The Book of Gaza, edited by Atef Abu Saif
One of the principal conventions of mainstream American narrative culture—as true for something like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom as it is for something like 30 Rock—is that domestic life, which includes the workplace, happens in spite of politics. Politics, in fact, are a pale shadow of domestic life. This makes sense, since American popular culture, which includes what the newspapers, at least, call politics, has no politics. The two parties are ideologically indistinct; broadly speaking they are anti-ideological, vaguely cultural affinity groups; their opposition is effectively that of the old stand-up comedy standby memorably lampooned on the Simpsons. Black guys drive like this, but white guys drive like this. Alec Baldwin is a Republican; Tina Fey is a liberal; yuk yuk. Walter and Patty Berglund’s son rebels by becoming conservative, suffers a guilty, ahem, loss of essence, and decides to grow organic coffee. Politics, in other words, is not personal; it’s merely personality.
As an American with more radical sympathies, I can regret these conventions, but I can’t wholly escape them. I see them in my own writing, and I see them in many of the Anglo-American books that I read. This, as much as any other quality of literature, is what made my reading of The Book of Gaza so searing, so dislocating, and, I think, so necessary. Though they occur against a background of war, displacement, and occupation, these stories are not, in the American sense, political. I don’t believe there is a single mention of Fatah or Hamas or the PA or the Likud. There are no elections. Where there is violence, it is actually nightmarish: dreamlike, a-causal, symbolic, and strange. And yet, whether in a story explicitly about armed resistance, such as Zaki al ’Ela’s “Abu Jaber Goes Back to the Woods,” or in a brief portrait of the utmost ordinariness of daily life, like “Red Lights” by Talal Abu Shawish, there is the abiding sense of politics as Jacques Rancière defined it: “not a conflict between well-defined interest groups; it is an opposition of logics that count the parties and parts of the community in different ways.”
The Book of Gaza is a collection of ten stories from both established and new Palestinian writers from Gaza. It was published by Carcanet Press in England, part of a series called “reading the city,” and I should note, although I was only able to review an electronic version, that it is a lovely book, with spare, beautiful illustrations by Mohamed Abusal. It is also very short. None of the stories is longer than 20 pages, and half of them are ten or less. As the editor (and one of the authors), Atef Abu Saif, notes in his introduction, this brevity is itself a function of political reality. Israel imposed restrictions on printing in the occupied territories, and “[c]opying and transporting a story to publishing houses in Jerusalem to be printed was no easy task […] short length helped facilitate publication.” Curiously—or perhaps not—the best of these stories are frequently the shortest. Several of the longer works are somewhat overstuffed. At least one, “A White Flower for David,” by Ghareeb Asqalami, feels like a series of sketches toward a much longer story. It has some of the most affecting writing, line for line, of the whole book, and yet it is often difficult to tell who is doing what to whom. “Red Lights,” on the contrary, is only three pages long. It consists of cab driver hitting every red light and dispensing grudging charity while the narrator sits in the back seat. A radio “brings an air of war, raging war, right into the car.” The narrator watches “mellow faces” and “young men” and “a gaggle of careless, coquettish young women” through the window. “All of them are looking for an escape.”
The quality of writing is less than consistent, although, to be fair, these stories don’t share a translator, and it’s possible that some of the unevenness is result of varying aptitudes with that related, writerly art. But despite its inconsistency, there is a vitality that sometimes lacks in very polished works of English-language fiction. These stories have knees and elbows. “When I Cut Off Gaza’s Head,” by Mona Abu Sharekh, is another piece that may allude to more than it can rightly contain in its length, but it still contains jewels: “Maybe the beginnings of transformations in women’s lives are all much alike.”
Women—writers and characters—predominate. They are often doubly caught, doubly occupied:
She doesn’t feel any relief. She draws a deep breath and wishes that she could smoke, that she could breathe out with each exhalation all the unyielding things within her, the very spectacle of herself in this state. She extends her hand to the light beside her, switches it on, and then takes the packet of cigarettes and the lighter and touches its flame to a cigarette. She almost devours the cigarette with greedy lips, calming her anguish with the cigarette dangling between her upper and lower lips. More composed now, she focuses on breathing the tobacco in and out. She always imagines this scene, but knows absolutely that it will never take place, for she has not, and will not ever try a cigarette. How could she ever dare to acquire something so ostracised in a society like hers, something carved in stone as forbidden – for her and for millions of women like her. (“The Whore of Gaza,” Najlaa Ataallah)
There are no crude sexual liberations or neat epiphanies in the story, and this one woman’s sensual incoherency is one of truest depictions of the relationship between the human body and the divine that I’ve recently read:
Smiling, she flicks through her text messages while he gets ready. She conjures up, with the messages, a picture of the man that sent each one, and recalls also what Allah and his messenger said about how each person should not ‘forget to pursue his share of the world’.
In the end, she takes the proceeds of her occupation and rides around Gaza in a cab, depositing it in the collection boxes at a series of mosques under the silent, bemused gaze of her driver. Then she “heads towards a flat in one of the most beautiful streets in Gaza . . .” Oh, yes, Gaza too has beautiful streets.
“What do you expect from the enemy?” asks an abused laborer in “A White Flower for David.” And a young man who managed to hide from the abuse laughs and cries, “Mercy, of course!” Collectively The Book of Gaza is the story of the logic of oppositions in this occupied land that is, as Abu Saif observes, “difficult to enter” and “even more so” to leave. These are not lives carried out in spite of politics, but because of them—because of the irreconcilable contradictions of love and aspiration banging up against the ubiquity of an enforced waiting, because the desire to be charitable and the desire not to appear to be charitable wait together at the same red light, because forbearance becomes resistance, and necessity becomes choice.