Tanks and stolen Guccis
The humour in this new Palestinian anthology of stories is just one of its many surprises, writes Suzanne Joinson
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The checkpoint, as a profound symbol of restriction, and of the weariness of waiting, is a leitmotif in Qissat
Jo Glanville, ed. Qissat: Short Stories by Palestinian Women. London: Telegram Books, 2006
During the recent bombardment of Lebanon the warehouse in Beirut of London- based publisher Saqi Books found itself under fire. Inside, along with numerous other titles, was the complete print-run of an anthology that was just about to be launched, Qissat: Short Stories by Palestinian Women, edited by BBC journalist and producer Jo Glanville.
Meanwhile, in London, the director of the South Bank Centre's Literature Programme was gearing up to celebrate the launch with a number of readings and a discussion. Four of the anthologised authors were due to fly in: Liana Badr from Ramallah, Randa Jarrar from Detroit, Adania Shibli from Berlin and Huzama Habayeb from Abu Dhabi.
The very tangible problem of how to get the books out of Beirut and into UK bookshops in time for the public event served as an unhappy reminder of the context in which these stories have, by necessity, been written: an environment of war, displacement, loss and international violence.
What is exceptional, then, given the backdrop of nakba -- the catastrophe -- that remains a defining feature of all of the submissions included in the book is the range, diversity and humour inherent in these stories. Qissat goes a long way towards dispelling the notion of the Palestinian experience as being synonymous with the image of the helpless victim. As the editor points out, whilst the politics of being Palestinian runs through most of the anthology, national politics featured far less than she imagined it would when she embarked on her search for stories.
For a number of reasons very little Palestinian literature breaks through to the international mainstream. With the exception of Liana Badr and Laila Al-Atrash most of the authors showcased in Qissat are largely unknown to an English-speaking audience. But this does not mean that an appetite for literary information about Palestine does not exist. The recent success in the UK of books such as Mourid Barghouti's I Saw Ramallah demonstrates an interest in memoirs and personal accounts -- both from inside Palestine, and from the exile experience -- that bring to life the reality of displacement for readers.
In her introduction, Glanville rightly comments that whilst factual accounts have their place it is equally important for the literary imagination to be given a platform and essential if the expression of a wider Palestinian culture is to reach new audiences. The aim of Qissat, as the introduction explains, is to contribute to the creation of just such a space.
Glanville quotes critic and scholar Salma Khadra Jayyusi in noting that the great Palestinian novel has yet to be written. We have yet to read "a narrative that will transform the extreme crisis of the past years into epic literature". Or perhaps it is the case that the great Palestinian novel has been written but is yet to be translated? One thinks of Radwa Ashour's Granada Trilogy which, as Jayyusi has pointed out, uses the historical setting of the fall of Granada after the Reconquista to create a story that could allude to the contemporary situation of Palestine.
For the time being, though, it is the short story that best serves the Palestinian writer in a post-2001 world. As the anthology's best known contributor Liana Badr commented after returning to Palestine in 1994, she decided to turn to short stories because she felt that the atmosphere was "not conducive to writing novels".
Whether the result of literary fashion (as the Syrian writer Zakaria Tamer has said, "the novel is always far more poorly populated than a collection of short stories") or political reality, fragmentation certainly runs throughout many of the stories. In the entertaining and moving "Me (the Bitch) and Bistanji", Selma Dabbagh, a British-Palestinian writer based in Bahrain, powerfully interweaves a teenage diary (complete with the requisite boredom, angst and embarrassment of parents) with a description of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait City, an invasion that would result in the expulsion of the Palestinian community in revenge for the Arafat-Hussein friendship.
Dabbagh's use of the stark contrast of tanks rolling in the street with a teenager's concern over a recently pierced nose brings dark humour to a nerve-wracking situation. Many of the characters in the stories experience a similar loss of innocence, resulting in the fragmented narratives, combined with questions of identity. Dabbagh's protagonist writes: "Looking at the diary now, I can see that even my handwriting was changing then, flipping styles mid-sentence, even mid-word."
Unsurprisingly, journeys and borders occur time and time again, along with the unhappy experience of waiting. The checkpoint, of course, is a profound symbol of restriction, but also of the weariness of waiting. Detroit-based author Randa Jarrar's "Barefoot Bridge" centres on a family trip to Jordan, and the West Bank, for the burial of the grandfather. The child-narrator describes the tension of the checkpoint: "I ask Baba how long all this will take, and he says, 'All day', and looks over at the soldier".
Interestingly, it is apprehension, rather than fear, that is rendered so well in the stories, particularly where borders are concerned. In Liana Badr's "Other Cities", stomachs are flipping and nerves are high. The central character frets, "What would happen if the kids slipped up during the security check and let out the secret -- that the ID card was not her own?"
Enormous distances are spanned within the collection: Naomi Shihab Nye's story "Local Hospitality" is a tender-hearted story of a return from the United States to a village 30 miles from Jerusalem; whilst Nibal Thawabteh, a journalist who lectures at Birzeit University, tells a surreal story from inside Gaza.
As well as journeys and crossings, a more unusual motif recurs with surprising frequency: that of shoes, and feet. As the editor points out, shoes occur in stories as signifiers of both humiliation and freedom. In Laila Al-Atrash's coming of age story, "The Letter", the teenage male character is subjected to his first unhappy taste of abandonment and treachery: "The sand-filled yard looked still and quiet. It was empty except for his small shoe, which had fallen off and landed there. The loneliness of that shoe preoccupied his thoughts."
Similarly, in "A Thread Snaps", by Huzama Habayeb, set in a Palestinian refugee camp, shoes and slippers are symbols of repression and become a fantastical key to escape. Habayeb's story has already raised eyebrows in Jordan where it was banned.
Randa Jarrar's child-narrator watches women at a checkpoint being strip-searched by Israeli soldiers and wonders why they are forced to remove their shoes. When one woman becomes furious with a soldier, accusing her of stealing her sandals, she shouts, "First my land, now my Guccis. God damn it."
East certainly meets West with the image of the Guccis at the checkpoint and when Randa Jarrar read this story at the South Bank Centre in London, on 14 September 2006, this was the line that got the biggest laugh. It was the first time that most audience members had thought to associate dark humour with the current situation in Palestine.
The collection achieves its ambition. Alongside the war and disruption we are treated to tales of growing up, loss of innocence and the pleasures and pains of falling in and out of love. For readers in English this is a revelation. According to one audience member, the humour and the themes of strength, rather than weakness, meant that in a small way the event at the South Bank, and in a bigger way Qissat the book, acted to reposition Palestinian literature in the consciousness of Western readers. This is no small feat.
And by what magic or miracle I do not know, Saqi Books managed to extract Qissat from the war-torn warehouse and transport the books to London on time.