Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Book of Gaza: A City in Short Fiction

Last month the Gazan fiction writer and political scientist Atef Abu Saif toured Britain to promote a short story anthology he edited and contributed to: The Book of Gaza: A City in Short Fiction, published by Comma Press. He discussed the anthology at the Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts, the Mosaic Rooms in London, the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester and – as part of the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival – the Bluecoat Arts Centre.

Today Abu Saif and other contributors to the anthology are among the 1.8 million Gazans caught up in the hellish Israeli onslaught on Gaza by air, sea and land. His publisher Ra Page, Founder and Editorial Manager of Manchester-based not-for-profit Comma Press, has managed to keep in sporadic contact with him and some other contributors to the book.

Atef Abu Saif (L) and Ra Page at the Mosaic Rooms in London

On 19th July Atef emailed: "Ciao Ra, we are ok. waiting the unknown. it is hard to feel helpless and unable to predict what is coming even in little things which relates to ur existence. this feeling makes ur life unbearable. though u have to bear it. two nights ago the strikes destroyed the house of my good friend the poet Othman Hussain in Rafah. Othman spent his 30 years of saving in building this 2 stories house in a rural area east of Rafah. i remember that night 3 years ago when we celebrated the new house.. we grilled fish and ate and drank and sang until the down. now even my memories of the moments are broken images amid the destruction."

On 21 July Atef was in touch again:
"hi, i am sorry for late response. we have electricity for few hours. max 4 hours. i have to move from my place as a friend of mine was under tank attack in Beit Hanoun and we performed a miracle to get him out with his family, phonecalls to the red cross. we finally managed today at 5pm to get all the family in two ambulances and hosted them in my flat. thus i have to move to the little room in my father in law's house in Jabalia camp so we give them a space. now there are some 50 persons in my flat."

On the same day Nayrouz Qarmout, a contributor to The Book of Gaza, told Ra via email:
"I try to be okay, but I feel tired due to lack of sleep, and the increased pace of the bombing; every time we get near to achieving calm the parties on either side try to impose new conditions; ultimately it's the ordinary humans who die... But we are trying to hold out to the end; The warplanes' try to bomb us out of our humanity, to unbalance us; you know the number of Palestinian martyrs increases constantly, but I will continue to write and share the sorrows of others. The number of hours for using electricity has become less than before. I do not feel reassured, anxiety is on each side. I draw my strength from the far reaches of my imagination, not from here."

Najlaa Ataalah, another contributor, emailed Page on 20 July:
"The situation in Gaza is worse than ever... Now we just have electricity for a few hours and some areas just have it for [only] 2 hours per day, the sounds of shelling and bombing rip the ear drum and that's if you are lucky and live little way off the targeted place; if you are any closer the bombing may harvest your beloved friends or family members. “Please Ra sends my regards to all who are thinking of Gaza in during nightmare; tell them that we Gazans feel fear and horror just like anyone else in the world, but we don’t have any choice except to bear it till this nightmare is finished."

two awards from English PEN for translation and promotion
The significance and quality of The Book of Gaza was recognised by English PEN which has given it two awards:  one for translation, under the PEN Translates programme, the other for promotion via PEN Promotes which supported Abu Saif’s UK tour. Abu Saif was to have been accompanied on the tour by a contributor to the anthology, Abdallah Tayeh, but Tayeh was unable to get out of Gaza. He did however record a message which was played at tour events. (The message and a video of Abu Saif talking at the Manchester event can be accessed on the Comma website).

 Abdallah Tayeh

In the message Tayeh introduced himself as “a Palestinian writer, refugee, who lives in Jabalia camp in the besieged Gaza Strip. I am 60 years old, I have been writing novels, short stories, and articles since 1975. I have lived all my live in the miserable camp and I have never lost the hope of being free from occupation.”

Tayeh added: “This is the hardest time in the Gaza Strip that I have ever lived. I really wanted to be with you, enjoying these nice meetings, but the only border between Gaza Strip and the world has been closed for over a month, till now. Therefore I could not travel to be with you today although the organisers made a lot of efforts. I did not lose the dream to live in the independent state of Palestine and to be free to travel whenever I want and to see my family live a normal life.”

Tayeh said he hoped readers would enjoy his short story “Two Men”, translated by Adam Talib. He described the story as an allegory that makes the reader think its two main characters, a bald man and a security guard, have transported a girl against her will in a large cardboard box. “Events and the language indicate that a crime has occurred and that the girl is dead or sleeping under the influence of drugs.” The reader is surprised when the box is transported to the bald man’s house and its contents are revealed. Tayeh succeeds in creating a sinister atmosphere full of foreboding, and in overturning readers' assumptions. 

 a richer more nuanced picture of Gaza and its people

During the current Israeli assault on Gaza the media images of the Gaza Strip and its people are dominated by violence and destruction. The inhabitants tend to be seen as either militants, or victims. The ten stories in The Book of Gaza provide a much richer and more nuanced picture of the Gaza Strip and its people. The stories were contributed by five men and five women. Abu Saif is highly appreciative of the storytelling gifts of Gazan females. At the Mosaic Rooms he said his grandmother, who lived in Jaffa until 1948, was “the greatest storyteller...she was very talented in telling all this sadness, all the joy and happiness she had in her youth back home before she was exiled or forced to leave. This is where I learned my first narration skills, and from my neighbours in the refugee camp I grew up in, Jabalia"

In bringing the work of ten Gazan short story writers to an English-language readership, The Book of Gaza also highlights the skills of 11 literary Arabic translators, mostly from the younger generation. Each story, and the Abu Saif's introduction, was rendered into English by a different translator.

The book has the high production standards characteristic of Comma's output, and includes biographies of all the contributing writers and translators.  The book is part of Comma’s Reading the City series; the Gaza cityscape cover was designed by David Eckersall..

One recurring theme in the stories is of the sense of being trapped and wishing to escape. Gaza has been under a blockade for seven years. In 2000 Israel banned most Gaza residents from using the Erez checkpoint into Israel, and the Rafah crossing into Egypt has been virtually closed for a year due to the bad relations between Hamas and the Egyptian regime.

Abu Saif reads his story in Arabic at the Mosaic Rooms

The opening story in the anthology, Abu Saif’s “A Journey in the Opposite Direction”, translated by Thomas Apin, is set near the Rafah crossing. A young man named Ramzi has been waiting to meet his brother who, after three decades living in Italy has returned to live in Gaza. The brother has been held up for three days on the Egyptian side of the crossing.

At the cafe Ramzi encounters Samir, a friend who has returned to Gaza after ten years working in Dubai. Ramzi and Samir are joined by two young women carrying suitcases who have been trying in vain to leave Gaza through the Rafah exit. Nadia, divorced from a violent husband, has a bursary to study in Greece. Samah is being transferred to the Beirut branch of the international organisation for which she works in Gaza. “Gaza was hard on her. It was surprising how quickly her long hair had managed to become a family issue – the key to her honour – after she refused to imprison it under a head cover.” 

We learn that Samah’s only true romance, lasting four years, had been with Ramzi but her father had refused to allow her to marry this poor young man from al-Shati refugee camp. As for Samir, he had been smitten with Nadia in their university days, but the pair had not progressed beyond exchanging looks and smiles. The four young people set off by car to chase the moon.

three generations of Gaza writers

In his introduction to the anthology, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette, Abu Saif divides Gazan writers in the period since 1967 into three generations. In the first phase of Israeli occupation most writers left Gaza, many of them heading for Cairo. The short story became increasingly popular, its brevity and symbolism providing a way to overcome Israeli printing and publishing restrictions. “Copying and transporting a story to publishing houses in Jerusalem to be printed was no easy task, and so its short length helped facilitate publication. Gaza, as was said in Palestinian circles abroad, became ‘the exporter of oranges and short stories'.”

Many of the meanings and themes of short stories at that time were intended to provoke national feeling, and steadfastness, Abu Saif said at the Mosaic Rooms. Writers described the miserable lives in refugee camps, and “much of this literature told of how the people in the occupied territories are living.”

The three writers from this first generation included in the anthology are Abdallah Tayeh, Zaki al‘Ela and Ghareeb Asqalani, the pen name of Ibrahim al-Zand. Asqalani’s short story “A White Flower for David”, translated by John Peate, is bold in its portrayal of the possibility of a friendship between two men from opposite sides of the Palestinian-Israeli divide. The friendship comes under violent strain during a time of intifada: can the human rapport survive?

Zaki al ‘Ela, who was born in 1950 and died in 2008 is seen as a father of the Gazan short story. His powerful and poetic story “Abu Jaber Returns to the Woods”, translated by Max Weiss, conveys the brutality and humiliation to which the Israeli military occupation subjects Palestinians in a refugee camp. Taxi driver Abu Jaber is ordered by a group of armed fedayeen to drive them covertly out of the camp during a night curfew. Israeli soldiers interrogate him on his return, but he gives nothing away. After gunfire erupts outside the camp during the night all people between 16 and 60 are ordered by soldiers with megaphones to go into a cold rainswept pit. Soldiers subject Abu Jaber to a savage beating to try to force him to confess that he drove the fighters but he resists. “The rifle branch is flowering”, a line from a popular revolutionary song, is cited in the story. It suggests that to subject a people to such prolonged oppression was bound to lead to armed struggle.

The second generation of Gazan writers includes Abu Saif, Talal Abu Shawish and Yusra al Khatib. At the Mosaic Rooms event Abu Saif recalled writing a short story at the age of 19 during Ramadan in winter 1991 while imprisoned in an Israeli jail, “as most of my generation was”. His generation of writers was  “in a kind of limbo between the occupation era and the PNA (Palestinian National Authority).” In the second generation "the space took shape and the characters became more vivid. You find the streets of Gaza, the buildings."

In “Red Lights” by Talal Abu Shawish, translated by Alice Guthrie, the first-person narrator takes a taxi ride with a hard-pressed driver. The story presents a slice of Gaza life in just two and a half pages. For the beautiful-faced young boys selling chewing gum and sweets in the street, red lights and stopped cars are opportunities. Despite his own problems the driver treats the young sellers generously.  During his ride the narrator sees “two young men trail along behind a gaggle of careless, coquettish young women, who are wandering around the place in circles. All of them are looking for an escape”. The story ends:  "More red lights await  us".

A man agonises over calling a telephone number from long ago in Yusra al Khatib's story "Dead Numbers", translated by Emily Danby. The number is written on a piece of paper which he at one point  tears up, only then to piece it together again. The story reflects the fragility of the links between people. Could dialling the number hail a new beginning, and can one go back when all may have changed? 

 Nayrouz Qarmout

The third, youngest, generation is represented in the book through stories by four women. “Mona Abu Sharekh and Nayrouz Qarmout’s writings offer a critical – and one might say, frustrated – engagement with social reality, particularly with regards to the perspectives of women,” says Abu Saif.  “Najlaa Ataallah’s story deals with a harsh reaction to society’s constraints, a tale marked by her own personal word, while Asmaa al Ghul explores love that seeks to be freed from the dominance of men and society alike.”

In “The Sea Cloak” by Nayrouz Qarmout, translated by Charis Bredin, a young woman has been hemmed in by her family since the age of ten when her brother reported her to his parents for flirting with the neighbour's son. She goes with family members to Gaza beach, which is delightfully described by Qarmout. The sea seems to cast a spell on her "making her invisible to those around her and carrying her like a bride on her wedding day." She swims out to sea in her headscarf and black dress and headscarf: “panic and desire gripped her”. 

“The Whore of Gaza” by Najlaa Ataallah, translated by Sarah Irving is steeped in sexuality. A woman in her early thirties sprawled alone on a bed caresses herself  in a fever of frustration, then revels in the beauty of her body. Her mind is full of conflict as she considers male-female relations in Gaza. She goes to meet her older married lover of seven years;  their relationship, which was never fully consummated in order to preserve her hymen. While she waits for him she flicks through her many text messages from men. She decides "in all her anger that she will be whatever Gaza wants her to be, and how it wants her to be."

 Mona Abu Sharekh

In Mona Abu Sharekh’s “When I Cut Off Gaza’s Head”, translated by Katharine Halls, a woman receives over the course of a week mysterious daily letters from an unknown artist named Salwa. The woman who receives the letters is the only one in neighbourhood who doesn’t wear a headscarf, and who lets her daughter travel round Europe. Salwa is a kind of alter ego. “Where has Salwa come from? Who has sent her to dig deep into my soul’s wrinkles and my heart's vaulted cellars, opening doors I closed years ago?" As Salwa reveals her love affair through her letters, the narractor discloses things about herself.

Asmaa al Ghul

The first-person narrator of Asmaa al Ghul's story "You and I”, translated by Alexa Firat, engages in compulsive counting of objects, which seems to be a form of obsesssive compulsive disorder (OCD). The counting and repetitions give the story a rhythm. She is remembering a lost friend, but as she counts she "dissolves into forgetfulness. I forget your face, your features, your eyes bound to my soul like a white moth drawn to the beam of a candle." Towards the end of the story her counting moves from objects such as cars to the counting of graves.

Atef Abu Saif concludes his introduction to The Book of Gaza with the observation that people in Gaza "live on a remorseless stretch of land in a reality that tries to kill their desire to live, yet they do not tire of loving life, as long as there is a way to do so." Words that may offer some slight glimmer of hope in these terrible times.
by Susannah Tarbush


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