Part of a series of short-form fiction collections from Comma Press that showcase the publisher’s talent for distributing dramatic and culturally significant texts, The Book Of Gaza – A City In Short Fiction brings together ten short stories by ten short story writers in the Gaza Strip.
At the time of writing, the Palestinian death toll in Gaza has risen within grim reach of two thousand as the population is subjected to a daily bombardment of Israeli incendiaries amidst the “Protective Edge” operation. The people suffer and the Israeli government proclaims that the fighting will “not cease until the mission is complete”, in the words of Ali Abudima (editor of the Electric Intifada), the Palestinians face “a slow death” while the indiscriminate bombing continues.
While the stories of The Book Of Gaza (the front cover of which bears a graphic depicting the enclosed city) are not contemporary with the current military action, owing to the territory’s troubled history, they do reflect the current climate. In Atef Abu Saif’s hands the book adopts a defiant tone that is informed by past trials and assumes a resonance that is typical of a proud people who maintain a literary tradition and artistic culture in the face of relentless apartheid.
The theme of the collection appears to centre on the democratisation and dissemination of narrative and the written word as a way of bringing about a mutual acceptance. In a brief but pensive introduction Atef Abu Saif introduces the reader to the history of Gaza and the Palestinians who reside there. This introduction, written in a prose that reflects the lyricism of his own short fiction, provides a foundation upon which a reader with the barest knowledge may build interest and appreciation for the collection.
In his comprehensive and accessible introduction, Atef Abu Saif presents the reader with a concise history of a city (twenty-six miles long and between three and eight miles wide) that has evolved over two thousand years to house over one-point-eight-million Palestinians. A city, he writes, “which lies at the heart of one of the greatest conflicts in modern history.” In the present time, the introduction tells us, Gaza holds a central place within the literature and politics – “a constellation of Palestine’s most important literary figures were born and lived in Gaza.” It is in the works of these early proponents of creative writing and short form literature (Imam al-Shafi, Muin Bseiso, Harun Hashim Rasheed) that we find the cultural inheritance of the collected writers of The Book Of Gaza and much of the reason that “for nearly a century, Palestinian literature has honestly expressed the crisis of the Palestinian people… literature has been living the voice of the Palestinian people.”
The stories may be split into three consecutive sections, the first of which contains the works of Abdalleh Tayeh, Zaki al ‘Ela and Ghareeb Asqualni. These three pieces – arguably they cannot be called fictions because they so accurately portray the realities of the refugee camps of their era – represent the experimental foundations of the Gazan short story which were taking place throughout the 70s and 80s. Together these stories epitomise the struggle faced by the residents of Gaza at that time; their stories (“Two Men”, “Abu Jaber Goes Back to the Woods” and “A White Flower For David” respectively) incorporate archetypal stock characters to great effect. Each adopts a stoic ideal and, particularly in the case of Asqualni’s fiction, appears to beg that neither character nor reader forgets their humanity. This is a typically sobering message that is repeated throughout the collection.
Then come the more politically aggressive and responsive tales of Talal Abu Shawish, Yusra Al Khatib and Atef Abu Saif himself. These fictions display a duality of life in the Palestinian exclave in which citizens of Gaza quest for lost lovers (a theme resurrected by Nayrouz Qarmout in “The Sea Cloak”) and lament upon a lack of mobility. Unlike those works of the previous generation, these three are filled with a miasma of despair which is at odds with the heroism and optimism of their predecessors. Atef Abu Saif’s “A Journey in the Opposite Direction” in particular features four university friends meeting in a café upon their return to Gaza; as they reconnect with place and person the reader begins to appreciate that the characters are caught in a destructive circle in which they flee from past, to present and back. In the words of the café’s proprietor:
Politics, politics. Enough already.
In “The Sea Cloak” by Nayrouz Qarmout, the sea takes on a dual purpose that emphasizes its cleansing and restorative powers. Her story, with those of Mona Abu Sharekh and Najlaa Atallah, offer a frustrated yet critical engagement with the social realities within Gaza. She writes of a large family preparing for a visit to the sea. I was struck by the strength of this story, the optimism that it demonstrated and the powerful symbols evoked:
They all managed to squeeze onto the bus and prepared to greet the sea. They had not visited it in some time and each was hoping it would restore fond memories, and bring them an even more glorious day.
Throughout the story she plays with “fairytale” imagery that hints of a peaceful rebirth. As the story’s heroin swims, she experiences
pleasure and arousal…making the moment complete with a few drops of female blood
before being restricted and near drowned by the traditional dress and scarf forced upon her by her mother. She is then rescued by a childhood sweetheart (she met him in a game of “Jews and Arabs”), the love of which she was encouraged to scorn. At the story’s close, the girl longs
for a childhood that [has] faded away amidst the severity of her family, suddenly [she] is afraid of their neighbour’s scorn.
The Book Of Gaza makes for difficult but necessary reading. The writers showcased within highlight tensions between two cultures; they draw upon an inherent feeling for narrative in their parables of a life led within the refuge city of Gaza. It is not for nothing that, in the words of Atef Abu Saif, Gaza is known as being the exporter of oranges and short stories. The translators have managed to capture the musicality of the original texts and imbue these stories with an emotive power that is shocking. This is a truly wonderful collection that should be read and read again.
Phillip Clement studied English and Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University. Since he left there he ha lived in a library, written short stories and reviewed books. Currently he is preparing to begin a PhD exploring themes of identity and self in fiction.