I have experienced a bomb blast in close proximity only once. In the wee hours of the morning, an empty room outside our apartment block in Karachi blew up. This was the 1990s, when such blasts were not extraordinary events in the city. While my grandmother and I were insulated from any direct contact with flying objects because our apartment was located at the back of the building, all the glass in the windows of our five-story apartment block was shattered, and the window-frames broke out of their steel welds. I don’t remember what was left of the room where the explosion took place, but whatever was left of it was cleared away in a couple of days. I was seven or eight years old, and somewhere in my heart I still carry the terror of that blast.

As bombs continue to rain down on children and hospitals in Gaza, as the siege continues, I wonder what the bombs do to the small hearts of the children. When these kids and babies look out of the windows and breathe the sulphuric air packed with dust, how do they feel? It’s a terrifying thing to ponder – we all know there is no way to come to terms with these images – and yet it is inescapable if we are to reckon with the world we live in and the world our own children are inheriting.

During the past few weeks, everything I have loved felt trivial. I cannot read. I don’t feel any news other than Gaza is worthy of our attention. Should we worry about trade agreements when children are screaming out of hunger in the cold? I am sickened by the thought that there is a kind of rational calculated thinking that considers this brutalisation of children necessary, demanding and justifying the use of disproportionate force and cheering on the state of Israel to carry on in its rage of destruction irrespective of the suffering its inflicting.

During the darkness of these past weeks, there is only one writer whose work has spoken to me. I sought Kafka’s words not for consolation – no, Kafka, unlike me, has no pity – nor out of disbelief at what was happening – anyone with even a fleeting knowledge of twentieth-century imperialist and colonial violence has seen many massacres of innocent civilians – but to seek an answer to what I felt was a befuddling psychology of power at play. To find a way to understand how the story of this unfolding genocide was being manufactured where the suffering of innocent people and children was constantly occluded. And, yes, to seek some resonance for my visceral anger and mounting frustration as a witness.


When the Israeli Defence minister declared Palestinians “human animals” and announced a general massacre against them, the phrase felt eerie. It took a day or two, as the phrase drifted and knocked about in my mind, until I finally saw where it led.

The human-animal figure abounds in Kafka’s stories: Jackals and Arabs, Report to an Academy, Josephine the Singer, or Mouse Folk, The Burrow, Investigations of a Dog... It is one of the principal subjectivities Kafka employed to illuminate the condition his characters find themselves in. He used these aporetic split consciousnesses as models to think about all of us. All of us, human-animals. His human-animals are outside of the civilised humans, and they are often in uneasy dialogue with them. Kafka had more than a passing affinity for these human-animals; he was very much at home inside them. The most famous one of these is, of course, Gregor Samsa, who awoke one morning from troubled dreams to find that he had turned into a monstrous vermin.

Except Samsa’s metamorphosis didn’t wholly turn him into vermin; only, in fact, in body. Samsa retained his language, his past, his memories, his dreams for himself and his family, his human consciousness, his personality, and his history as an individual. The drama of Kafka’s most famous story is the indeterminate nature of Samsa’s humanity. The problem that lies at the heart of the story – what tortures the family, and us, as readers – is ultimately the question: is Samsa human? Can he be granted the same rights of personhood as a normal person?

We don’t know. We only know that he is “a problem” for those who consider themselves human. His humanity is in question; it is the question that the story poses to us.

Like Samsa, the Palestinians too simply woke up on October 7 to find themselves transformed into monstrous vermin. One day, their humanity turned questionable. “It is an entire nation out there that is responsible,” the Israeli President Yitzhak Herzog condemned all Palestinians in Gaza. “It is not true this rhetoric about civilians not being aware, not involved. It’s absolutely not true.” The Palestinian voices reach us through the Western media as voices of the condemned. They sound like the garbled utterances from Samsa’s throat, who, in a tragicomic way, speaks through his bleeding mouth to explain to his supervisor that he would be right out to resume his duties of a traveling salesman.

The Western media has acted much like Samsa’s family: they treated Palestinians like an embarrassment to be hidden away. They shut them out and talk about them all day long. They forget that Samsa can hear them, can understand their language. The only thing they can’t bear is to hear Samsa’s voice. The Western press doesn’t wish to know what happened to them.

The Palestinians are without history. Just like Samsa’s family, they won’t open the room and let them crawl out and sit on the table with them and tell them what happened to them. When the Palestinians are invited to speak, it is only to answer the question: Do you condemn what happened on October 7? We will come to what has happened to you later; actually, that is not what we are interested in. Do you sympathise with what happened to the Israelis? No, there is only one story here, and you have a role in it. Don’t mess with the script.

Dehumanisation before murder

The pivotal moment in The Metamorphosis comes when the sister decides one day that her brother, in fact, is not her brother. “We must get rid of it,” cried the sister, “You just have to put from your mind any thought that it’s Gregor. Our continuing to think it was for such a long time, therein lies the source of our misfortune. But how can it be Gregor? If it was Gregor, he would long ago have seen that it’s impossible for human beings to live together with an animal like that, and he would have left of his own free will. That would have meant I didn’t have a brother, but we at least could go on with our lives, and honour his memory. But as it is, this animal hounds us, drives away the tenants, evidently wants to take over the whole flat, and throw us out on to the street.”

Once Samsa is definitively declared an animal, he can be unceremoniously killed. We all witness Gregor Samsa’s silent death in his room, after which he is picked up and thrown out summarily in the garbage by the charwoman, who treats Samsa as nothing more than a vermin. The story ends with the family returning to the harmonious continuity of its collective life, which had been disrupted by Samsa’s metamorphosis. A sunny new day arises, and the family is revived.

For the family, Samsa’s death brings only relief. The rupture in the story, in their own lives, caused by Samsa’s metamorphosis and subsequent death, remains unacknowledged. It receives no memorialisation, no marker, no funeral. Once Samsa dies, the family breathes easy and move on.

Except for the readers. The death of Gregor Samsa is noticed only by those reading the story. As readers, we are lodged in an uneasy space of having witnessed a crime, but at the same time, we are asked: crime against what being? Did Samsa deserve our sympathy? We carry the burden of knowing something that remains unacknowledged by every actor in the story. In the end, we are left to fight for Samsa’s humanity by arguing with the story which appears complete and closed. Despite the closed narrative, we do not accept that Samsa was simply a vermin. Despite the surface completeness of the story, Gregor remains a question even after his death. Unlike the family, we cannot accept that Gregor was just a vermin.

The story of October 7 and its aftermath has been delivered to us complete with beginning-middle-and-end. We were told it was children of light versus children of evil. It was insidiously ratified by the Western states and propagated by the Western corporate media. But a glance at the protests playing out on the streets tell us that the witnesses to the crimes of the Israeli state do not accept the story being told, no matter how coherent the make it appear.

Is it ironic that it is Kafka, a Jewish writer at the turn of the twentieth century, understood the predicament that the Palestinians find themselves in? It has been said before, and it is worth repeating again and again: Jewish people know the plight of the Palestinians better than perhaps anyone else. It is no coincidence that some of the most robust and vociferous opposition to Israeli policies comes from Jewish people themselves. It is also no coincidence the Jewish thinkers – Arendt, Adorno, Kafka – who have helped the modern world understand the evils of nationalism and fascism.

I do not know where what value these words might have; but I write them in the hope that they will help all of us see what Kafka prophetically showed us.

At night, I often find myself holding my kid, and images from Gaza flash in my mind. My instinct is to grip them tighter to shelter them from the bomb that keeps going off in my heart. I hold them tight until the explosion settles. Until I am able to assure myself that this massacre, these bombs are going off somewhere else. But I know that the only hope for us is to speak, to fight, and yes, to hope.

The bombs are still exploding. I am still holding tight.