Palestinian author Ahmed Masoud was in the gym at work one day last year when all of a sudden he had a breakdown. “I was crying like a baby in the middle of the sports centre,” he says. “Everybody just looked at me, thinking ‘what’s wrong with him!’ People only stopped and stared, or just walked past.”
What caused Masoud, who lives in London, to be in this strange situation were events taking place faraway, in Gaza. For someone whose family was living there, the 2014 Israeli invasion was a painful experience.
There would be reports of mounting casualties every day. Masoud remembers the horror of having to read the names of the dead. The first thing Masoud did every morning was to call his family in Gaza. After making sure they were safe he would go to work. When he returned home, he had to play the role of a father to two small children who did not understand what was going on. “All that pain and agony was completely suppressed inside,” he says.
When I meet Masoud in a café in central London, it has been a year since Israel began its summer assault of Gaza. The attack lasted 51 days and left more than 2,100 Palestinians dead — mostly civilians — with many more injured and homeless.
“I feel as if 51 days of my life have been plucked out completely,” he says. “I don’t have memories of things, of what I did and how I felt. It was torture.”
I am here to interview Masoud about his book “Vanished: The Mysterious Disappearance of Mustafa Ouda”. It is a fictional story about Omar, a young boy who lives in Gaza and goes out in search of his missing father.
The book begins at the time of the Israeli invasion of Gaza in July 2014. Masoud wrote the story before the attack but felt he had to include it. “I was editing the story. It actually changed the direction of the book because it was horrific,” he says.
At the time of the invasion, Omar is a grown-up living in London. He is married and has a child. After his house in Gaza is bombed he decides to return and get something from back home. However, on the way to the airport he remembers how he had spent his life looking for his father. He worries what his son will think if something happened to him. So he decides to write a diary.
A lot of the descriptions in the book draw upon Masoud’s own experiences growing up in Gaza under Israeli occupation. “Some friends in London, who actually lived in the same kind of district, or the same Jabalia camp that I talked a lot about in [the book], said, ‘Wow! This is like looking at a picture of it.”
Masoud also grew up in the Jabalia refugee camp and attended a UN school packed with children. “Fifty children in one class with very limited resources,” he says. Growing up in the camp wasn’t easy. “I hated it for a large part of my life because it was crowded, dirty, not built well. Refugee camps are meant to be temporary but they have been there for nearly 70 years now,” he says.
Masoud’s family originally come from a village about 13 kilometres from Gaza, on the way to occupied Jerusalem. “The village is now in what is called Israel. And during the 1948 Nakba my grandfather was kicked out from his home and deported. He got to Gaza and then to Jabalia as a refugee.”
Masoud left Gaza and came to the United Kingdom in 2002 to complete his postgraduate studies. “Looking at things in London, at what children can do and what life they can have is kind of interesting,” he says. “In some way [it is] really frustrating to see all of the things that I have missed in my life.”
In London, Masoudwent on to do a PhD, which he partly funded through dabke — the traditional Palestinian dance — performance. “Dabke is in my blood. Most Palestinians can do it,” he says. “You just play the music and they can do it.”
Dabke is associated with the Palestinian cultural identity. “An emphasis of who we are and our existence,” he says. “So it is very important to us. You often see national songs being played at weddings. Dabke is a way of emphasising our existence in a sense. When I came here I wanted to recreate all of that. I wanted to offer it to people here who don’t have much of an idea about Palestine and Gaza. They often see them as associated with violence. They see them associated with bombings.”
His dabke performances were so popular that people scrambled for bookings. The level of interest led Masoud to start Al Zaytouna in 2005. “I quickly realised that I don’t want this to become a company that is only focused on small events and traditional stuff. I had more ambition with the dances, so I transformed it into a dance theatre. By this I mean telling stories, telling theatre through dance,” he says.
Today Al Zaytouna is the biggest Palestinian theatre group in Europe. A recent production they staged was “Unto the Breach”, a direct adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Henry V”. Masoud’s version is set in Palestine and performed through dabke and dance. “Completely crazy,” he says. “When I tell people about it, they say they have never heard of anything like this before.”
However Masoud also faced some criticism for adapting the Bard’s work to Palestine. “If you read the story about how Britain invaded France, and the Battle of Agincourt, some would say, ‘Are you trying to say Palestine invaded Israel?’”
But he insists that wasn’t the point he was making. “I don’t write about politics. What I write about is the relationships between people. So in that production I was looking at the happy few against the mighty strong army. That is what the British were at the time — 300 soldiers against 3,000 French soldiers,” he says. The production was a success and toured the UK, Germany, Switzerland and Slovenia.
Masoud first read Shakespeare growing up in Gaza. “I think for me Arabic literature was very good. We studied that at school but I was eager to learn something new.”
Reading works such as “Romeo and Juliet” and “Antony and Cleopatra” opened Masoud’s eyes to a different way of thinking about another culture. It also helped him get through a very difficult situation in Gaza. “The idea that there is an outside world different and happier than the world that you are in is always nice and comforting. It is almost like a prisoner thinking about the freedom outside. Looking outside the window and seeing this open space — that is what books were for me. Especially Shakespeare and novels.”
Masoud doesn’t just write about Palestine. Last year he wrote a play called “Walaa”, or Loyalty, about Syria, which was funded by the Arts Council. In order to write it, he travelled to Jordan and spent a week in the Zaatari refugee camp.
The play was about a son and a father on different sides of the conflict in Syria. “It is a son who joins the FSA as they call it, and the father is on the regime side — the conflict of two generations in a sense.”
Another play written and directed by Masoud, “The Shroud Maker”, about last year’s Israeli invasion of Gaza will be staged this month. It will be single-night charity event to raise money for a hospital in Gaza.
“A shroud is white cloth that Muslims cover the dead with. It is basically a dark comedy,” he says. The story revolves around a woman who sells shrouds. “For this woman, the war on Gaza is good business. The more people dead, the more [money] she can make from it.”
Masoud’s family in Gaza is pleased with the success he has achieved in London. He tells me his father is “over the moon” and his brothers and sisters are very happy with the publication of his book. Recently “Vanished” was shortlisted for the Palestine Book Awards 2015. “They have printed a picture of me holding the book,” he says. “They have framed it in the house.”
However, at the time of this interview with Masoud, his family had not yet read the book. “They can’t physically hold it,” he says. “They see pictures. For them, it is quite removed in a sense. My dad is dying to get a copy. I am working with a few people to try and send them a copy. But it is very hard.”
Are people not allowed to send a parcel to Gaza? “It is allowed but it doesn’t get there,” he says. “I don’t know what happens, but it doesn’t get delivered. There is no postal service in there per se because you rely on Israel for deliveries.”
Border closure can be an issue too. “If the border is open they will let it in. If it isn’t open they won’t let it in,” he says.
One of the challenges in writing the book was dealing with the changed landscapes from the Israeli invasions of Gaza over the years. On his last visit to Gaza in 2013 Masoud did some research. He wanted to make sure nothing had changed in the places he grew up in. “The problem was that a lot of things had changed because of the bombing. Streets were wiped out after 2008-09 in Operation Cast Lead,” he says.
After last year’s invasion of Gaza, he is prepared for the worst. “I am really scared of going back because everything would have changed yet again. And I have to readjust to the new landscape. The worst part now is that the rubble is still there. Nothing has been removed. Nothing has been cleared out. So you will see it first hand in a way,” he says.
Talking to Masoud it is clear he has still not recovered from last year’s Israeli assault. “My family survived physically. Emotionally I don’t think they have. And I think neither have I. I have been scarred by it and I think they have been too.”
Syed Hamad Ali is a writer based in London.