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Second Life

A West Bank Memoir

Author:

Janet Varner Gunn
Foreword by Lila Abu-Lughod

Second Life

A moving account of one woman’s encounter with a “living martyr” of the West Bank.

This memoir recounts the time the author spent as a human rights worker on the West Bank. In a moving meditation on the many forms of both autobiography and resistance to power, Gunn tells the story of a Palestinian teenager who was critically shot during a stone-throwing demonstration and deemed a “living martyr” of the Intifada.

“Far from ‘encroaching on the space and time belonging to others’ stories’, Janet’s interweaving of her own story allows the reader to meet ordinary people much as she herself met them and to share in their insistence on living their ordinary lives. It makes for a refreshing departure from cold journalism and hot political debates about ‘the Palestinian issue’. It’s warm. It’s immediate. It’s poetic in its simplicity. Janet was concerned that her involvement in the Abu Aker case had led her to neglect her responsibilities for our monthly human rights report. But to my mind, this is human rights writing at its best: a playful, though sometimes painful, celebration of the human. An open invitation to reveal in the little events behind the Big News. A memoir that engenders memories and reminds us of our common humanity.” Jan Abu Shakrah Founder and Former Director Palestinian Human Rights Information Center

Second Life was first published in 1995.

“Having sat out the U.S. civil rights movement and the Vietnam war protest during the sixties, I joined my first cause in the late eighties, a middle-aged academic on the other side of the world.” So writes Janet Varner Gunn, who from 1988 to 1990 took time out from university teaching to do human rights work on the West Bank. During that time she became involved with the case of Mohammad Abu Aker, a Palestinian teenager who was critically shot during a stone-throwing demonstration. The years following Mohammad’s injury, during which he was deemed a “living martyr” of the Intifada and which ended with his eventual death at nineteen in 1990, are recounted in this deeply personal book.

Gunn interweaves her account of Mohammad’s medical struggles and the politics surrounding his symbolic place in the Intifada with her own story of loss and recovery. As a human rights worker for whom Mohammad initially represented a “case,” Gunn was involved in getting him the medical care he needed to survive. As a scholar, she became fascinated by the way Mohammad’s injury and subsequent “second life” took on a larger significance because of its timing, which coincided with the declaration of an independent Palestine.

The book contains rich accounts of the “small news” of daily life in Deheishe, the refugee camp where Mohammad lived with his family. Gunn describes the laughter with which residents of the camp have learned to meet the violent disruption of their daily lives, hoping that her readers will “be moved not by the victimization of an oppressive occupation but by the examples of hope and steadfastness I discovered in Deheishe’s holding on for dear life.”

Janet Varner Gunn has taught in the Department of English at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa, after completing a Senior Fulbright Lectureship. She is the author of Autobiography: Toward a Poetics of Experience (1982).

Second Life

Janet Varner Gunn teaches in the Department of English at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa. She is the author of Autobiography: Toward a Poetics of Experience (1982).

Second Life

“Far from ‘encroaching on the space and time belonging to others’ stories’, Janet’s interweaving of her own story allows the reader to meet ordinary people much as she herself met them and to share in their insistence on living their ordinary lives. It makes for a refreshing departure from cold journalism and hot political debates about ‘the Palestinian issue’. It’s warm. It’s immediate. It’s poetic in its simplicity. Janet was concerned that her involvement in the Abu Aker case had led her to neglect her responsibilities for our monthly human rights report. But to my mind, this is human rights writing at its best: a playful, though sometimes painful, celebration of the human. An open invitation to reveal in the little events behind the Big News. A memoir that engenders memories and reminds us of our common humanity.” Jan Abu Shakrah Founder and Former Director Palestinian Human Rights Information Center

“Even if this were only another human interest story, it would be worthwhile for its well-written documentation of life in a Palestinian refugee camp. But this book is more than that; it is simultaneously a biography of Mohammad and an autobiography of Gunn, who had left the United States, her academic career, and her marriage to rediscover and redefine herself on the West Bank. Gunn does a good job on interweaving the two genres. Highly recommended.” Library Journal.

“A remarkably intimate portrayal of life in the Palestinian refugee camp where I was born and grew up. Through her use of the stories she heard and the events she witnessed on the West Bank, it often seems the Palestinians are once again speaking for themselves in voices I can hear.” Hisham H. Ahmed, Fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs

“This is a beautifully narrated story. Gunn highlights the universal truth that our shared humanity the world over is rooted in the ordinary and familiar endeavour to sustain everyday life.” Uri Davis, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, University of Durham

“We never forget in Second Life how a view is always from somewhere and that what one sees depends on that somewhere. Gunn situates herself as an American, a woman, an academic, a human rights worker, and a long-ago little girl from Western Pennsylvania searching for something. She also situates herself squarely within the Palestinian camp of Deheishe, not outside it looking in over the twenty-foot fence meant to pen residents in.” Lila Abu-Lughod, from the foreword (this is the quote that Janet Gunn prefers from the foreword)

“As the Palestinians find their way in a confusing new phase of their history of dispossession, Gunn’s memoir of two years of the Intifada will stand as an eloquent and troubling record of a previous moment. It speaks to far more than the Palestinian situation.” Lila Abu-Lughod, from the Foreword

“Gunn is most compelling when she tells of ordinary people who, despite their suffering, have a vitality and an indomitable spirit that help them carry on.” Booklist

“Gunn covers so much in this small volume, synthesizing the personal and the political, chronicling life under occupation and life despite occupation, detailing loss, the mourning of loss, steadfastness, and healing. It is a very moving account.” Zeina Azzam Seikaly, Middle East Journal

“She draws a picture of a commnity that remains healthy and cheerful because people support each other and find what joy and pleasure they can, despite hardship and suffering. Her book is a memorable portrait of a courageous people whose daily struggle is a testament to humanity’s ability to survive and prevail.” Christian Century