Ottawa Writers Fest: Yousef Bashir follows his father’s lead and pursues peace

Yousef Bashir. Photo: Bill O'Leary/Getty Images

Yousef Bashir is a Palestinian-American from the Gaza Strip. As a young boy he was shot in the back by an Israeli soldier. He recovered and has made his way to the United States where he now lives and works and works hard for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, something he learned from his father, Khalil Bashir, a highly respected educator and who was the inspiration for the book The Words of My Father (HarperCollins). Yousef Bashir will be at the Ottawa International Writers Festival next week but before then he answered some questions from ARTSFILE.

Q. What an inspiring story. Why did you write it?

A. To fulfill my commitment to spreading my father’s message of peace and writing is one way I could do that. I have always had dreams of being able to publish my story and share my voice with the world through my very own writings.

Q. The book begins in your family home in Gaza. What kind of home was it before the soldiers came?

A. It was something out of a paradise. Green everywhere, a fleet of greenhouses that grew tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and other vegetables. All around them stood olive trees, palm trees and other plants that added even more beauty to the scene. The three storey house stood at the corner of the land, closer to the highway that runs through the Gaza Strip. There was also a place for animals and a smaller building where we used to store things. Behind the house was an Israeli military base called Kfar Darom. I never ran out of space growing up. I thought I was truly living in paradise.

Q. What does family mean to you?

A. I used to think that my father and mother were God. I believed that until my father and mother told me to start praying to God the almighty and all merciful. Family is an endless source of love, passion and commitment to being good and making the world good too even while living under the harshest of circumstances through faith in God but also in family.

Q. When the soldiers occupied your family home what happened?

A. There were a number of random shootings at the house to scare us away but my father refused to evacuate. One day, they entered the house through the kitchen door. They went upstairs for a while before coming back down to let us know that no one was allowed to go upstairs. They took over the second and the third floors. Every night they came downstairs to make the family sleep in the living room. To go to the bathroom, or to the kitchen or to go to school permission from the soldiers was now required. This went on daily for five straight years.

Q. Were you able to leave the family farm and go to school?

A. Yes but with great difficulty. The soldiers sometimes kept us in the living room for days sometimes for an entire week all together. We were living in the midst of war. Tanks would park right by our rooms where we were supposed to study, sleep and live. School became, in the eyes of my father, a way of defying the new life of occupation the soldiers imposed on us. My father was also my headmaster so it was only natural for him to put an even greater emphasis on going to school and earning the highest grades to be able to compete in the world. My father’s tradition was to send his children to Germany for college but I dreamed of another destination — the United States.

Q. Your father is a remarkable man.

A. My father was the most loving, respectful and admirable man I have ever known. We were close. I always believed in him and thought that I could not have asked for a better father. He set the bar way too high sometimes and before I knew it. I did not hesitate to challenge his way and vision not because I disagreed with it but because I believed I could do it in a different way, my own way. I think he knew that deep down.

I could not count how many times I disagreed with him on how to think of the Israelis. They destroyed our farms, intimidated us, shot at our house daily, filled our lives with unexpected searches and unnecessary drills, injured my father and older brother and shot me in the back without cause right before his eyes. They even shot and killed our animals. Despite all of that, my father believed peace is possible in the Holy Land but to make that happen, someone has to take the first step towards peace. If it is never going to be the Israelis, then let it always be us.

Q. What happened when you were shot?

A. I know it was one of the soldiers stationed at the watch tower. He had just permitted three UN officers to enter our front yard but after just a few minutes he abruptly asked them to leave. As their vehicle backed away from the driveway and as I waved bye, a soldier shot me in the back point blank. I instantly could not feel my legs and when I arrived at the hospital in Gaza, I learned that I had been hit by an M-16 bullet that lodged in my spine. When I felt the bullet for the first time, I thought that was it for me but my father believed otherwise.

Q. You were angry initially?

A. I was frustrated yes but I was really seeing the reality of the Israeli occupation for the first time. I did not need to go far to see its cruelty or even turn on our television to catch a news report. All I had to do was open my eyes and look. To my father, the ultimate defeat is when one’s humanity is taken away and defined by the hostile actions of others. He strongly believed that he would get his house back and there will be peace. I was just 11 years old when it all started. By 15, I had become a peace advocate thanks to my father.

Q. Why advocate for peace and understanding between Israelis and Palestinians?

A. I believe it is the only and best way for the victor and the defeated in the Israeli-Arab conflict. Violence has been put to use for far too long. We have an obligation to continue to promote peace in the Holy Land; one that is fair and just to both people. If we cannot have peace in the Holy Land, then where else would we have it? I believed in peace because I know what war does. I made up my mind when I watched my father run up the stairs for the first time in five years to announce that he had gotten his house back. That is when Israel decided to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

Q. Do you ever despair?

A. Despair is such an obvious word in my life but I never let it come to life because hope is all I have. Through faith in God, my father and humanity – it is hard to despair. Elections and politicians come and go. Attacks unfold and diplomacy fails but the people stay. The true children of Abraham (Jews, Arabs and Christians) know that the only way forward is a just peace.

Q. Your father died in 2009. I’m sure you think of him often. How do you remember him?

A. That is a difficult question. I am closer to my father since he passed. Sometimes, I feel that he has not passed. The only part that I struggle with is not having been able to be there for him to put his body to rest. I tried but I could not make it. I think of him every day and at every turn in my life. When I pray for him, I find myself compelled to pray for the whole world and everyone that lives in it. He is my hero, my teacher and my honourable father. 

In town: Yousef Bashir will be taking part in the Ottawa International Writers Festival on May 3 at 6 p.m. For information:

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.