Perhaps one of the most significant challenges for Palestinian writers is writing a text truly informed by the realities of the past 70 years but also showing that the sum total of a Palestinian subject is not just stories of tragic oppression. Insisting on the complexity and agency of living through injustice while wanting what everyone else wants is a hallmark of resistance.
The 1948 Nakba, with its mass displacement of Palestinians from Jaffa, Haifa and Jerusalem, is the starting point for Atef Abu Seif’s 400-page, IPAF-shortlisted fifth novel, Haya Mualaqa (A Suspended Life, 2014).
In keeping with much Palestinian resistance literature, as it has been established through the wake of 1948 and the 1967 defeat, Abu Seif tells the stories of three generations of refugees in a fictional Gaza camp up to the consolidation of Hamas’s power and its consequences now. He follows classical storytelling conventions (there’s none of the postmodern flair of canonical works like Jabra Ibrahim Jabra’s The Disappearance of Walid Masoud), yet harbors an ambition to push the novel beyond descriptions of the atrocities of occupation to humanize his characters through their everyday, banal thoughts. It’s a struggle.
One of the main characters, Naim, owns a small print-shop and is settled on a small mound in the camp. He is a typical post-Nakba character: His mother barely managed to escape Jaffa, he barely managed to escape to Gaza after 1967, and his brothers and sisters are scattered all over the world. Of his children, one is jailed, one is married and settled in the Gulf, one is studying in Florence, and one, his youngest daughter, is still with him.
“For the sons of Naim relive his story with an astonishing degree of monotony,” writes Abu Seif somberly, describing the diasporic nature of the lives of refugees. “They reproduce his journey and go through the same dispersion.”
But Naim is suddenly murdered by occupation forces — “this slight prick ended the source of life, and closed its book, and took away the light from Naim’s lively face.” This triggers an avalanche of flashbacks, as everyone in the camp internally remembers how they ended up there and their relationship to Naim.
This part results in a fascinating weaving together of geography and stories: Making their way through various parts of Palestine, these characters brought together their life histories to collide with the present reality of occupation. Hajj Khalil, a mysterious neighbor, was the first to settle on the mound and build a house with a garden and goat. Amm Youssef is a merchant who supports his family through a small grocery store. In a younger generation, a photojournalist makes a living off the “hot news” coming out of Gaza, while Naim’s nephew’s life is wasted between prisons and fighting for the cause.
The smooth flow of all this is suddenly interrupted by Naim’s son Selim, returning from Florence. He assumes center-stage and for almost 100 pages we are subjected to his puerile, sentimental and frightfully written romantic adventures. Contemplative, measured prose is replaced by awkward and clichéd metaphors, built with phrasings that combine staleness with vapidity: “the same thing still inhabits her, like a fetus that still struggles to remain in the womb of time” and “from spring, the ashes of forgetfulness, the cruelty of the past and the moans of separation, love rose again anew.” The pace falters and we become lost in never-ending entanglements as women throw themselves at Selim’s feet — his neighbor, a Spanish colleague, an Italian colleague — despite his apparent selfishness and lack of character or resolve.
Eventually there’s a redeeming shift back to the camp itself, as Abu Seif scathingly lambasts the moral hypocrisy of many Hamas politicians, with their pseudo-religious facade and unrepentant neoliberalism.
Sobhy, a key ministry of interior figure and a former resistance hero, tells residents that the government has decided to “develop” the mound. The current buildings (among them the houses of Naim and Hajj Khalil) will be razed to build a giant mosque, a police station and a mall (that perfect Islamist neoliberal triptych). This sudden interest in the land is revealed to be the work of Sobhy and Khamis (the son of Amm Youssef, who has aged into a shrewd, corrupt businessman with a fortune made from digging tunnels to Egypt). The residents’ backlash makes clear that the mound, as the former site of a British and then an Israeli camp, has witnessed many acts of resistance and is thus valued not for its real-estate worth but its historical significance.
Although resistance proves all but futile and the novel ends with another funeral, this time the characters seem to be at the brink of profound change. The generations that witnessed the great tragedies of 1948 and 1967 are dying out, the generations that witnessed the first Intifada in 1986 are reaching middle age, and new generations are growing up in another context, where there’s more at risk but also more questions — ones that are being asked now in a different way. We hear the same interior monologues of Naim’s funeral, but this time with more existentialist questions on the future of Gaza and the young people who seem suffocated by its blockade, its corrupt government and its unforgiving checkpoints — yet try to look beyond it all.
Abu Seif (b. 1973), himself a child of the camps and a Gaza resident, thus attempts a daunting double task: to write a history of the Palestinian displacement and the tragedies of Israeli occupation while also composing an interesting story.
While he is able to do the first, his attempts at the second vary in success. He struggles to create complex characters that transcend stereotypes of the Palestinian refugee as dead or jailed freedom fighter. By trying to depict internal lives — no matter how banal or shallow — now, in the context of a blockade and decades-long refugee status, he embarks on a promising project. But poor storytelling, ultimately dominated by a sagging rhythms, cliched phrasing and flat characterizations, works against making A Suspended Life a novel that sets a new precedent for Palestinian literature.
If there is anything to walk away with, though, it is that refugees are not just numbers, that Gaza is saved from total despair by its beautiful coast, and that stories of trauma and loss can be passed along in the most subtle and haunting of ways.