August 22, 2015 § Leave a comment
An edited version of this review appeared at the National.
This story starts with a birth and a departure, in Jerusalem in 1948. The birth is Omar Bakry’s, and it orphans him. The departure, alongside three quarters of a million others, is his forced expulsion from Palestine. “We’ll be back in a couple of weeks,” one fatefully quips.
Omar, now in the care of a neighbouring family, relocates to Damascus, where the novel unfolds through the fifties and sixties, both an engaging romance and a convincing period drama.
Lilas Taha writes in American English. My British-English ear found it difficult at first to believe in old-fashioned Arabs saving each others’ asses and getting in each others’ faces. The effect was exacerbated by occasionally clumsy dialogue. Real Palestinian-Syrians would see no need to specify, for example, “the ruling Baath Party” or “the actress Souad Hosni”. Realism is lost at moments such as these when the novel, veering into explanatory overstatement, seems too obviously an act of cultural translation. It might have been better to write a preface, or to add footnotes.
But as the pages turn, slowly but surely, the characters come entirely credibly to life. We learn a great deal about them by observing their negotiations of etiquette and social ritual as they traverse a domestic danger zone marked by deaths, difficult births, precarious marriages, and looming scandals.
The cast is close-knit. Mustafa is a farmer denied his land whose lungs are broken in a wool factory. The book’s title comes from his mouth, and provides a wisdom for the drama: “The bitter almonds make you savour the sweet ones more.” His wife Subhia, their son Shareef and daughters Huda and Nadia, make up Omar’s surrogate family.
Taha depicts them trying to make ends meet, their life in cramped quarters, male and female sleeping areas demarcated by a blanket, and the profound familiarities and festering resentments which grow in such conditions.
July 2, 2015 § Leave a comment
This appeared first at The National.
Plenty of news flows out from Gaza, but very little human information. This emotional blackout bothered Ra Page, founder of Comma Press, a Manchester-based publisher producing groundbreaking short story collections. It was Comma that gave the astounding Iraqi surrealist writer Hassan Blasim his first break. Comma has published a high-quality series of literary responses to scientific innovations as well as several collections based around cities such as Tokyo, Istanbul and Liverpool. Why not Gaza too?
“My rather naive idea with The Book of Gaza,” writes Page, “was to try to inch the city ever so slightly closer to a state of familiarity, to establish it as a place and not just a name, through the simple details that a city’s literature brings with it – the referencing of street names, the name-dropping of landmarks and districts.”
The book was by no means the first literary project to aim in some way to normalise Palestinian life. Since 2008 the Palestinian Festival of Literature (Palfest), brainchild of novelist Ahdaf Soueif, has tried to reaffirm, in Edward Said’s phrase, “the power of culture over the culture of power”. In practical terms, this means transforming a literature festival into a roadshow – Jerusalem one night, Bethlehem another, Ramallah on a third… Though these places are only a few miles apart, checkpoints prevent Palestinians from travelling between them. So the guest writers travel to their audience, and at the same time learn something of Palestine’s enormous creativity. This stateless nation has boasted many great literary talents, most notably Mahmoud Darwish and Mourid Barghouti in poetry and Ghassan Kanafani in prose. Meanwhile there are burgeoning film and music (especially hip hop) scenes.
For decades writers had to smuggle their manuscripts out of Gaza to presses in Jerusalem, Cairo or Beirut. The shorter the text, the more likely it was to be published. As a result, the Strip became an “exporter of oranges and short stories.” Edited by novelist and journalist Atef Abu Saif, The Book of Gaza contains stories from three generations. It achieves both the sense of place that Page hoped for and ‘familiarity’ through its treatment of universal themes. The stories are as likely to deal with women “besieged by preconceptions” (in Najlaa Ataallah’s words) as the seige imposed by Israel. The project succeeded in ‘depoliticising’ Gaza, at least to some extent.
But then, immediately after publication, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge. Story contributors were directly affected by the assault. Writer Asmaa al-Ghoul, for instance, lost nine members of her extended family. Page was driven to this bleak conclusion: “There is no stability in Gaza on which to build a reader-familiarity.”
May 14, 2015 § Leave a comment
This week, the organization Shurat HaDin is having a conference titled “Towards a New Law of War”. They don’t hide where their alliances lie, and on their online conference page (nostalgically illustrated with WWII British bombers) you can find their Western-supremacist and racist agenda stated loud and clear:
…exchange ideas regarding the development of armed conflict legal doctrine favorable to Western democracies engaged in conflict against nontraditional, non-democratic, non-state actors.
March 25, 2015 § Leave a comment
Ilan Pappe talks to Frank Barat about the Israeli elections and “On Palestine” his book with Noam Chomsky.
February 8, 2015 § Leave a comment
Since Israel’s latest attack on the besieged Gaza Strip, last summer, I’ve been researching the issue of Israel’s genocide [1,2,3,4]. I quickly found out that I’m not the only one, and although the subject has been addressed by scholars, politicians, UN bodies, and Palestinian civil society since 1982, this attack has prompted an unprecedented amount of criticism and study.
The sudden popular resurgence of the term, especially coming from President Mahmoud Abbas, has already prompted many independent articles, rejecting not only the terminology, but mostly the users of the term. From Liberal Zionists calling those who charge genocide “the loony left” and “antisemitic”; to hard-core right-wingers like government- funded StandWithUs with the help of fox news, with the tried-and-true “what about Syria, Iran, Iraq” and anything else that isn’t the issue of discussion and furthers Islamophobia; to AIPAC with the ironic claim that naming the crime hinders peace, and quotations from none other than Benjamin Netanyahu that “we warned them” and after we bombed the hell out of them, we gave them “tons of humanitarian aid.” That said, I’ve yet to see an organised government initiative on the subject. Until now.
Never Again Unless We Did It
November 13, 2014 § Leave a comment
When I first set out to prove that Israel is committing the crime of genocide against the Palestinian people, I focused mostly on its genocidal acts. While there’s consensus between pretty much anyone that bothered to examine the Convention of Prevention of Genocide [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16] on the fact that Israel is committing the first three out of five genocidal acts:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
A debate remains about Israel’s intent to bring about the Palestinian people’s “destruction in whole or in part”. The Russell Tribunal, in its latest “Extraordinary Session on Gaza” and the 2009 “Fact Finding Committee On Gaza” chaired by John Dugard, both illustrate a narrative of colonialist destruction of the social fabric and a partial wiping out of the indigenous population. Frustratingly enough, both stop short of ruling genocide. While the Russell Tribunal simply says “it would be for a criminal court to determine”, the Dugard report goes into much greater detail.