Out of It
By Selma Dabbagh
Pubs. Bloomsbury Pbck £7.99 (2012)
Palestine from a Palestinian persepective does not receive the coverage it deseerves. This novel goes some way in addressing that deficit. It is one of those rare birds: a good political novel. First published in 2011, now, gratifyingly published in paperback, it is Dabbagh’s debut novel and what a debut it is. In the affluent north and west the mainstream canon consists largely of novels about existential problems, individualised dilemmas and psychological analyses; politics are either non-existent or play a small, subsidiary role. Dabbagh puts politics firmly centre stage. But, she is no primitive propagandist or evangelist, and is able to see both the Israeli oppressors and the popular movements of her own people through un-tinted spectacles. She gives us a moving portrait of a family torn apart by the post-war developments that have taken place in Palestine. The fate and fortunes of the members of this family reflect the political developments that impinge daily and determine the trajectory of the people’s lives. It is a Palestinian family torn asunder by the post war developments that have shattered Palestine and imposed the state of Israel on a country where its historical inhabitants – the Palestinian Arabs - considered it their home. She cleverly and subtly interweaves this historical process into the fabric of the family, their friends and relatives. Through the individual fates of each family member we are helped to comprehend the way the struggle for one’s rights against an intransigent and brutal enemy so often also distorts and maims the protagonists themselves, and how a once united struggle became fragmented, pitting Palestinian against Palestinian. With the gradual corruption of the PLO leadership and the movement’s loss of momentum and clear leadership after the Intifada, we can comprehend the reasons behind the rise of Hamas. What began as a largely unified and secular struggle became split, first between small, ultra-left guerrilla groups and the mainstream PLO and then later, after their extinction, between a fundamentalist, religious rebellion in Gaza against the rump of the old PLO.
Iman, a young woman with a twin brother, Rashid, is the central figure of the novel and we hear much of the story through her telling. After experiencing the viciousness of Israeil attacks on Gaza and losing several friends to Israeli guns and bombs, she and her brother Rashid soon find themselves in temporary exile in London. Their father, previously a committed member of the PLO leadership, now lives in one of the Gulf states in relatively comfortable exile, alienated from his people’s struggle.
Dabbagh vividly portrays the pain and destructive influence of exile - the feelings of rootlessness, anger and frustration. While Palestinians are being massacred by superior Israeli missiles and air raids, in London, travelling on the Tube or on the busses, she and her brother are obliged to overhear the small talk of their fellow passengers whose problems revolve around where to go abroad on holiday, their marital tiffs or which furnishings to choose for their homes; in their minds Palestine and the suffering of its people simply doesn’t exist.
Dabbagh’s language is sculpted and sharp, at times poetic, always laconic and often with a light touch of irony. Her descriptions of London, through the eyes of a foreigner, a temporary visitor, go deeper beneath the patina and surface glitter than an ordinary tourist would; her viewpoint is coloured by her people’s history, British colonialism and world domination – here vision is politically tinted.
She watches TV avidly to soak up all and every bit of news from the Middle East, but is disgusted by the Orwellian double-speak of the ‘embedded’ reporters: talking of Israeli ‘surgical strikes’, their ‘tactical incursions’ or understandable ‘responses’ to Hamas provocations.
Out of It is extremely well-written, with a well-developed storyline, believable, three-dimensional characters, and is a gripping read that draws you into the daily trauma that passes as normality for most Palestinians.