Thursday, September 12, 2019

first-ever anthology of Palestinian science fiction to be launched at British Library

report by Susannah Tarbush, London

Tomorrow evening at 19.00 the British Library in London is to host an event that should warm the hearts of lovers of Palestine literature and of science fiction alike  ‘Palestine 2048: Science Fiction and the Future Past . The event marks the London launch of  Palestine + 100: Stories from a century after the Nakba (Comma Press), said to be the first ever anthology of SF from Palestine.

The British Library describes the event as “an evening of  Palestinian futurism celebrating the power of Science Fiction to shed new light on historical events and contemporary politics in the Middle East.”

Manchester-based Comma Press published the book with assistance from Arts Council England and with an award from English Pen’s ‘PEN Translates’ programme. Six of the 12 stories were translated from Arabic, each by a different translator; the others were written in English.

At the  launch Comma’s founder and editorial manager Ra Page and the anthology’s editor Basma Ghalayini will chair a panel including two contributors to the book: British-Palestinian novelist Selma Dabbagh, author of Out of It, and Palestinian-Hungarian poet, journalist and novelist Anwar Hamedauthor of eight Arabic novels.  Hamed’s novel Jaffa Makes the Morning Coffee was longlisted for the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF).  

Selma Dabbagh

Ghalayini was born in Khan Younis, Gaza, and spent her childhood in the UK until the age of five before returning to Gaza. She has worked in various finance roles in the commercial and not-for-profit sectors, and is also an Arabic translator and interpreter. She translated short fiction from Arabic for the KFW Stifflung series Beirut Short Storiesand for Comma projects including Banthology and The Book of Cairo (edited by Raph Cormack).

The 12 Palestinian authors commissioned to write stories for the anthology have risen to the challenge of producing SF stories set in 2048 with zest, imagination and ingenuity. Some had written SF previously; for others it was a new field of writing. Of course, this raises the perennial question of what distinguishes SF from the closely related genres of speculative fiction, magic realism, fantasy, surrealism, ghost stories and so on.

The  Nakba is the 1948 'catastrophe' in which more than 700,000 Palestinians – some 80 per cent of the total –were expelled from Palestine during the establishing of Israel. Ghalayini writes in her insightful introduction to the anthology that the Nakba did not end in 1948. “Since then, countless Israeli government policies have furthered this gradual ethnic cleansing." The ‘ongoing Nakba’ is “continually evolving. We are forever entering new stages of it…”

The anthology is dedicated to the memory of Tom Hurndall, the British photography student who was shot in the head by an Israeli sniper in Gaza in April 2003, dying in the UK in January 2004 without regaining consciousness.

The stories in Palestine + 100 extrapolate from the often bizarre and disturbing reality in which Palestinians live today: advanced Israeli weapons, surveillance, cyber warfare, drones, separation walls, increasing pollution and attempts to stifle or wipe out history. To judge by the stories, the Palestinian predicament lends itself well to SF,and  perhaps increasingly so. There has always been something surreal and fantastical about the Palestinians' history in the 20th and 21st centuries - for example in the condition of being "present absentees".

Basma Ghalayini

As Ghalayini points out SF “uses the future as a blank canvas on which to project concerns that occupy society right now The real future - the actual future – is unknowable. But for SF writers, the mere idea of ‘things to come’ is licence to re-imagine, re-configure, and re-interrogate the present.” 

However, she observes that the SF genre “has never been particularly popular among Palestinian authors; it is a luxury, to which Palestinians haven’t felt they can afford to escape. The cruel present (and the traumatic past) have too firm a grip on Palestinian writers’ imaginations for fanciful ventures into possible futures.”

She suggests that another reason SF has not been popular among Palestinian writers is that it doesn’t offer an obvious fit with the Palestinian situation. “In classic SF, the battle lines are drawn quickly and simply: the moral opposition between a typical SF protagonist and the dystopia or enemy he finds himself confronting is a diametric one.

"But in Palestinian fiction, the idea of an ‘enemy’ is largely absent. Israelis hardly ever feature as individuals, and when they do they are rarely portrayed as out and  out villains.” She cites as an example Ghassan Kanafani's novel Returning to Haifa.

Anwar Hamed 

Anwar Hamed’s tale “The Key”, translated by Andrew Leber,  is told from the perspective of Israelis anxious about the rusty old keys Palestinians in refugee camps retain from the homes in Palestine they were forced to leave.  "My grandfather feared those photographs of people holding keys more then any arms deal being signed by neighbouring countries" says the main character of the story. His grandfather had developed the  idea of a transparent "gravity wall" to keep out those without the right 'code'. But now, on the centenary of Israel's establishment, ghostly presences are making themselves felt through the sounds of keys turning in locks. 

Selma Dabbagh's savvy and in places hilarious story "Sleep it Off, Doctor Schott" tells of a suspected emotional relationship between two middle-aged scientists, Gaza-born Professor Mona Kamal and her co-worker, Tel Aviv born Dr Eyal Schott, who are being spied on by young Layla in her capacity as a "Recorder". The scientists work in the privileged 'Secular Scientific Enclave'. Professor Kamal had been a hero to Layla as a girl growing up in a refugee camp, for her creation of  a "bot army" that burst through the borders in 2032. The story is written in the form of dialogue, and one could imagine it making an entertaining radio play.

Saleem Haddad 
The anthology's opening story is Saleem Haddad’s poignant“Song of the Birds”. Haddad gained international recognition with his debut novel Guapa, which has a gay central character. It won The 2017 Polari Prize and was awarded a Stonewall honour.  "Song of the Birds" was written  in memory of Mohannad Younis a  Gazan writer and pharmacy postgraduate who killed himself in August 2017 at the age of 22. Younis was seen as a symbolic of the wave of young Gazans killing themselves over the hopelessness of their situation.

The main character of the story is 14-year-old Aya whose beloved brother Ziad killed himself the previous year.  Ziad starts to appear to her in dreams, and she keeps having visions of war, destruction and ruined buildings. When she is swimming in the sea it suddenly becomes full of "bottles, soiled tissue paper, plastic bags and  rotting animal carcasses". It is all a total contrast to her actual Gaza City neighbourhood with "its wide leafy streets, exquisite limestone buildings, quaint cafes and vintage furniture shops".  Ziad reveals to her that the horrific visions she has been experiencing are the  "real Palestine" and that what she ha been living in is in fact a simulation. "They've harnessed our collective memory, creating a digital image of Palestine. And that's where you live."  While the older generation spend a lot of time asleep, "it is up to us to develop new forms of resistance."

Like Haddad, Mazen Maarouf has a growing international profile, with his  short story collection Jokes for the Gunmen (Granta Books), translated by Jonathan Wright, longlisted earlier this year for the International Booker Prize.  Maarouf’s story "The Curse of the Mud Ball Kid", translated by Wright, is at 43 pages by far the longest story in Palestine +100

Mazen Maarouf 
The complex story portrays a dystopia  in which the Palestinians had all been forced southwards  and were no longer called Palestinians but Falasta. In 2037 a hitherto untested biological warfare munition was launched, programmed to identify and kill the Falastis and within three weeks there was no Falasti left  except for the narrator of the story. 

The narrator says: “I’ve always wanted to be a superhero. I didn’t want to save the world, or even save all the children of Falasta. I just wanted to save my sister when they came to steal her imagination.” The stolen imaginations of Palestinian children are gathered into a satellite named the Dabraya Star. Being the last Palestinian the narrator is confined within a glass cube and transported on a motor bike by Ze’ev, whom he had fist met in an orphanage. “Every week we go to a primary school in a kibbutz or a town we haven’t visited before. Ze’ev puts me on display in front of the schoolkids in the playground for half an hour. None of them have ever seen a Palestinian before.”

In her story "Commonplace" Gaza-based Rawan Yagh conjures up a ghastly cityscape. Adam, a dealer in sedative drugs, known euphemistically as "grapes", lives in an area constantly under attack by swarms of drones from over the wall. The drones plant explosive devices on roofs, destroying whole buildings. Adam has been traumatised by the death of his quirky sister Rahaf. after she was attacked by a drone. The story sees him embarking on a desperate mission.

Questions of memory and history echo through  the anthology. In Samir El-Youssef's story "The Association", translated by Raph Cormack, there has been a 2028 Agreement under which “the people of the country – all the different sects and religions, Muslim, Christian and Jewish – had decided that forgetting was the best way to live in peace. The study of the past is forbidden.” In 2048  an eager young journalist investigates the assassination of a Palestinian history professor.  Those who oppose the Agreement and seek to investigate and record the past are regarded as extremists: they are said to have dozens of different groups such as the Jidar "who harboured evidence of the effects of the near 20-year blockade of Gaza." . It appears that the Professor's views on Palestinian history may be connected to his murder.

Abdalmuti Maqboul plays with time in his searing story "Personal Hero", translated by Yasmine Seale. Time runs in reverse, bodies arise from graveyards, and the great Palestinian was hero Abd al-Qadir al-Husayni comes back to life one hundred years after his death in battle on 8 April 1948. The story is skilfully unfolded towards an unexpected ending.

In "Vengeance" Tasnim Abutabikh combines environmental concerns with a story of revenge for a historical wrong involving land sales in Palestine. Carbon dioxide levels are rising and global temperatures have soared. In rich countries people live in air-filtered biospheres but in poorer areas such as Gaza people have to wear lifemasks with filtering systems, just a flick of a switch away from death.

The classic SF trope of a monster landing from outer space appears in Talal Abu Shawish's "Final Warning"in translation by Mohamed Ghalaieny.  The creature lands in Ramallah, darkening the sky and knocking out power and communication systems. The local Christian Father, Muslim Imam and Jewish Rabbi join hands and chant to terrified crowds, with some people thinking that  Judgment Day has arrived. Eventually the creature addresses the people and warns them they have one last chance to rectify their behaviour. "Your struggles in this tiny sector of the planet's surface have, for more than a hundred of your planet's orbits, cause more tension and conflict, directly and indirectly beyond its borders than any other area of its size in the known universe... By continuing to threaten the planet's stability as  a whole, you also threaten the wider galaxy's stability... "

In “Application 39” UK-based Gazan novelist, dramatist and dance promoter Ahmed Masoud envisages a Palestine divided into independent statelets. After the collapse of the  Oslo Accord and the 2025 Israeli invasion, each major Palestinian city had been forced to declare itself an independent state. These republics are linked by a network of tunnels and lifts. From time to time the cities fought each other, but in 2030 a peace deal between the states was signed.

In 2040 mischief makers Ismael and Rayyan, young friends in the Republic of Gaza, carry out a hoax they call “Operation Application 39”, in which they submit an application from the Republic to host the  39th Summer Olympic Games in 2048, forging the President of the Republic's signature.  The hoax is uncovered after the IOC writes an enthusiastic letter of acceptance to the president, saying to hold the Olympics in the Republic of Gazawould seal the peace deal of 2030. But a woman official of the Republic warns Ismael and Rayyan that this "could lead to another war here...with Khan Younis, or Rafah, or even Ramallah." Nor will Israel be happy, and it might start a bombing campaign, leading to a regional war. Masoud fully develops the potential of this scenario in a lively narrative.

Majd Kayyal 

Majd Kayyal was born in Haifa to a displaced family from the village of Birwa. His first novel The Tragedy of Mr Matar (El Ahlia 2016) won the  Qattan Young Writer of the Year Award, and his first collection of short stories Death in Haifa came out this year. In his compelling story "N" translated by Thoraya El-Rayyes  Kayyal creates two separate worlds existing simultaneously, one Palestinian, the other Israeli.

The story focuses on a father, who lives in the Palestinian world, and his son "N". There has been a peace Agreement between the two sides under which only those  born after the Agreement, such as "N", are allowed to travel between the two worlds. The father watches a PhotonTransit system which conveys his son back to Israel and  produces "a spectacular flash of light. It's unlike any other light I've seen, a light we don't know the source or path of, which swallows our children to over there, to the other there."

The story references Palestinian director Elia Suleiman’s film The Time that Remains. “Father and son fishing at night under military surveillance. I grew to love that dialogue,” muses the father. "N" returns with his partner Nada to live in the Palestinian world “I don’t know if all the Palestinians who stayed in the Israeli world maintained their identity like this, but this Nada, she’s very special," the father thinks. "You can see a profound sadness in her that hasn’t healed.”

The Cairo-based academic, journalist and translator Emad El-Din Aysha was born in the UK to a Palestinian father from the Akka region. He is an avid fan of  history and SF, and has published fiction and essays on Arab and Muslim SF. His humorous story "Digital Nation" is set as Israel's centenary Independence Day approaches. 

The Palestinians “hadn’t had a single state to govern for a long time. Instead they made do with a series of banana republics. Literally, they grew bananas on the slopes of Ramallah – as well as mangos in Judea and pineapples in Samaria.”

The protagonist of story,  the ageing Asa Shomer, is Director of the Israeli security service. Shabak. He faces a security crisis in that a highly sophisticated hacker Shabak has nicknamed Hannibal is "destabilising the stock market, hijacking media outlets, hacking servers... these are all issues of national security," an aide tells Shomer.

Old-fashioned Shomer is nostalgic for “good old fashioned-terrorism” rather than cybercrime.
“But who could believe an Arab would be capable of such ingenuity: a vision of a united Palestinian State, simmed so perfectly and in such detail, then virus-leaked into every VR console on the Israeli market…”  He is alarmed by the Palestinian Utopia portrayed by the hack: "Hope was contagious." and "who needed to 'liberate' Palestine if you could convert Israel into Palestine?"The virus spreads and spreads, right up to Israel's Independence Day.

The publication of Palestine + 100  follows Comma Press's first anthology of  specially commissioned Arab SF  - the acclaimed  Iraq + 100: stories from a century after the invasion edited by Hassan Blasim and published in 2016. Comma has been making a major contribution to the translation and publication of Arabic literature, particularly short stories. It's newest collection of short stories from Palestine is The Sea Clock & Other Stories by Gazan author Nayrouz Qarmout ,winner of a  'PEN Translates' award. Comma is - most deservedly - currently shortlisted for the Arab British Centre Award for Culture, with the winner due to be announced on 26 September. 

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