I always enjoy the week between Christmas and New Year; it gives me the chance to do all those jobs that I’ve wanted to do around the house and to wade into the pile of books and novels I collect throughout the year and never quite get chance to read. This year has been no different and in amongst all the festivities I’ve managed to make some inroads into the reading list. A case in point is the first novel by Selma Dabbagh, a British Palestinian writer, called Out of It. It makes for a very uncomfortable, although very readable experience (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms).
It’s main focus is Gaza and the enduring conflict between Palestinians and Israel mainly seen through the eyes of a brother (Rashid) and his twin sister (Iman), both 27 years old. Probably like a lot of people in the West I don’t pay as much attention to what is going on in Gaza as I should, but the power of this novel is how it manages to portray the awful conditions in Gaza and the sense of hopelessness better than many news or TV reports. It has a power and immediacy that “the truth”, as reported by news media, often lacks.
There is an extra layer of interest in this book for me as well: Dabbagh is a practising lawyer, who trained with Fisher Meredith and now currently works part time with Hickman & Rose, a firm of criminal and human rights solicitors based in Clerkenwell. She has advised clients who were injured and detained by Israeli forces in the Gaza Flotilla in 2010.
The characters are all vividly drawn and believable, if not especially likeable. There is no sentimentality in this book: it does genuinely read like a “fly on the wall” account. Rashid is frequently literally “out of it” through smoking marijuana and then he secures a scholarship to study in London. Iman returns to Gaza from studying in Switzerland anxious to “make a difference” and not content just to be a member of a worthy committee cum talking shop, such as she finds at the Women’s Committee on her return. The women don’t take to her as an outsider. For a while it looks like Iman wants to be not just out of Gaza but out of life as well. Displacement, appropriately enough for a book that deals with the Palestinian situation, is a constant theme in this book. Making it a theme in a novel as well written as this brings home the desperation of the Palestinian people better than any facts or figures can.
The family is (or was) wealthy with political connections, but the father has escaped to a Gulf State which sounds suspiciously like Dubai. He was involved politically until he was humiliated into leaving and taking up a life of Western comfort, much to his daughter’s disgust. They were all previously in Switzerland and Paris and, for Rashid, isolated from his family through his waning interest in the Palestinian struggle, unlike his elder, disabled, brother, Sabri, who spends his days researching and writing a book about the intifada. The mother holds a dark secret about her past which only slowly gets revealed as you read through the book.
This is a powerful book, tightly written, partisan and unsentimental. The Israelis are clearly the enemy and there is, unsurprisingly, nothing in the book to recognise the security threat posed to them. For instance, at one point Sabri, tells an English peace campaigner struggling to make sense of it all the following;
‘It’s not something you can ever “get straight in your head”… ‘It’s too wrong to be justified, too screwed up to be straightened out. If you force yourself to understand it in any way that leads you to justify it then you are fucked and we are lost“
But this is a novel and why not be partisan? It is a book about experience – terrifying experience – such as when Iman sees someone she knows blown apart by a missile from an Israeli drone. At the beginning of the book the Israelis conduct a terrifying air-raid in retaliation for a failed Palestinian suicide bomber; overwhelming force used to destroy a hospital which dismembers and kills a little boy known to Iman, fuelling her hatred of the enemy. It demonstrates the futility of the Israeli “eye for an eye. tooth for a tooth” policy.
However, the novel is not partisan to the extent of ignoring the problems in Palestinian politics. Frequent mention is made of the corruption of the “leadership”, a shadowy body that seems to exist without any explained democratic process. Hamas is not mentioned by name but that may be who Dabbagh is referring to in the book as the “Outside Leadership”. Another example is how one of the family’s neighbours, Abu Omar, a man not widely liked by anyone, is suddenly “arrested” one day and taken away in the same way that used to happen in Stalin’s Soviet Union. The Gazans then are not portrayed as a plucky heroic people fighting outrageous oppression but instead as a people simply oppressed and subjected to appalling injustice, both from without and within.
It’s a book with many themes and layers, political and personal. There is the conflict between different nations and between different family members. It’s also a book about rites of passage – Iman has been ensconsed in the struggle for so long that she seems to have no life of her own. Her father’s girlfriend urges her to “concentrate on developing herself as a woman”, code for getting a boyfriend and a life away from Gaza. Rashid has a failed relationship with an English girl who only wants him because of the credibility it gives her when campaigning with a pro-Palestinian body in London.
Does it provide any answers to the intractable dispute in the Middle-East? No, but it’s a powerful first novel and well worth reading if you want any insight into the Palestinian crisis.