Saturday, September 16, 2006

palestinian women writers launch 'qissat' in London

( L to R: Adania Shibli, Liana Badr, Huzama Habayeb and Jacqueline Rose)
The publication of ‘Qissat: Short Stories by Palestinian Women’ was celebrated on Thursday night at an event in the Purcell Room, part of London's South Bank Centre, featuring four of the writers included in the anthology. The evening was spirited, thought-provoking and often humorous, thanks to the stories and lively contributions from the four Palestinian writers and the empathetic yet gently provocative chairing by Jacqueline Rose. Rose, a Jewish scholar and writer, is professor of English at Queen Mary's College, London University. Her books include the 1995 work The Question of Zionism, a reply to Edward Said's The Question of Palestine.

The anthology of 16 short stories translated into, or originally written in, English is edited by journalist and radio producer Jo Glanville and published by London-based Telegram Books. The writers are from a wide range of backgrounds, ages and locations. But for all of them Palestine and the Palestinian experience are an ever-present concern and inspiration.

Some of the writers in 'Qissat' are from the younger generation, including Samah al-Shaykh who was born in Saudi Arabia in 1980 and now lives in Gaza and Basima Takrouri who was born in Jerusalem in 1982. Two are deceased: Samira Azzam died in 1967 and Nuha Samara in 1992.

The four writers on the platform of the Purcell Room had travelled from far-flung parts of the world. Liana Badr had come from Ramallah, Huzama Habayeb from Abu Dhabi, Randa Jarrar from Detroit and Adania Shibli from Berlin. The writers read from their own work in English or Arabic, and English translations were vibrantly rendered by the renowned British actress Diana Quick.

Randa Jarrar's story Barefoot Bridge centres around a trip made by a family to Jordan and then the West Bank for the burial of the grandfather. In a text shot through with wit the child first-person narrator observes the tense process of crossing the border. ("First my land, now my Guccis! God damn it" exclaims a trendily-dressed young Palestinian women after an Israeli soldier 'mislays' her shoes which have been removed for security reasons). Later, the child sits with her grandmother Sitto and imbibes her magical tales and recollections.

Adania Shibli's story May God Keep Love in a Cool and Dry Place brilliantly dissects the disintegrating relationship of a woman in love for the first time and living with her lover. Her "tolerance of his mistreatment of her has run out." The pair had first met at the fiftieth anniversary of the Palestinian Nakbbah, the Catastrophe. The details of preparing and eating a meal evoke wider resonances, and the viewpoint shifts between the man and the woman.

In Other Cities, Liana Badr takes the reader on a hazardous journey by service taxis from old Hebron to Ramallah, through Israeli-occupied territory littered with military checkpoints. The journey is made by Umm Hasan whose children have implored her to take them to Ramallah. "Little by little, the idea had begun to take hold in her mind. To actually go to Ramallah. To thumb her nose at Israel, and go - whether her husband, Abu Hasan, liked it or not. " The journey takes on epic proportions, and is a journey of self-discovery for Umm Hasan herself. At one point the narrative shifts to the thoughts of an Israeli captain, when Umm Hasan has the guts to march up to him to tell him that her baby is sick and that he should let the cars through. "For an electrifying moment he felt that he was only punishing himself, out here in this hostile wilderness."

Huzama Habayeb's story A Thread Snaps has earned a certain notoriety in Jordan for the frank way in which it handles a girl's growing awareness of her bodily desires. The story is set in a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan, as the girl does the family washing by hand, and Habayeb told the audience in the Purcell Room that it shows the economic, social and sexual suppression experienced by men as well as women in this environment. There is a sense of blockage: "even the water is blocked." The issue of Al-Katiba magazine in which the story was first published was banned in Jordan, as was the collection of her stories in which the story subsequently appeared.
In her introduction to 'Qissat' Jo Glanville says that when she began looking for stories for the anthology, she wanted to find work by young, emerging writers to add to stories by some of the most distinguished and established Palestinian women writers. She also felt it important to look for writers not only in Palestine but also in the disaspora.

The four writers invited to London for the launch represent a cross-section of the roster of contributors to the collection. Liana Badr, who is married to Palestinian politician Yasser Abd Rabbuh, is the writer with the most direct involvement in Palestinian national politics. She lived in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, and her early published works reflect the Palestinian predicament during that conflict. She is a filmmaker as well as a fiction writer, and was from 1995 to 2003 General Director of Arts at the Palestinian Ministry of Culture in Ramallah.

Randa Jarrar was born in Chicago to a Palestinian father and Egyptian mother, grew up in Egypt and Kuwait, and is now a single mother living in Austin, Texas. She has received the Million Writers Award for best short story, and her first novel will be published in 2007. Adania Shibli, born in Palestine in 1974, has twice won the Young Writer's Award from the A M Qattan Foundation. Huzama Habayeb was born in Kuwait and has never set foot in Palestine. She won the short story prize at Al Quds Festival for Creativity in 1993 and the Mahmoud Seif El Din Al Irani prize in 1994.

Glanville notes that in the past few years there has been in increasing appetite for Palestinian memoir. While such memoirs are powerful testimonies, "there is also a danger that so long as the world outside limits its interest to factual accounts, then Palestinians will only ever be viewed in terms of the conflict, while culture, the wider society, remains unseen." Her collection certainly succeeds in fulfilling the aim of offering "the chance to engage with a broader perspective - through the literary imagination."

Susannah Tarbush

(L to R: Randa Jarrar, Adania Shibli, Liana Badr and Huzama Habayeb)

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