Dr Selma Dabbagh | KLF
Dr Selma Dabbagh | KLF

Dr Selma Dabbagh is a British-Palestinian writer, an articulate voice on cataloguing the Palestinian experience through fiction and non-fiction, and a vocal critic of the Israeli occupation.

She was recently in Pakistan to attend the Karachi Literature Festival and sat down for an interview with Eos. In it, she discusses her debut novel Out of It, her multiple writing projects and her unflinching support for the Palestinian cause. Following are some excerpts from the interview as well as her session ‘Ceasefire Now’ that took place during the festival.

Q: Tell us a bit about your debut novel Out of It.

Selma: The novel has two main characters — twins Rashid and Iman — who are in their mid-twenties and have returned to Gaza from a privileged life abroad, without any understanding of the conflict. The time-scale isn’t accurate as it’s not realistic fiction and won’t hold up against history books. I have used these characters because they were a disliked class in Palestinian society. They were seen as connected with the corrupt leadership. In a way, they were judged for the sins of their parents. The action moves from Gaza to London and back to Gaza, and attempts to work out the Palestinian identity and political consciousness through a series of different incidents.

It was a way of bringing the audience into an experience of what it looks like to live under that kind of siege… I wanted to show Palestinian existence and realities, big issues that have become central to our being. I was able to depict so many aspects, including the nature of the siege, the reduction of possibilities, the lack of choices, the inability to move, the different political dynamics and expectations within the family… So, that is what the novel is about. It has now been 10 years since the novel was published and, I believe, it has stood the test of time.

Q: What compelled you to write it?

Selma: I started writing it almost 15 years ago. It was an attempt to see if there was a connecting point between Palestinian people who are dispersed all over the world, living these different realities, under different regimes. I thought there was something specific about the Palestinian identity, which is the issue of political connection to a cause, or an emotional connection to an ongoing injustice.

So, there is an expectation of political engagement on everybody. However, if you are in a situation where you don’t know what you can do to meaningfully make a difference, but at the same time you can’t opt away from it… and there is a nagging feeling that you should do something, even if you are in the diaspora…

Q: It can be challenging to write about an issue that has polarised opinion to such an extent. Did you face any such challenges?

Selma: In a novel, self-censorship stems from the fear of depicting people badly. It was playing on my mind when writing Out of It, as conflict between Fatah and Hamas provided a backdrop for the novel.

So, I was very mindful and cautious of what I said or wrote, making sure I qualified everything and added footnotes. You check what you write because you realise the atmosphere is so hostile. However, a lot of criticism is generated by a small group of people, and it has gotten to a point where we have to stand up. I believe I have become more forthright as the situation in Palestine has escalated [since October 8]. I was in a protest in London recently, where a poster encapsulated this sentiment. It said: ‘Palestine has set us free’.

At the same time, as a British citizen, I am concerned about what the situation means to our right to boycott, academic freedom, free speech, or even the pernicious definition of anti-Semitism, which the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance is peddling and trying to get approved through policymakers.

It equates anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, which is wrong. The former is a philosophical and ideological movement against an expansionist, settler mindset, and the latter is a racist trope. The definition being peddled in the West and lobbied by governments is unfit and can affect our right to study subjects.

Q: Do you see any end to the Israel-Palestine conflict? What do you think is the result of the latest round of violence?

Selma: We always hear that things can’t get worse, but the situation keeps getting worse in Palestine. But with the recent round of violence, I hope Israel can no longer claim victimhood. It has also shattered the myth that Israel is a safe place for its people, which may militarise the situation even further.

On the positive side, Palestinians have picked up very fast on the media wars. We have articulate voices espousing the on-ground situation, with brave and reliable reporting that shows a resilient community. The younger generations will no longer accept the image of a Palestinian as a terrorist. I expect a greater pushback from the anti-colonial, post-colonial global South against Western hegemony.

Q: Recently, you edited an anthology We Wrote in Symbols: Love and Lust by Arab Women Writers. Tell us about that project.

Selma: The collection juxtaposes the work of Arab women writers from as far as the pre-Islamic period up to the fall of Andalusia in 1492 and places it alongside the work of modern Arab women writers. The classics are fearless, romantic and evocative while the younger writers are equally creative and ingenuous. The project is also an attempt to show the heterogeneity of thought and the variety of voices and show the extent to which monolithic stereotyping of Arab women is misplaced.

Q: What is your next project?

Selma: Since October 8, I have found it difficult to write fiction and I’ve been focused more on non-fiction and activism. There are two other books that I had been working on, including one that is set in Jerusalem in 1936. It explores a point in Palestinian history where decisions by British policymakers could have resulted in a different outcome.

Q: How was your trip to Karachi?

Selma: I enjoyed the many conversations I have had in Karachi and during the festival, so many hooks of curiosity that one could satisfy later by reading and research. It leaves one over-stimulated.

Also, this was my second time in Karachi. I was here a decade ago, to visit a friend. It is where I finished my first novel, and Karachi is mentioned in the acknowledgments of Out of It.

The interviewer is a member of staff.

X: @hussainydada

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 25th, 2024

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