Sunday 27 July 2014

'The Book of Gaza', edited by Atef Abu Saif (Review)

I've read a couple of Comma Press' excellent literary city guides, so when I was offered the chance to review another, I was more than happy to take on the task.  However, that feeling was also tinged by other, stronger, emotions.  You see, while The Book of Rio, for example, evoked memories of nights spent watching the football, the visions attached to the city discussed today are (unfotunately) much less pleasant...

The Book of Gaza (edited by Atef Abu Saif, e-copy courtesy of the publisher) contains ten stories by Palestinian writers, each of which is set in the Gaza Strip.  Like the other books in this series, The Book of Gaza has a mix of topics and settings, with stories from male and female writers presenting the reader with a privileged look inside the territory and allowing us to see the good and bad of life crammed onto a 25-mile-long strip of land.

The book contains several short, fleeting tales, and the best of these is probably Talal Abu Shawish's 'Red Lights' (tr. Alice Guthrie).  It's a story in which a grumpy taxi driver shows solidarity, and a human side, on his journey, his harsh words belying a caring interior.  Another of these vignettes is Asmaa Al Ghul's 'You and I' (tr. Alexa Firat).  A simple, elegant story of a woman's walk to and from university, it actually betrays deeper unease at what's happening in her hometown.

The other stories by female writers in the collection take a more explicit look at the life of women on the strip, and if we're talking about explicit, Najlaa Ataalah's 'The Whore of Gaza' (tr. Sarah Irving) is one which immediately comes to mind.  It introduces us to an unconventional woman at ease with her body, ruminating on money, love and sex in a society where women shouldn't really be thinking too much about at least one of these.  Is she a mistress or a whore?  A dreamer or a rationalist?  Well, that's for the reader to decide ;)

A more traditional woman is described in Nayrouz Qarmout's 'The Sea Cloak' (tr. Charis Bredin).  We start with a childhood memory which quickly turns sour as a young girl discovers that life, and gender relations, can change overnight.  Years later, she is a woman trapped in her smothering clothes (literally and metaphorically), and a trip to the coast will highlight the differences between childhood freedom and restrictive adulthood.  It's a story that's well told, reflecting issues faced by women in a patriarchal society - and it's one which has a twist in the tale...

Of course, occupation, conflict, call it what you will - the troubles in Gaza are never far away from the reader's mind.  Zaki Al 'Ela's 'Abu Jaber Goes Back to the Woods' (tr. Max Weiss) deals with this most explicitly, showing us the realities (and violence) of life inside a camp:
"Gentlemen, my boy, esteemed company.  Trust me on this.  Time and time again, they have dragged us along - on their plantations, in their factories.  We're nothing but workhorses to them, dumb as rocks.  Anyone who doesn't want to do it can go to hell; he can eat rocks or sand - him and his children.  They don't care."
'Abu Jaber Goes Back to the Woods', p.106 (Comma Press, 2014)
If you read between the lines, there are obvious wrongs on both sides in this story, but the frustrations and hardships of the Palestinians come across very strongly.  The humiliation of curfews, forced assemblies and savage beatings serve to foster the kind of resistance the presence of the soldiers is meant to stamp out.

A more hopeful look at a similar scene is Ghareeb Asqalani's 'A Flower for David' (tr. John Peate), a story in which friendship blossoms between a Palestinian worker and an Israeli engineer.  Despite the close relationship between their two families, their ties are tested by incidents that occur when the Jewish David is in the middle of his military service, and the writer wonders whether friendship can survive during an armed conflict.  Depending on your viewpoint, you might see this one as far-fetched or hopeful, but it's a ray of optimism in the middle of some pretty bleak events.

My favourite, though, is the story which kicks off the collection, Atef Abu Saif's 'A Journey in the Opposite Direction' (tr. Tom Aplin).  It's set at the southern border crossing of Rafah, where we witness thousands of people trying to get out, with a few trying to get in:
"Samir was returning to Gaza after ten years of estrangement.  'Gaza is nicer from the outside,' he said looking around him..."
'A Journey in the Opposite Direction' (p.4)
Ramzi, waiting for his brother to cross the border, encounters his old university friend Samir, and the two reminisce, aware that their lives have not gone as well as they would have liked.
This is far from being a gloomy story, though - it's beautiful, wistful and poetic, combining a sense of regret for the past with a desire to make the most of the present
"Time passed, and when time passes we do not notice the thick dust that its wheels throw up because we are too preoccupied with our many pains and joys." (p.12)
As the two men are joined by another couple of faces from the past, their bad day at the border becomes a chance to celebrate youth and enjoy what little there is to be glad about.  Despite the troubles and hardship around them, it's a story with the one thing that can rarely be taken away completely - hope...

In addition to contributing a story, Atef Abu Saif edited the book and also provides the introduction.  It's a great addition to the stories, and it includes a brief overview of the history of writing in Gaza:
"For nearly a century, Palestinian literature has honestly expressed the crisis of the Palestinian people.  It has been the faithful scribe of their history, events and tragedies, of the details of their displacement and refugeedom.  Literature has been the living voice of the Palestinian struggle, in the face of being uprooted, displaced and occupied." (p.ix)
The importance of writing also comes through in an article he contributed to Slate, one in which he describes the terrible scenes in Gaza and implores the outside world not to see the Palestinian victims as mere numbers, but as people, individuals...

...and this is the real importance of The Book of Gaza.  While it's a great collection, with several excellent stories, what it's really about is turning abstract casualties into real people.  Let's hope that the book reaches a wider audience and manages to fulfil that vitally important task.