In the news, the Palestine-Israel conflict is a continuous and cruel war which has since 1948 murdered thousands of people and dispossessed millions. The Palestinians have been cast in the role of sufferers with images of refugee camps, bomb blasts, and weeping faces. In many ways, it is like what Pakistan is portrayed as — a monolithic danger zone whose only public identity is of extremist zealots who murder children for their “faith”.
In her novel Out of It Selma Dabbagh has made a brave attempt to break out of this typification of the Palestinians. The people in her story are individuals and while all of them live in the besieged Gaza, they are not painted as average victims without a way out. They are a new generation who have been raised in this way of life. While they are in part passive sufferers (it is very difficult to not be when air raids are timetabled), they are also, more importantly, free-thinking agents who can choose to fight for their rights or walk away from the struggle altogether.
At the centre of the story is the Mujahed family, three adult children of a divorced couple. The mother was a first generation revolutionary while the father has escaped to the seductive world of steel and metal in the Gulf, leaving behind his wife and children to fend for themselves. In a street in Gaza, on which theirs is the only house that hasn’t been razed to the ground, the three siblings live with their mother whose past as a freedom fighter is now safely concealed behind many plastic surgeries and the strain of being a single parent. The eldest Sabri, who took after his mother in spirit and patriotism, first lost his heart to a stiletto wearing, independent woman and then some years later lost her, their son and his legs in a bomb planted to destroy his family. In the present-day world of the novel, his movement is limited to his house and he is tormented by a single-minded obsession to research and record the occupation, the history of the resistance and the oral testimonies of the witnesses to history.
Iman, his younger sister, is a modern young woman who teaches at a school, attends Women’s Committee meetings and struggles with insecurities and fears common to people her age. At the beginning of the novel, she is flailing, unsure what she can do for her people, and suffering feelings of uselessness and monotony. But after the bombing of the city hospital kills one of her students and the man she was falling for, her first reaction is to get roped in by one of the religious factions to be the next suicide bomber. Her attempt is luckily thwarted by one of the Leadership’s men (the man she continues to fall for during the rest of the novel) and is quickly sent abroad by her family. Meanwhile, Rashid, her twin brother but definitely the youngest of the family, is an unemployed young man who dreams of escaping Gaza and the horrors of living in a battlefield and of going to London and smoking pot. Luckily for him, he accomplishes all of this.
But Out of It isn’t so much about the origins of the characters as it is about tracing a few years of their lives as they make their way through the world — Gaza, the Gulf states and London. The strongest point of the novel is just this — that it allows its characters the freedom to move around physically, even if their minds are always trapped in Gaza. It is a tale of escape, maybe even of a journey to find an identity away from home. But the effort is futile and Sabri, Iman and Rashid must always return to the warzone, whether it’s out there with bombs and air raids or within their minds as they struggle to decide where they stand in this conflict. Dabbagh has cleverly crafted her characters and even the minor ones have very strong back stories. Each character plays a significant part in creating the picture of a war which has its effect on everyone related to the conflict no matter where they are in the world — be they the leaders of the resistance movements, political lobbyists or medical volunteers.
There are some weaknesses as well though, one of which is the novel’s pace which takes about five chapters to pick up. The beginning is quite weak as Debbagh throws her readers headlong into the life of Gaza without first foregrounding the larger displacement and loss. For instance, up till chapter five the novel weaves in and out of Rashid’s and Iman’s reactions (stoned indifference in the case of Rashid and self-righteous anger in the case of Iman) to the bombing of the hospital. Usually when authors throw readers into the centre of action at the outset, the writing and the hook is powerful enough to captivate them and make them want to find out what happens next. However, that is not the case here and the writing tends to drag. Perhaps if Dabbagh had embedded the personal tragedies into the larger ones at the outset, the novel would have held together better as sometimes the personal sense of loss seems almost inappropriately larger than the shared sense of bereavement. But on the other hand, perhaps this is the nature of human frailty in the face of unmanageable calamity, as seems to be the point of the novel.
Out of It
By Selma Dabbagh
320pp. price not listed