A-voiding the Void

Three recent novels shed light on unexplored aspects of literary representations of Palestinian trauma.

In After the Last Sky, published in 1986, Edward Said argues that the struggle to achieve coherent form characterizes Palestinian prose. The act of narration—that is, turning chaotic realities into a cohesive unity—is at odds with the present of Palestinian lives, he explains. Said concludes: “Our characteristic mode, then, is not a narrative, in which scenes take place seriatim, but rather broken narratives, fragmentary compositions, and self-consciously staged testimonials, in which the narrative voice keeps stumbling over itself, its obligations, its limitations.”

Looking at the canon of Palestinian prose—Said refers to authors such as Emile Habibi, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, and Ghassan Kanafani—it is evident that in various ways form often expresses the fragmentary nature of loss, prolonged exile, continuous war, and social disintegration. Setting the tone in terms of both style and genre, these and other prominent writers opted for fragmented testimonies, or used multiple narrators to represent trauma in discontinuous patchworks.

Three recent Palestinian novels point at a new direction. While the difficulty of representing trauma remains as central as ever, these books can rather be described as “page-turners,” offering a fluid read. Ahmed Masoud’s Vanished: The Mysterious Disappearance of Mustafa Ouda is a classic coming-of-age detective novel, a fast-paced narrative of a boy searching for his missing father. In Minor Detail, Adania Shibli takes up the historical events of the Nirim affair of 1949, in which a Bedouin girl was gang-raped and then murdered by an Israeli platoon in the Negev desert, telling the girl’s story with a powerfully coherent and steady voice. In The Book of Disappearance, Ibtisam Azem turns away altogether from the realist tradition, concocting a fantastical tale in which all the Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories disappear one random morning into thin air. These novels continue to grapple with the fragmented nature of Palestinian history and lives; by featuring central characters who have fallen through the cracks of history, all three bring to the forefront the lack of acknowledgement and accountability that hinders coherent narration. At the same time, they also shed light on these themes with a refreshing ease of narration, as each novel tries to solve a different unknown.

Vanished is a tale of a boy named Omar, making his way through the normalized and mundane hardships of the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza. Growing up with his mother and uncle, Omar is haunted by the image of his father, who disappeared without leaving a trace when Omar was young. Scarce clues from the elders in his community prompt Omar to search for his father, with his best friend as an obligatory “sidekick.” But what begins as a childish fantasy of becoming a true detective takes a grave turn as Omar finds himself trapped in a cycle of forced collaboration and abuse perpetuated by the several parties, both Israeli and Palestinian, trying to control the Gaza Strip. It is a story of tormenting complicity that complicates any simple account of what it means to grow up in a war zone and at the mercy of combatants. Masoud’s excursion into the genre of detective fiction is relatively new in Palestinian literature, lending the novel rather light and streamlined hues, which the gruesome details of Omar’s life might not have otherwise permitted.

Shibli does not spare us horrors of the Israeli occupation either. A shocking affair in the history of the Israeli Defense Forces forms the backbone of Minor Detail. It tells the story of an anonymous Bedouin girl randomly plucked from her family, taken to the Nirim military base, raped repeatedly by an entire platoon, and then shot and buried in the desert. These historical events are well documented in the IDF archives; but naturally, such records leave “minor” details such as character, scenery, and dialogue out of the picture. Shibli masterfully fills these gaps with a distant, “neutral” type of narration—unlike “fragmentary compositions”—that describes the events with little emotion. “There were six of them,” we read, when the Bedouin girl is found, “And although they were dead, and the sand was languidly sucking their blood into its depths, a few of their limbs still gave off slight movements. His [the soldier’s] gaze rested on a clutch of dry grass lying by the mouth of the camel; it had been ripped up by the roots, which still held suspended grains of sand.” Our own gaze shifts swiftly, coolly, from the dead bodies, to the grass, to the soil, without entering the mind of the actor present in the scene. The second part of the novel, approximately 55 years after the Nirim affair, follows a Palestinian woman from Ramallah, who ventures to the Negev with the aim of reconstructing the effaced story of the Bedouin girl, only to find herself facing new forms of Israeli occupation. As such, Minor Detail pastes together fragments of Palestinian history in aloof tones that cannot leave the reader unmoved.

Last, Ibtisam Azem devises a fascinating hypothetical scenario: can we imagine a world in which all Palestinians are gone from Palestine? Her novel is a dystopian prediction of a second Nakba, only this time around, it has been completely successful, leaving no survivors behind. If Masoud and Shibli are in pursuit of missing persons, in Azem’s novel the vanished are utterly inaccessible—not even a single Palestinian is left to narrate their disappearance. Thus, we hear about the events only through the mediators who have remained in the land, namely, Jews. The main narrator is Ariel, a young journalist from Jaffa, through whom we receive many of the news reports about the disappearance. Ariel discovers a notebook belonging to his Palestinian neighbor, Alaa. Without consent, almost voyeuristically, Ariel reads his erstwhile neighbor’s account of his grandmother’s decision to stay in Palestine/Israel after the Nakba, despite her entire family fleeing abroad. The dual narration—the two generations facing expulsion, one in the past, the other in the future—cements the suggestion that this disappearance is a direct continuation of the Nakba that started in 1948.

Azem is not alone in drawing parallels between the past and the present. In fact, all three novels formulate powerful couplets that propel the respective narratives forward. Shibli mirrors the tragic story of the Bedouin girl with that of her contemporary counterpart, also unnamed, the woman who tracks down the Nirim affair years after it occurred. Omar’s voluntary and involuntary life paths in Vanished surprisingly turn out to be strikingly similar to those of his parents. Alaa’s fate explicitly resonates the erasure of his ancestral heritage. These parallels signify the firm grip of the past, forcing the present to move in compulsive, repetitive circles. As such, these three novels might have moved away from the fragmentary style that characterized earlier Palestinian prose; but the shards that Palestinian history is made of are nonetheless the subject matter of these narratives.

Indeed, the genre choices and language of contemporary Palestinian fiction might have shifted toward new ways of reclaiming a “permission to narrate,” to use Said’s words once again. After all, as Said remarks, the conflict has always been about narrative as well as land. Mystery or fantasy fiction are new ways to circle—perhaps tackle—the void left from a collective loss that is not yet fully acknowledged and documented. Shibli, Masoud, and Azem highlight the “holes in the story” by focusing on the unknowns as they weave together persuasive stories. In these novels we hear the tales of the unnamed, the forgotten, and the unheard. Take, for instance, the irretrievable anonymity of the Bedouin girl, buried in an unmarked spot in the Negev desert. Described as “a girl who had curled up inside her black clothes like a beetle” and as “the still-moaning black mass,” the soldiers move her from one place to another with minimal interaction, until “the digging continued in almost perfect silence, aside from the shovel’s scraping as it lifted and tossed the sand […] Suddenly, a sharp scream tore through the air. The girl was wailing as she ran away, then she fell to the sand before the sound of the gunshot was heard. Silence prevailed again.” The images, sounds, and smells that the narrative evokes are not the matter of history books. The factual gunshot comes second to the imagined fall on the sand. The military investigation and trial were classified for 55 years, and still do not provide enough information for us to discover her name, tribe, or where she lived; the Bedouin girl remains on the outskirts of both history and public consciousness.

Omar‘s story transports us not only to one of the less represented spheres of Palestinian lives— namely, Gaza just before the Oslo Accords. More importantly, it tells the tortuous story of recruitment and complicity for a boy whose considerations are far less political than one might expect. Masoud roams the streets of the Jabalia refugee camp with much familiarity, the narrative often conveying a hint of suspense: “The busy road that was normally full of stall sellers—filling the air with the smell of freshly fried falafel or roasted sweet corn, with kids playing and men sitting outside on small chairs, playing cards and drinking coffee while puffing so many cigarettes—was deserted. There was a curfew. I had forgotten the announcement.” Masoud gives non-Gazans a rare glimpse of the intricate relationships between Hamas, Fatah, and the Israeli occupiers, laced with much insight into the tensions between family, neighbors, friends, educators, and militia men, when all are bound to the inescapable reality of an ongoing conflict. It accounts for the human motivations that history simplifies as “political agenda”; rather than a system of powers that manages the Gaza Strip in a rational and well-planned manner, we become acutely aware of the random, personal, and unintended circumstances that can have extensive historical consequences.

Most radically, Azem positions the “holes in history” smack in the center of her novel, as she constructs a world that continues fairly uninterrupted even though 6.5 million people have vanished from the face of the earth. “Why should I care if the Arabs didn’t show up to work, or if they have disappeared? Let them go to hell all together. Why should we give a fuck?” exclaims one Israeli, annoyed at the minor disruption to services at Ben Gurion airport due to the disappearance. Much of the novel consists of media coverage of the disappearance—so, ironically, the reader pays heightened attention to the deliberate indifference that many Israelis express toward the news in the novel. This ambivalent attitude toward Palestinian absence is not merely a dystopian far-fetched future; rather, it is a critique of present-day Israel, in which many are blind to the ruins of the Nakba, as constituting a “hole” in Israeli history and society. The three novels put the missing piece of the puzzle under a magnifying glass, shedding light on the “nobody” of history that is usually kept in the dark.

What does it take to narrate this “nobody”? Shibli and Azem take a unique angle by documenting key events without assuming the testimonial voice. Minor Detail does not let the reader in on the feelings and thoughts of the people who took part in the horrors that it describes. The Nirim affair is told not through the testimony of its participants, but from the distance of the outsider. The minds of both the victim and perpetrators are not available to us. Instead, Shibli’s writing zooms in on action. The chain of events is minutely, perhaps even mechanically, depicted, and the readers are the true witnesses of its unraveling. The commander of the platoon is obsessed with cleanliness and décor—an obsession that is, of course, strikingly absurd considering his actions. More to the point, this obsession seems to set the tone for the entire novel, in which deeds are described accurately, “cleanly,” without the “messy” emotional chaos that lurks behind a thinly veiled façade. As such, Minor Detail does not tell the story of the Bedouin girl from within but from without; it records aloofly, without presuming the stance of the traumatized witness. As a document rather than a testimony, Minor Detail complements the empty spaces that official history leaves blank. That “nobody” remains unnamed, but her story is told to the full, with all the nitty-gritty that military reports leave out. We see that which has not been seen, as the story avoids the veneer of intimacy that a first-person narrative provides. The Bedouin girl remains an object of our sight, her story is consumed by others; nonetheless, outside the psyche of both her and her rapists and killers, the reader becomes a spectator who bears responsibility toward this history.

Azem too avoids voicing the absentee directly. Only through trespassing and voyeurism can we access the story of Alaa and his family. Like Minor Detail, The Book of Disappearance “records” Israelis at a shameful moment, without dishing out the “counter” narrative. Most of the novel follows—indeed documents—the voices of Jews who remained alone in the land. The alleged total lack of care at the sight of this mass and unaccounted disappearance is almost cynical. Some Israelis interviewed on the radio say “good riddance,” while authorities take the opportunity to confiscate property and ban reentry in the event of the Palestinians returning. We move through different spaces impacted by the disappearance—after all, Arab Israelis are a significant presence in the Israeli economy. The narrative hops from bus companies to pharmacies to agricultural fields to construction sites. From this bird’s-eye view, the disappearance is seen, but not explained, nor do we hear the reaction of the remaining Palestinian diaspora. This external gaze precludes the intimacy of a testimony and instead gives way to a report-like read.

Masoud alone employs the protagonist-narrator perspective: the older Omar who tries to return to Gaza after emigrating to the UK, and the child’s perspective of the younger Omar. Nevertheless, we, as readers, once again, are on the lookout for the traces of somebody’s story, without having the possibility of facing or hearing that “somebody” directly. Vanished, like the other two novels, zeros in on a long-gone story, that of the father. The father—like Shibli’s Bedouin girl and Azem’s missing Palestinians—marks people who, whether taken, abducted, or effaced, are untraceable, irretrievable. Once again, we are left at the threshold of an abhorrent reality in which people can be taken away with no prior warning. Gradually unraveling the enigma, the novel proceeds with growing force until the big reveal. That is why the hardly satisfying bits and pieces Omar finds become a way of circling the deep lack that is at the center of the narrative. For the heart of this novel is its missing person and the story that the vanished conceal. As the father remains inaccessible throughout the novel, the novel documents this void without narrating it; it brings this abyss to the foreground, with all its pulling powers, without giving it a voice of its own.

These novels a-void the void, not by way of escapism or disengagement but by way of countering the absence, the “a” as a prefix of negation. The void—that is, the lack of recognition, the missing pieces of official history, the invisible parts of society that remain outside the institutional field of vision—is circled with a big red mark, a mark that leaves us outside its core. They delimit the unseen or unknown without giving full access to its insides; for this reason, these three novels monumentalize the marginal without sensationalizing it.

The three novels are now all available in English, which perhaps attests to the growing international interest in these missing “nobodies.” Minor Detail and The Book of Disappearance had the fortunate of being rendered into English by two skillful translators. Neither would have been easy to translate. Azem’s constant language games with the different registers of Arabic and Hebrew—shifting from standard Arabic to the colloquial, imitating different Palestinian dialects as well as the way non-Arabic speaking Israelis use Arabic in their speech, writing Hebrew in Arabic script, and many more such sleights-of-hands—would pose a challenge even for experienced translators such as Sinan Antoon. However, Antoon, a celebrated writer in his own right, succeeds in keeping this sophisticated code-switching somewhat apparent to the English reader—by incorporating for instance, transliterated Hebrew into the text—without taking away its fluidity. Elisabeth Jaquette wonderfully maintains the richness of the original Arabic depictions, so much so that her English almost seems native to the blazing desert. Vanished, on the other hand, was written in English, and as such is part of a rapidly growing corpus of Palestinian novels that testify to the longitude of Palestinian exile. Born in Gaza, Masoud has lived in England for the last twenty years and is thus familiar with both worlds. The choice to write this personal story about Omar, who follows a similar trajectory, in English, is another reminder that contemporary Palestinian literature is multilingual and is written around the globe. Both translating into and writing in English are ways to make these inaccessible worlds available to the global reader interested in diverse and well-written Palestinian perspectives.

*Adania Shibli, Tafṣīl thānawī (Dar al-ādāb, Beirut, 2017). Translated as Minor Detail by Elisabeth Jaquette (New Directions, New York, 2020, pp. 144).

*Ahmed Masoud, Vanished: The Mysterious Disappearance of Mustafa Ouda (Rimal Publications, Cyprus, 2015)

*Ibtisam Azem, Sifr al-īkhtifā’ (Manshūrāt al-jamal, Beirut, 2014). Translated as The Book of Disappearance by Sinan Antoon (Syracuse University Press, New York, 2019, pp. 256)

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