Pedagogy and Epistemics of Witness: Teaching Palestine in a Time of Genocide

I belong to the question of the victim.

–Mahmoud Darwish

What follows is a thread of perfunctory reflections on a course I offered in January 2024 titled Decolonizing the Study of Palestine. A course is a complex, emergent human (and non-human) assemblage. The reflections below thus represent a personal, reflexive narrative about fragments of a much larger, multifaceted, and ultimately ineffable experience. I would like to particularly highlight a few strands in the course, hoping to accent an account and advocacy of witness as an epistemic and pedagogic option in a time of genocide. We dwell in the heart of an impenetrable darkness. In a gasp of despair, almost a scream in the infinite void, this essay is a testament to the horror in Gaza. The people of Gaza, and of Palestine: the world has failed you. It is an epic betrayal. But you are not, and will never be, alone. We are kin. We grieve—together. We will not forget.


In Silence for Gaza, Mahmoud Darwish evokes Gaza as the ultimate synecdoche for Palestine. Its histories of martyrdom and refusals, even its myths, he highlights, epitomize those of an entire homeland. Helga Tawil-Souri and Dina Mattar probe the panoply of allegories that is Gaza to “ask how the place, its practices, its people, its culture and its historical processes can help us understand the contemporary condition of Palestinians, in particular, and the condition of dispossession, in general” (8). While decolonization cannot be clearly enunciated exclusively in the metaphorical, as Darwish also insists in his essay, we began the course by approaching Gaza as a structural metaphor for dispossessive settler colonialism and as a cruel monument to a universal condition of moral and political decay. Palestine is a palimpsest of genocidal settler colonialism, and Gaza the writing on its corpses and detritus. Gaza is a reagent that condenses all oppression, and all that is inexpressibly grotesque and putrefied about a racist and genocidal settler colonial project. Gaza is also a metaphor for the strange non-death of colonial morality. The deflagration that is Gaza lights up the whole world and exposes global coloniality, colonial complicity, and moral bankruptcy in their most obscene, unadulterated, and shameless forms. Gaza is not only the necropolis where the global moral and political (dis)order has collapsed. It is the open, livestreamed theater of its unbearable decomposition and transmogrification. Gaza also keeps ablaze the praxis and poetics of life, Sumud, hope, and decolonization.

Following from Patrick Wolfe’s description of settler colonialism, an epistemics and pedagogy of witness center the Nakba not as an event, but as a structure. They register a vigilant attunement to ongoing atrocity—catastrophe-in-becoming and return-deferred. In the course, the ongoingness of the Nakba did not imply only its evolving in the longue-durée; the ongoingness literally meant studying as a wholly televised and mediatized genocide unfurled, an obscene spectacle of unspeakable cruelty on full display. What does it mean to study with a people against whom a genocide is being committed? With people who are being disappeared, displaced, maimed, orphaned, widowed, starved, humiliated? What conceptual, experiential, and affective affordances can one muster to come to grips with that unfathomable reality? I ask with Pablo Neruda: “In which language does rain fall over tormented cities?” (66). For language became impotent, and our theoretical and conceptual apparatuses became impotent as we tried to come to terms with the monstrous inhuman abyss in Gaza. No matter how genuinely we tried, our words were hesitant, trembling before the irreducible untranslatability of Gaza. No mimesis—no language, image, or video—can remotely approximate the abyss, as Abdelkébir Khatibi suggests in Class Warrior—Taoist Style:

truth is a word
found in language


I write these simple words to surprise you
who possesses language controls violence
but the supreme violence exceeds words


make your actions a faltering truth
make your truth a lasting critique

Thus, we summoned witness as our faltering truth, our lasting critique.

Witnessing attends to Israeli settler colonialism as a “total colonial fact,” in Abaher El-Sakka’s  words. The colonial fact envelops the entirety of the Palestinian social experience. Its marrow is all-encompassing erasure. As El-Sakka writes, total violence is the processual necessity of rolling out this project, which is tentacular. Zionist settler colonialism is a “cidal swarm”: genocide, spaciocide, sociocide, politicide, urbicide, economicide, epistemicide, historicide, memoricide, culturicide, linguicide, phenomenocide, ontocide, semanticide, educide, ecocide. It is in the nexus of this cidal swarm that the Palestine question and decolonization should be thought—and witnessed. Against the drivel of Western pundits who, as an apologia for genocide, ask: how should Israel respond to October 7? I inquire earnestly: “how can one respond to a cidal swarm?”

Zionist settler colonialism occupies the senses, the soundscape, the atmospherics, as Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian writes; its pervasive surveillance rhizome invades the privacy of lives and bodies, movement and unmovement. This is phenomenocide, the obliteration of the possibility of Palestinian experience outside of settler colonialism. Mosab Abu Toha’s poem “Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear” renders phenomenocide:

Things you may find hidden in my ear:

The drone’s buzzing sound,
the roar of an F-16,
the screams of bombs falling on houses,
on fields, and on bodies,
of rockets flying away—
rid my small ear canal of them all.

How can one make a phenomenological reduction of an occupation?

The stories we tell each other, dusted off of the rubble of time and war, linger as archives after guided and misguided bombs shatter memories, create “memory craters,” black holes that gape for re-membering. Sherene Seikaly affirms that “at the thin intersections of popular memory and archival practices, people tell their stories to make sense of the everyday. They weave these stories to shape the present, to build connections to the past, and to stake claims to the future…. And they build and nourish an archive: one that keeps a record of colonization and guards the will to decolonize. Gaza 2014…is an instance of the archive that is the Palestinian condition” (231). And so is the story of Gaza 2023-2024—an archive of witness to the Palestinian condition. For “Palestine is always a story away,” “a poem away,” says Mosab Abu Toba, or is it “on earth…or in the poem?” (Darwish).

If I Must Die

Refaat Alareer

If I must die,
you must live
to tell my story
to sell my things
to buy a piece of cloth
and some strings,
(make it white with a long tail)
so that a child, somewhere in Gaza
while looking heaven in the eye
awaiting his dad who left in a blaze—
and bid no one farewell
not even to his flesh
not even to himself—
sees the kite, my kite you made, flying up above,
and thinks for a moment an angel is there
bringing back love.
If I must die
let it bring hope,
let it be a story.

Refaat Alareer’s life story stands both as a decolonial tale and a witness to the colonial will to destroy Palestinian life in all its resilient beauty and creative splendor. But we decided otherwise: “To pursue beauty to its lair,” in the words of Arundhati Roy. Native American scholar Shauneen Pete offers a compelling example of the strategic, subversive purchase of stories in decolonizing education. This highlights the centrality of storytelling as decolonial unsettling, a decolonizing moment which narrates back to the settler colonial state, a refusal which dwells in a fragile but defiantly resurgent presence—presence being the supreme affront to any settler colonial project: “to get in the way of settler colonization, all the native has to do is stay at home” (Rose, cited in Wolfe 388). The witness of memory as obdurate survivance is a hauntological archive that torments the settler:

علَى هَذِهِ الأَرْض مَا يَسْتَحِقُّ الحَياةْ
خوفُ الغُزَاةِ مِنَ الذِّكْرياتْ
We have on this earth what makes life worth living:…
the invaders’ fears of memories

Mahmoud Darwish

Witness is refusing to be silenced and standing in solidarity with the targets of the grand inquisitors of knowledge who strive strenuously to smear, subjugate, and muzzle knowledges that expose and challenge Zionist myths and crimes. Epistemic oppression and denialism amount to epistemicide. Palestine has always been forced to seek “permission to narrate” (Said) against multiple denialisms: existence, Nakba, genocide, occupation. Epistemic oppression relates equally to hounding Palestinian speech by an offensive that barely conceals its name: a racist, Islamophobic, anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian inquisition. Semantic and epistemic gaslighting congeal into the order of the day when words are cleansed of their political and historical meaning and, like Palestinian speech, transfigured to tally a racist trope that inscribes Palestine in the exclusive frame of terrorism and bigotry. Consider, for example, how the word intifada has been disfigured as tantamount to anti-Semitism by a colonial, racist censorship and onslaught against Palestine on US campuses. Global academic and epistemic flows are not immune to these formations, including how dominant knowledge systems percolate through the global westernized, internationalized, and English-medium university. This is reflective of larger regimes of knowledge production about the Middle East and North Africa (themselves colonial speech acts) in the US in their relation to imperial designs and dominant ideologies. The politics of knowledge, along with politics, should and will never be the same during and after Gaza. Palestine as method means that Palestine should be our epistemic and moral compass towards decolonization, and witness curriculum an epistemic and pedagogic option for that end.

“Witness sensing” foregrounds economies of the sensible that are invariably swept below the threshold of perception: the quotidian indignities of settler colonialism; the calculated dehumanizing cruelties in Gaza; the phenomenology of ubiquitous sensory deprivation, destruction, and obstruction; the psychic debilitation. A pedagogy of witnessing tutors not just “close reading” (Spivak), but “caring reading,” complicating the “hermeneutics of suspension” that attempt to access the Other. “Witness reading” fosters sense-ability, a hospitable mode of sensing and sense-making that trains the imagination to remain closely in communion with suffering, pain, dignity, and hope. It creates and sustains “communities of witness.”

We also invoked the power of walking as witness to the banality of settler colonial oppression. We stood Michel de Certeau on his head. While de Certeau’s “walking in New York” was utterly oblivious to the settler colonial and racial dark side of the US, we unequivocally flagged what it meant to “walk in the colony.” Jean Genet’s poignant chronicle of his “quatre heures à Shatila,” of walking through the gruesome scenes of swollen, decomposed Palestinian bodies strewn across the refugee camp in the aftermath of the slaughter. Raja Shehadeh’s Going Home (2019) and Susan Abulhawa’s Mornings in Jenin (2006) bring into clear relief “walking witness” that unravels the “rhetoric” and “texture” of the everyday of living under settler colonialism. Unwalking is also a settler colonial method of debilitation (Puar). Settler colonialism is a design structure of immobility differentially modulating inertia, slowness, and velocity. To be sure, walling is a strategy of enclosure in both senses of the term. Walls are meant to separate and confine, but the grammar of separation can also be tactical: walls also purport to define, divide, and dispossess. Those architectural mutilations are frontiers of territorial accumulation by dispossession: they constitute borders that partition and blockade. They are also ontocidal. Walls, checkpoints, and fences are likewise technologies of colonizing Palestinian time—the waiting, detention, interdiction—entrenching temporal apartheid. Settler time is continuous and fast, and the time imposed on Palestinians is fragmented and slow (Tawil-Souri). This legislates “temporal debilitation” of “slow life” (Puar) as the underlying grid of settler colonial eliminative biopolitics.

One dimension of “witness reading” is thus to “center Palestinian life in a deep description of Israeli settler colonial violence” (Barakat 102, emphasis in original). This amounts to the epistemic preferential option of the “victim.” Without idealizing the epistemic privilege of the victim, witness parrhesia requires an affirmation of a victim realism. If one agrees with Fanon that objectivity is a coloniality machine (“for the colonized, objectivity is always directed against them” (76, my translation)), then decolonial witness should endorse the subversive gesture: “to lend a voice to suffering is the condition of all truth…for suffering is objectivity that weighs upon the subject” (Adorno 17-18).

Pedagogy/epistemics of witness is a praxis of with/alongside. It accents a praxis of hospitality, not the Levinasian nod to the Other (which Levinas refused to extend to Palestinians). Palestinians are not others to me (or to my students). “Write it down, I am an Arab,” wrote Darwish. And I, too, belong to the victim’s question. A pedagogy of witness is a labor of love-justice. Jean Genet writes:

I am French, but I defend the Palestinians wholeheartedly and automatically. They are in the right because I love them. But would I love them if injustice had not turned them into a wandering people?

A pedagogy of witness is grounded in relationality. It dissolves the binary of subject and object, self and other. The latter division, Kelly Oliver writes, “is itself a result of the pathology [and pedagogy] of oppression. To see oneself as a subject and to see other people as the other or objects not only alienates one from those around him or her but also enables the dehumanization inherent in oppression and domination” (3). An epistemics/pedagogy of witness is one that attends to Arundhati Roy’s plea “to never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.” In its striving to fend off amnesia, pedagogy of witness also problematizes the liberal legitimatory and normalizing exhortations of reconciliation and forgiveness. Bearing witness is to guard against what Ann Laura Stoler calls “colonial aphasia,” (2) and its surrogates in academic and public discourse. It is about “breaking the silence,” the refusal to sanitize, the refusal to surrender to the lure of forgetting. Pivoted on repair, it embraces an epistemics, aesthetics, and didactics of what Nayanika Mookherjee dubs “irreconciliation,” given that reparative justice is denied (as if a cidal swarm can at all be repaired) and naked horror and impunity perdure. Decolonization from settler colonialism cannot be conjugated within liberalism and its moribund consensus.

Witness problematizes our habitual modes of educational practice. The subject of witnessing, as Roger I. Simon suggests, cannot occupy “a comfortable, distinguishing distance” where knowing is treated as a cognitive, disembodied abstraction, where testimony is hollowed out of any degree of reflexive interrogation. One needs to pedagogically position “cidal swarm” as a speech act of address, a demand that anticipates accountability beyond mere cognitive content or understanding: “whereas learning about an event or experience focuses upon the acquisition of qualities, attributes, and facts, so that it presupposes a distance…between the learner and what is to be learned, learning from an event or experience is of a different order, that of insight,” which “requires the learner’s attachment to, and implication in, knowledge” as Deborah P. Britzman tells us (117). This mode of attachment authorizes possibilities for embracing knowledge as a form of political and moral address (Britzman 118). To bear witness is to cultivate both “address-ability” and “response-ability,” “to inherit it as a bequest” (Simon 21).

We were persistently assailed by the haunting possibility that the people of Gaza and their land may vanish. As we read “the penultimate speech of the Red Indian” (to reference Darwish) we wondered if the course might stand as a (penultimate) elegy for a people and a land. The tormenting specter of destruction lingered in the air; the sound of agony and the smell of death overstayed. We were engulfed by a permanent sense of guilt: how could we go about our normal lives, eat, sleep, read, laugh, walk while our own people were being degraded to the most primal sort of existence: hounded, famished, vagrant, haggard, terrified, cold, abandoned? Are we not “implicated subjects” of some sort? Is knowing in a time of unfolding genocide an indulgence only a “spectator,” not the “victim,” can afford? What is the dividing line between media spectacle and epistemic spectatorship? In this instance, is “critical theory” not the same as “spectator theory”? Guilt was compounded by a paralyzing helplessness. And anger: anger at the hideous injustice, the complicity of the imperial center and its Arab periphery, and at our helplessness, our failure. The desolation has a biblical texture, strewn between Amalek and the Four Horsemen. We mourned.

Pedagogies of witness thus resignify vulnerability and affect. They enable students to mindfully register and sublimate the potential of pain, anger, outrage, helplessness, disgust, horror, and trauma.


Fady Joudah

My daughter
wouldn’t hurt a spider
That had nested
Between her bicycle handles
For two weeks
She waited
Until it left of its own accord


If you tear down the web I said
It will simply know
This isn’t a place to call home
And you’d get to go biking


She said that’s how others
Become refugees isn’t it?


Affect takes on a modality of praxis, a “force to thought and action” beyond moral indignation and the often paralyzing sentiments of outrage. It is a “force that incites and compels thought as to the range of emotions one is feeling, as well as to what in the encounter has provoked these feelings and, consequently, in what ways this encounter might become significant to one’s framework for acting in the world” (Simon 11) and “opening up the possibility of a more humane and ethical future beyond violence?” (18). This is not studying Palestine as an epistemic fetish, the epistemophilia often discharged as catharsis for resignation, or as decolonial hermeneutics or Eurocentric critique. As stated above, witness is an educational imperative that brings to bear the moral and practical burden of sense-ability, response-ability and action. “The ultimate purpose” as Jasbir K. Puar stresses, “is to labor in the service of a Free Palestine” (154).


Ahmed Kabel

Ahmed Kabel is an associate professor at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco. He has published on a variety of topics at the intersection of decolonization, decolonial thought, language, power, and politics. His work has appeared in Race and Class, Postcolonial Studies, Islamophobia Studies Journal, Journal of North African Studies among other venues.