Selma Dabbagh is a British-Palestinian writer whose first novel, Out of It, has recently been published. The story involves two twins living in Gaza facing the everyday hazards of Israeli occupation and looks at how their lives change after a trip to London.
Dabbagh — half-English, half-Palestinian — grew up in the United Kingdom and the Middle East. She has lived in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and, more recently, Bahrain. For Dabbagh, a qualified lawyer, the Palestinian struggle in the face of occupation is clearly close to her heart. Her grandfather was politically active in Jaffa and was imprisoned several times by the British Mandate authorities. In 1948, her father, who was 10 at the time, was playing with some children on the street when he was hit by a grenade thrown by a Jewish group. It was part of the reason for the family's expulsion.
Decades later, in 1992, Dabbagh visited Palestine after graduating from university and worked with a human rights organisation for several months, helping it document incident reports. The way the occupation moves into every aspect of people's lives, she found, was very dehumanising. "I would be working as a writer more than a lawyer, summarising these eye-witness reports for a journal," she says. "What I would do, and this was really very eye-opening for me, is put at the end what the Jerusalem Post said about a particular incident. So you might have seven people talking about someone being killed for example, all saying he was working away, but the Jerusalem Post would say he was attacking them, and it would just completely shift the account from how it had been explained to us by the witnesses."
She particularly noticed how, in her father's former hometown of Jaffa, the account of the expulsion of the people living there was very different from what really happened. "It kind of incenses you, because you feel history is being completely rewritten by the victors and you want to redress that," she says.
Previously, Dabbagh has authored a number of well-received short stories, for which she was nominated for the English PEN Prize and the Pushcart Prize. A finalist for the Fish Short Story Prize, her story Aubergine recounts the meeting between two former resistance fighters in Beirut. Her father has encouraged her with her writing. "This is partly kind of a Palestinian outlook," she says. "You can lose your country but you'll never lose your education."
At a café in Piccadilly Circus, London, Dabbagh spoke to Weekend Review about her new novel. Here, she talks about the need, even in fiction, not to play into media distortions about Palestine, how one reviewer took "offence" at a political comment made by a character in her novel, and what she would do if her publisher asked her to write about an Israeli family. Excerpts:
In your novel, the conflict in Gaza is described as a "cage-fight" by one of the characters. As a writer, did you struggle to imagine what life must be like for people out there?
Yes, I did. I mean, of all the locations in the book — London, the Gulf and Gaza — Gaza was the one I was least familiar with. For all three places, I haven't tried to describe them in a sort of realistic, photographic, way. I have tried to get more of a sense of the place, so you can't actually identify particular squares or cafés which exist in my writing because they are just not there.
So Gaza, specifically, is more really about a state of siege, a state of war, and a state of a place that lives within the consciousness of many people who are connected to the Palestinian cause or are Palestinian. It doesn't have to be both because there are a lot of very engaged people who are not ethnically Palestinian but think about Gaza a lot. It is the way that it is constructed, if you like, in the mind of the exile, as seen through media images and the internet.
I did go through a lot of blogs. I read a lot of papers, books. I have been to Gaza twice but not for a very long time. So I can't pretend that I have anywhere near the familiarity that a lot of Gazan writers have. But it was more the sense of place as it lives in people who are interested that I was trying to portray.
After Gaza, the book switches over to London. Was that easier for you?
I guess it was easier in a way because it is a more familiar territory. Also if you are depicting England, with the number of people who are familiar with England, the likelihood of political misrepresentation is lower. The stakes on you as a writer to get it right and not be misrepresented are not there when you are writing about England as when you are writing about Gaza. When you are writing about Palestine, you feel you have got a huge weight of media misrepresentation that you are trying to not play into but at the same time use familiarities within it — if you see what I mean — so people can connect to it because of something they might have read.
This made England easier. What ironically happened, I found, by writing about England in a much more comfortable way, is that the book offended a group of people whom I never really thought it would. These were the English people who feel that my depictions of the English are sometimes a little bit harsh and critical. And that wasn't something that was even on my radar when I was writing because I was more worried about possibly a pro-Israeli or a Palestinian criticism. But instead I had people saying "but look, these stereotypes, you are not being very sympathetic to the English here." I can see that might have happened but it really wasn't the intention, or perhaps I wasn't sensitive enough on that.
What kinds of stereotypes?
There are a couple of scenes where my characters are very politically motivated or aware — especially the girl Eman. She is in situations where she feels that the people around her should understand, but they don't. In a way, she is a bit envious of the fact that they can live without this politics, but it is not how she treats them. She is actually quite harsh — judgemental and critical — and she feels that they should be doing more. And it shows them as being, perhaps, rather weak. That is not necessarily what I meant, and part of my criticism is towards Eman, because it is unrealistic to expect people from another country to care about you. I mean, why they would even be politely concerned — which is enough in a way. You have this character Eman, who is not religious, is tempted to become a suicide bomber after witnessing the dead bodies of people she knew, who were killed in an Israeli attack on a hospital. She doesn't actually become one. What I wondered is why, despite the risk of collective punishment, she would want to do such a thing — especially to her family?
Probably, in her right mind, it wouldn't have been an option that she would have gone close to. At that the moment, she is extremely strung out. She is just in a state of emotional and psychological exhaustion that combines with her political fury. And there has been this overture, and she feels that this person is approaching her and yet at the same time, the people are trying to talk her out of it. They are her family, so she is suddenly fed up with her family. It is partly teenage rebellion. It is not something that is well-thought-out. It is a movement. Now, whether it is something she would actually have carried through is another issue.
She would have probably woken up from the idea. But she comes close to being pushed to that. And she is not a stereotypical profile of somebody who is involved in these things. But then again there have been cases of secular, irreligious characters, such as a nurse, becoming involved in suicide bombings. This is just not expected, so it is more of a political fury than any kind of religious statement. A state of desperation, I think, is what I should call it.
There is a certain element of patriarchy in the Gazan society that your novel depicts. For instance, there is a scene in a café where Eman, who works as a teacher, tells her brother Rashid and his friend Khalil that one of her students and her cousin had been killed. However, when she is talking to them, she doesn't mention that the student's cousin was in a kind of relationship with her. In contrast, in another scene, we find Rashid telling Khalil's mum very openly that he has a girlfriend in London. Is that something you have done deliberately?
Absolutely. I am glad that you have asked that. One thing I found quite interesting when I went to the West Bank was a lot of the girls that I would meet were amazingly brave, strong and resilient in terms of what they do, resistance, the Intifada. But when it came to anything to do with meeting the opposite sex, I found them quite "young" compared to a lot of girls I knew of a similar age.
I felt there was a bit of contradiction, somehow. And Eman struggles with it because she is not allowed anywhere near as much freedom as her brother. And she can't talk about these things; she is expected to confine them and be traditional, even though her family is really quite radical. Her mother definitely comes from a more liberal, leftist tradition.
In different places in the book, you have characters making various political statements. As a writer, how reflective are these of your own views?
They are definitely not reflective of my views. And that is why it is quite difficult — I have already been criticised for the views of one character. Somebody says that must be my point of view, and if it is my point of view, it is an offensive one.
Is it the review written in ‘The Independent'?
Actually, I was going to ask you about it. (The reviewer described as "offensive rubbish" the comments made by one of the characters in Dabbagh's novel, Professor Myres, regarding the tactics used by the Nazis and the Jewish founders of Israel)
He (Professor Myres) says that "some" of the same tactics were used in 1948 when it came to the expulsion of the Palestinian people. I didn't say "all" of the tactics. I definitely wasn't comparing the extents of the atrocities.
The character — not me — was not trying to trivialise the Holocaust. He was just saying that there were familiar patterns which were observed. Now actually there are, and I was criticised for this because my character says this and I, as a writer, didn't step in to say, "Oh no, this is unreasonable."
But it was one of my characters speaking. I have an array of characters, all with very different points of view. I don't think I should be seen as standing behind any of them.
For the record, there were Israeli cabinet ministers who stood up in 1948 and did say they were behaving like the Nazis. That was said by the minister of agriculture at the time. Comparisons were made. There is also a novella by an Israeli writer which again makes this comparison. I thought that was a little unfair.
If your publisher ever asked you to write a novel about an Israeli family, would you?
Definitely, if someone really expressed interest in me doing that. It is really important that fiction writers should be able to cross any kind of boundary, ethnicity or religion, and try to understand other people. That is one of the powers of fiction.
One of my short stories, called Down the Market, is written through the eyes of a 15-year-old Jewish boy from north London who goes to an Israeli settlement. A lot of people said I, as a Palestinian woman, just can't do that. You can't go into that territory. But I feel very strongly that anybody should be able to write from any perspective as long as you have a ethical responsibility of your subject matter and don't try to misrepresent or distort. There should be no boundaries.
Syed Hamad Ali is an independent writer based in London.
Selma Dabbagh will be appearing at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, to be held from March 6 to March 10 at the InterContinental Hotel, Dubai Festival City and the Cultural and Scientific Centre, Al Mamzar.