay No Heed to the Rockets is a daring act. That Di Cintio (author of Walls and Poets and Pahlevans) researches his subjects thoroughly, conducts in-depth reporting, and writes with vigour and humility is further testimony to his skill in handling one of the most divisive political stories of the last 100 years.
Pay No Heed to the Rockets expands on the 15,000-word ebook Random House published under the title Song of the Caged Bird in 2014, in those halcyon and short-lived days when the brief digital format was all the rage. The transition to a full-length book allows Di Cintio to cast a wider net as he travels through Palestine and parts of Israel talking to poets, fiction writers, librarians, and booksellers whose approach to their Palestinian identity challenges the reductive narrative in mainstream western media of Palestine as a land of oppressed and oppressive extremists.
While two deceased, iconic writers (Ghassan Kanafani and Mahmoud Darwish, whose poem about making coffee during war lends the book its title) hover over the work as guardian angels or portents from the anxiety-of-influence realm, Di Cintio spotlights a cast of mostly younger writers, many of whom remain unknown outside the Arab world. We meet women like Mona Abu Sharekh and others who are contesting not just life in the shadow of Israel but conventional gender roles and the religious fanaticism of, for example, Hamas in Gaza.
Di Cintio focuses on the Palestinians, but he doesn’t sidestep his own involvement in their story. He draws attention to his privileged position as a Canadian citizen and a transient while also acknowledging his blind spots in areas such as suspicion of Orientalism and fetishizing suffering. The combination of gonzo reporting – crossing borders, throwing himself into scenes from refugee camps – and the distinctly Canadian politesse and fair-mindedness Di Cintio musters creates a convincing, humane work of non-fiction. The author makes a deliberate point of lending support to Palestinian authors but refrains from engaging in debates in which Israel’s right to survive is questioned. To speak for Palestinians, in Di Cintio’s conception, doesn’t mean (re)victimizing the Israelis.
The book’s least convincing element is its clichéd framing device. Di Cintio begins and ends with a search for a girl in a green dress seen in a photograph collecting books from the rubble after an Israeli airstrike on Gaza. In a volume already teeming with more complex quests – some personal, some literary, and almost all political – this one feels purely decorative.