The History Beneath History
Out of It
By Selma Dabbagh
New York: Bloomsbury, 2012, 320 pp., $15.00, paperback
Of Noble Origins
Cairo, Egypt: American University in Cairo Press, 2012, 304 pp., $17.95, paperback
Reviewed by M. Lynx Qualey
When the British-Palestinian author Selma Dabbagh was writing her debut novel, Out of It, she was keenly aware that her project would not be an easy one. The reading context that connects Palestinian novels with English-language readers is full of landmines, roadblocks, and loud declarations. As a way around these, Dabbagh said in an interview with the ArabLit blog that she tried to avoid “the words Palestinian and Israeli as much as possible. To avoid sounding too journalistic.” She felt that these identifying terms would send up red flags, disconnecting readers from the individual nature of her characters and story. After all, she said in a spring 2012 interview, “It’s a conflict, which—if people have an opinion about it—they have a strong opinion.”
There would be no reading without opinions, but popular views of Palestinians are hard-edged enough to change the way some novelists write. Moreover, Palestinian authors work in a context where political engagement is expected. The great poet Mahmoud Darwish said at the opening of the 2008 Palestine Festival of Literature that the Palestinian writer “has to use the word to resist the military occupation, and has to resist—on behalf of the word—the danger of the banal and the repetitive. How can he achieve literary freedom in such slavish conditions?”
Indeed, as Dabbagh wrote Out of It, she had not only to navigate the preconceptions of non-Arab readers but also those of Palestinians. Novels are very important to Palestinians, Dabbagh said, because “people feel that if you get the narrative clear and right, then something’s going to change for the better. So therefore you’ve got a duty to get it right. And it’s not just your story, it’s our story, and we can tell you how to improve it.”
Ultimately, Out of It, like Sahar Khalifeh’s recently translated Of Noble Origins, tells Palestinian history at a slant, in a fresh and unexpected way. Out of It is set in contemporary Gaza, London, and Dubai, and centers around two young people, the twenty-something twins Iman and Rasheed, who have been raised largely abroad. When the novel begins, they have recently returned to their Gaza homes, but they only half-belong there. They are very different from one another, but both want something more from life. Earnest, strong-willed Iman wants to do something to improve the ugly reality in Gaza, although she’s at all not sure what that might be. Pot-smoking Rasheed, who works at a human-rights organization and is enamored of his British girlfriend, just wants to get out and start anew.
The twins have an older brother, Sabri, who has lost his wife, child, and legs, and who compiles local history as a sort of compensation. He is the custodian of events such as the 1988 consumer boycott, during which, he writes, “Israeli soldiers would use crowbars to break locks in order to prevent stores and businesses from closing.” Gathering this history and writing it down, working against the erasure of these stories, is Sabri’s way of doing “something.” Although Rashid seems far less committed than his brother, he too gathers stories for the Gaza Human Rights Documentation Centre, in the hope that international governments will finally listen.
Sabri’s history is squeezed on one side by a strong Israeli-only narrative, and on the other by the unspoken. As the book opens, Israeli forces are bombing Gaza, including a hospital, in retaliation for a suicide bombing. Because the suicide attack was a clandestine activity, the details are shadowy: the bombing was perpetrated by a girl from the secular-minded Hajjar family. Why? Perhaps, Sabri surmises, the suicide bombing was a message, not to the Israelis, but to secular Palestinians from Islamist Palestinians.
Other half-hidden stories thread beneath the visible. The family’s neighbor has long complained of poverty. But now, suddenly, he has bought a car. Has he come into money, or is he a collaborator?
These half-hidden histories are perhaps more significant than the public stories in shaping the characters’ lives. At the heart of the book is a 1971 airplane hijacking, in which Iman, Rasheed, and Sabri’s mother participated. It is not the incident itself: The actions were considered heroic, although few knew who the mystery woman was who had hijacked the plane. Instead, it’s lack of transparency that sets the family against itself. Because the patriarch hadn’t known about his wife’s involvement, he later finds himself humiliated by this lack of knowledge. Because of this, he leaves the family and moves to Dubai.
The hijacking is not an event the mother has shared, even with her children. So, early in the book, when young Iman is solicited for a secret mission, she doesn’t have history to draw on. At first, she brushes off the solicitation, which comes from a tightly veiled woman, Manar. But then Iman finds out that a man she cared for was killed in the bombing that opens the book, and Manar approaches her again. “‘You know your role now, don’t you?’ Manar asks.” Now, Iman agrees. “Because it had to stop. Immediately. It had to end.”
Fortunately, Iman does not follow up on this suicide mission. Instead, she joins her brother in London, where the cross-cultural frictions are often humorous. When Rasheed is arrested, both his sister and his British girlfriend rush to his aid. But his stiff, ambitious girlfriend is disappointed to find out the truth: “I wouldn’t have come down here if I knew that it was just about some hash that you had on you. I thought you had been arrested for some terrorism offense or something.”
For the most part, these various layers of Palestinian history—public and clandestine, dominant and counternarrative—are clear, if not to the characters, then at least to the reader. However, at a certain point, Dabbagh’s naming conventions—saying “the leader” instead of Yasser Arafat, “the outside leadership” instead of the PLO, and “the enemy” instead of Israel—feel like another layer of secrecy, clouding our understanding of how all these pieces fit together.
Sahar Khalifeh’s Of Noble Origins is, by contrast, full of real names, from the UK’s General Allenby to the Egyptian feminist Hoda Shaarawi to the first Israeli president Chaim Weizmann. Khalifeh plants her narrative in the middle of these public characters at a highly documented moment in history. On the eve of the establishment of Israel, Khalifeh focuses on the stories of a handful of ordinary characters, most of them women.
Of Noble Origins, which was longlisted for the 2010 International Prize for Arabic Fiction and translated by Aida Bamia, is, like Dabbagh’s novel, informed by multiple layers of Palestinian and Israeli history. But her book, written in Arabic, feels less shadowed by the expectations of western readers. The book is unique in that Khalifeh brings together a unusually diverse cast of characters. Generally, books set at the eve of Israel’s creation are told either with Israeli and British characters—such as Amos Oz’s Panther in the Basement (1997)—or with Palestinian and British ones—such as Ibrahim Nasrallah’s The Time of White Horses (2012). But in Khalifeh’s book, Palestinian Christians and Muslims, Jewish immigrants, and British colonial leaders are all treated with equal sympathy.
Unfortunately, the book opens with a brief, telescoped chapter that rushes through a generation of history, starting with a grandmother’s premonition that Palestine will be lost. It is not as clearly shaped as the rest of the novel. When history is told in this compressed manner, it hits a number of those red-flag moments that Dabbagh assiduously avoids, although many are presented self-critically, such as a statement by the narrator that The Jews found a favorable environment there and settled down. The Arabs, on the other hand, formed hordes that were scattered around and were consumed by poverty. Turkey had left them semi-retarded after it had sucked their blood, taken their wealth, hanged their men, and dragged so many to their wars like sheep.
The chapter ends with a summing-up of the British Mandate period (1923-1948), and asserts that, “When the British inherited what was left by the Turks to manage, to liberate, and to modernize, they handled it like owners and masters.”
In the rest of the novel, however, characters are given a chance to spread out and contradict these broad assessments. The British Mandate governor is not just an owner or master; indeed, he is a complex character who sympathizes with the Palestinians and is half in love with a Palestinian Christian, Lisa. Most of the book’s Jewish characters, particularly the women, are similarly complex.
The book’s core character is the narrator’s mother, Wedad, who is married off to her rich, ugly cousin just as the Mandate is coming to its end. Instead of paying attention to Wedad, her new husband prefers to run around after Jewish girls. The history here, as in Out of It, is secret, but the secrets are of the banal sort. Wedad leaves home, participates in a march, and tries on many different identities. Her mother tries to rein her in, but Wedad cannot or will not hear her: “The mother repeated what she had said to her daughter. ‘Wedad. Listen to me, Wedad.’
“Wedad mumbled, ‘Humham, humham.’”
The official histories don’t portray interactions between young women like Wedad and the Jewish immigrant, soon-to-be-Israeli girls. Between them lies a wide gulf of misunderstanding. The only character who seems to be able to move in various spaces is Lisa, who was educated abroad. She is sympathetic to Wedad, friendly with a visiting Jewish philanthropist, and has mixed feelings about the British governor.
Another thing the official histories miss is love. In the end, the governor blindly reaches out to Lisa. Despite the incipient war, she holds a Christmas party at her house, because, she believes, “the nascent revolution in the mountains was far from the cities and the Jerusalem suburbs.” The British governor arrives uninvited. He, Arab political activists, the Jewish philanthropist, and Lisa’s friends surround her at this uncomfortable holiday celebration. The lights go off, creating confusion and blurring identities. The sound of fighting comes from outside. None of the party-goers has a light, and no one knows who is fighting whom. The British governor goes to the window, where he is shot. As he dies, he is taken to his secret love: “The pain increased and so did the darkness, and he did not know whether the darkness was in his eyes or around him. He did not know what to say, to whom to say it, and whom to hold.”
The histories Khalifeh is weaving together are public declarations and private thoughts, the history of men and the histories of women. The book sometimes suggests that today’s “branches” have grown directly from yesterday’s “roots,” as in the original Arabic title, Root and Branch. But when it gets away from large narrative pronouncements, Of Nobel Origins is remarkable in its ability to balance a wide range of characters in a believable manner.
In both novels, it is the underground, counternarrative that is most important. Out of It ends with an act of terrorism and sacrifice, but it is unclear how this act will be understood or how it will affect history. What seems clear, though, is that the underlying motivations for the act will be lost. Even if they are spoken about privately, they will not become part of the official history. Of Noble Origins also ends with violence. Although it’s very public violence—the assassination of the Mandate governor—his complexities, the reasons he went to the party, and his desire to hold someone will also be subsumed into the public story.
Both novels set down versions of the official history. But they are strongest when they step away from it, into the histories beneath history and how people live, mostly in the fuzzy space beneath what is publicly remembered.
M. Lynx Qualey teaches creative writing and writes about Arabic literature and translation issues. She also edits the blog ArabLit, found at arablit.wordpress.com.