2016 IPAF winner Rabai Al Madhoun Image Credit: Supplied

Abu Dhabi: He writes from a perspective that is salient and demanding of scrutiny — of the lives and struggles of Palestinians living in Israel. It’s a perspective that is less known and talked about. Separated from their families on the other side of the border, Palestinians living in Israel often have their loyalties and identities questioned. Rabai Al Madhoun’s incisive insight into this issue in his novel ‘Destinies: Concerto of the Holocaust and the Nakba’ won him the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in Abu Dhabi last week.

It is the first time this prestigious award has been conferred on a Palestinian and a day after the event, an ecstatic Al Madhoun told Gulf News what this award is not just for himself but for the Palestinian identity.

“Winning this award shows that Palestinians are not just fighters, not only resistance, not just people under occupation but they are human beings and they have a deep culture, are civilised and have all sorts of arts,” said Al Madhoun.

“It means a lot for the Palestinians in Israel, whom the book is mainly about.”

Upon the announcement of the award, Al Madhoun said his email, Facebook and twitter accounts were flooded with joyful messages from Palestinians who were celebrating his win and he cannot wait to go back to Haifa where his publishers are based, to celebrate with them. Such is the joy at his triumph that the programme for the Palestinian Book Fair, which starts on May 7, has been amended to include a more participation from him.

Al Madhoun explains the importance of this award for the Palestinian identity.

“They are under pressure all the time ... there are those who live under occupation, or those who live under siege or blockade.” Having seen and experienced the suffering first-hand, Al Madhoun is impassioned about the subject.

“If you are a Palestinian, you feel you have not achieved any target (goals), nothing since 1948. They have tried fighting, they have sacrificed thousands and thousands of young men and women and children over years of revolution led by Arafat and they got nothing and we got nothing.

“We have this authority that controls the small cities, actually it’s still under occupation, the Israelis can come and go any time they want. The army can enter Ramallah and do what they want and no one can say anything.”

The award, he said, gave Palestinians a cause for celebration. It was the reason why in his acceptance speech he said, “Go Palestinians, it’s your time to celebrate.”

The 71-year-old Palestinian writer, who was born in Ashqelon in present-day Israel before his family was forced to move to Gaza, said his inspiration for the book came because of a family member he knew as a child.

“He was called Esmail Madhoun. They (Esmail’s family and the whole city) immigrated under the pressure of bombings … the whole city moved to Gaza. Thousands were killed. The population of the city was 10,000 or 11,000, and a 1,000 of them were killed. The rest moved to Gaza and became refugees.”

Esmail, who had a wife and a two-month-old daughter, did not want to be a refugee so he went back to his hometown of Ashqelon, said Al Madhoun. After his return, the border closed and Israel was formed. His wife and daughter were in Gaza and the family separated by the border. Neither of them were able to cross to the other side. Eventually, both remarried and started new families.”

Al Madhoun’s novel takes this as the starting point. “I started from this simple point and decided to follow the family (Esmail’s family). I visited Israel and followed some of the story to create a character who is different from Esmail.”

At another level in the narrative, Al Madhoun decided to pursue the story of Esmail’s daughter (from his second marriage), an Arab Israeli, who falls in love with a Palestinian-American and marries him and upon returning to Israel find that the husband is not entitled to anything in Israel.

“So my question was, can this marriage last in Israel? Because he has no rights. He has to renew his residency every three months and it is not easy every time to renew it. He is not allowed to work, he has no health insurance, he cannot even drive.”

Al Madhoun took these real-life scenarios, stories that are not uncommon, and created the basic situations and characters for his novel. For the rest, his novelist’s flair built on the themes for the human drama that unfolds.

Esmail’s and his daughter’s stories form two of the four parts of the book. Al Madhoun said he was inspired to divide the book into four parts and call it a Concerto based on his background in music (he plays the guitar and mandolin).

“I felt the characters were moving towards each other like in a dialogue between two instruments. We have four movements and each character played a role of an instrument … in the end, I will take all the movements and the whole orchestra will play together.”

Praising Hanan Al Hroub, the Palestinian teacher who won the $1-million Global Teacher Prize 2016, and other Palestinians who are being recognised for their incredible contributions in various sectors, he said it was a wonderful way of putting the spotlight on Palestinians.

“We cannot convince the world that they (Palestinians) have a state. The Israelis didn’t leave for them a land to build. Our work is to build a state of art. They couldn’t build a state but the writers, teachers, poets, artists, they can create an intellectual state of culture. There is no land but these are Palestinians. Good novelists, very good in teaching, very good poets and musicians, very good in engineering.”

Al Madhoun said he will use the $50,000 prize money to fund his next book. He hopes his work will “build a bridge between Haifa and the surrounding area”. He is looking forward to the book being translated into other languages so he can reach a wider audience.


About the author

Rabai Al Madhoun is a Palestinian writer, born in Al Majdal, Ashqelon, (now in Israel) in 1945. During the 1948 Nakba exodus, his family migrated to Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip. He studied at Cairo and Alexandria universities. He has worked at the Palestinian Centre for Research Studies and as a journalist and editor with many newspapers and magazines. He is currently with Al Sharq Al Awsat newspaper in London. Destinies: Concerto of the Holocaust and the Nakba is his third novel.