CROSSING CHASMS OF MISCONCEPTION: Contemporary short stories from Gaza and Sydney

Image Description: Two books.The Book Of Gaza - Front cover is a drawing of Israeli Separation Wall in the foreground and the city of Gaza beyond the wall. Stories of Sydney - Front cover is Sydney harbour and streets in turquoise on black background.
The Book of Gaza
Edited by Atef Abu Saif
Published by Comma Press 2014
128 pages
ISBN 978-1-905583-64-5
£8.75 plus postage from Comma Press

Stories of Sydney
Edited by Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Alice Grundy and David Henley
Published by Seizure and Sweatshop 2014
249 pages
ISBN 978-1-921134-26-5
$19.95 AU Seizure

“Gaza has always had a central place in the literary life of Palestine,” says editor and writer, Atef Abu Saif in his introduction to The Book of Gaza. Important Palestinian literary figures from Gaza extend back to the eighth-century poet, philologist and one of the founders of Islamic jurisprudence, Imam al-Shafii. They include poets like Mu’in Bseiso and Harun Hashim Rasheed both born in the late 1920s, and the novelist and poet, Abdul Karim Sabawi born in 1942. In 1948 the city of Gaza and the surrounding Gaza strip, which has a total area of 360 km², suddenly became home to a large number of Palestinian refugees forced from their houses, villages, towns and cities by an-Nakba. As well as being one of the oldest cities in the world Gaza became one of the most densely populated cities. With Israel’s occupation of the Gaza strip in 1967, most writers left and took refuge in countries like Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq. Abdul Karim Sabawi eventually migrated to Australia. Atef Abu Saif describes how:

Despite restrictions on freedom of expression, the art of the short story attained great popularity during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s . . . Through the brevity and symbolism of the short story, Gazan writers found a way to overcome printing and publishing restrictions imposed by Israeli occupation forces.

In the 1980s and 90s Gaza gained a reputation as “the exporter of oranges and short stories.”

The Book of Gaza brings together 10 short stories by ten of Palestine’s modern writers. Abdallah Tayeh, Zaki al ‘Ela and Ghareeb Asqalani represent the pioneers of the short story. They describe the long queues of exhausted Palestinian workers waiting to cross into Israel. They write of curfews, prisoners’ suffering, and heroes like Zaki al ‘Ela’s Abu Jaber, who actively resists Israeli oppression. They also write about the determination and solidarity that exists between Palestinian people. Asqalani’s story in this Anthology, “A White Flower for David”, is complex and dense. It is hard work figuring out the characters and their relationships to each other. The narrators change, perspectives shift. A fraught friendship develops between a Palestinian family, which includes three generations, and Esther who is married to David, a Jewish man. Sahimah, The Palestinian mother and grandmother, finds Esther’s name strange. Esther sits cross-legged on the bed. We see her through Mahmoud’s eyes as he addresses David, ” exposing half of her flesh, nearly making my brother, Abdallah pass out. My mother threw her coat over Esther’s nakedness . . . It was Arab shame and fear, something she hadn’t expected, but you were typically Hebrew in kidding me about it.” Esther leaves the family at the end of the day wearing a madjalawi robe, a gift from Sahimah, and a knitted shawl wrapped around her head.

Cultural differences are part of the tension that underscores the relationship between the two families but far more ominous is the fact that despite the human desire to be kind, understanding, to be friends, they are positioned socially, economically, and in the everyday reality of Gaza, as enemies. The story begins with Mahmoud standing “face to face with death” forced to choose between “two deaths: to kill or see your son killed.” He decides to hurl the rock he is clasping in his hand.

Israeli soldiers are ever-present. As Mahmoud walks late at night he sees soldiers ahead of him chasing some young men. “Kicks, blows and batons rained down; aching bones and suppressed moans. The soldiers hammered them, marked every inch of their bodies, ripped out their very identities . . .”  One handsome young man cracks a joke and bursts out laughing until the pain in his jaw becomes too much for him. Mahmoud touches the man’s moist face and curses as the life drains from him. Later, Abdallah is beaten by soldiers as his nephew looks on. He lies on the ground, “a bleeding, crumpled heap . . . his vision clouding over as the sand of the street soaked up his gushing blood. It pooled in a great red patch as the UN truck loomed into view. The soldiers dragged the wounded man into the armoured car and set off . . .”  The men sell their souls seeking a day’s work, trying to scrape a living together, martyrs fall, nerves dangle on a thread. The force of anger churns in the breasts of the young men.

Mahmoud, his wife, Haifa, and son, Husam visit Esther and David’s house. Once inside, Mahmoud watches his son looking out the balcony window. His heart pounds as Husam observes a group of soldiers at a bus stop, saying “If only I had a catapult with me . . .”

The writing is tight and nuanced. The atmosphere is claustrophobic. Somehow a very delicate shard of humanity survives amongst the rubble.

The younger generation of writers in the anthology are more introspective. They write about feelings and desire. They engage with and critique their society. Their stories are less hopeful, sometimes despondent. The space surrounding the characters seems even more restricted. Atef Abu Saif’s story, “A Journey in the Opposite Direction” is about two young men and two young women who were friends in their younger days but haven’t seen each other for ten or more years. They meet by chance in the border city of Rafah. The description is rich. Thin shafts of evening sunlight play across the road. Bananas and dates hang “like lost opportunities” in front of the fruit shop at the corner of the square. Travellers are returning from work or from visiting friends and family in Gaza city. Honda and Mercedes taxis line up. People sit on plastic chairs sipping hot anise tea at a small wooden hut that serves as a café. There is just enough room for the owner to squeeze inside to make the hot drinks on a gas stove beside the fridge, or prepare the nargilah pipe. The journey to Rafah from Gaza city is about 40 kilometres. It is the longest stretch of coast and the lengthiest trip any resident of Gaza can make. Ramzi is in Rafah to meet his brother who has been living overseas for twenty years. But it takes a miracle to get in or out of Gaza.

The four young characters chase after the moon, driving from Rafah back towards Gaza in Ramzi’s small blue car. As they approach the bridge over Wadi Gaza the road gets busier until the traffic grinds to a halt. “The water from the valley had spilled over onto the road and the bridge was impassable.” The four of them stand by the car looking at the scene in disbelief like “scarecrows or ships’ masts” sunk in the harbour.

Gaza is not known for its women writers. Palestine does however have a history of women writers and poets. Although she has been largely left out of literary studies, Samira Azzam, born in Akka in 1926 is considered a pioneer in the development of the Arab and Palestinian short story. In 1948 she fled with her family to Lebanon. By the time of her death in 1967 she had published four collections of short stories including Tiny Matters (1954) and The Great Shadow (1956). Sahar Khalifeh is Palestinian writer, born 1942 in Nablus, who has published many novels depicting the life of Palestinian women.[1]

Five of the ten writers in The Book of Gaza, are women – Mona Abu Sharekh, Najlaa Ataallah, Asmaa al Ghul and Nayrouz Qarmout. Their stories are bold, sensuous, and defiant. All explore gender restrictions in their society. Nayrouz Qarmout’s “The Sea Cloak” is about a family’s trip to the beach. Gaza’s coastline is not clean. Everything is scattered about in disarray. The sand is littered with rubbish and tents dot the beach. “This is just the way Gaza is: a young girl yet to learn the art of elegance. A young girl who has not yet developed her own scent and is still, willingly or not, perfumed by all around her.” The protagonist remembers the point where her family no longer considered her a girl. Her father slapped her across the cheek. Her mother dragged her from the room, yelling, “That’s the last time you’re going out on the streets . . . You’re grown-up now, not a little girl. Go and look at yourself in the mirror. Take your sister’s scarf and wrap your hair in it.”

On the beach she is wearing a long black robe and a headscarf. She walks past a group of young men playing cards, children dying their lips with Slush Puppies, a donkey splashing about in the sea, and a stall selling lupin beans. The scent of cardamom-infused coffee wafts from hot coals, an old man recounts tales of Palestine’s history. She walks, surrounded by her memories, into the ocean. She swims further out, feeling “an excited tingle that was almost too much to bear. Arousal grew inside her . . .”

The Book of Gaza is successful in doing what it sets out to do. That is to present us with “glimpses of life in the Strip that go beyond the global media headlines.” There are stories of anxiety, oppression, violence and self-reflection, of resilience, despair and hope. By translating these stories into English and creating this anthology, Comma Press offers English-speaking readers the opportunity to read Palestinian literature and understand the everyday experiences of the people of Gaza as they struggle to live with dignity in what many have called the largest prison in the world.

Stories of Sydney is an anthology featuring five writers from Inner Sydney and ten writers from Western Sydney. In the Editor Notes at the back of the book, Michael Mohammed Ahmad explains the editors agreed that since Western Sydney’s population outweighs Inner Sydney’s population, the ratio should be reflected in the publication. Ahmad despairs that Western Sydney is misrepresented. “When you watch a movie or read a book on Western Sydney, it’s usually about ethnic crime – our guns, gangs, drugs and sexual assaults.” The anthology claims to celebrate the diversity that exists in Sydney. If diversity means an assortment or a miscellany of stories then there is definitely a mix of identifiable cultural experiences, storytelling traditions, and other language influences on the English language and writing styles within this anthology. Some stories are stronger than others. While the content of the stories vary, it is by and large situated within the context of the humdrum of everyday life.

The protagonist in Peter Polites’ story “More Handsome than a Monkey” furtively tracks his lover, “a wheat-fed kid” with “overdose green eyes and speckled guns.” He follows him on a train trip, catching the:

6.30 am, XPT Central – Orange…The shiny city turned into the inner west. The inner west became suburbia with a middle class name. Suburbia became the outer west. The outer west. The outer west became large streets, backyards with children’s toys and BBQ patios. It slowly became rural.

Polites’ writing style is almost Neo-noir with terse dialogue and a snappy first-person narrative. The observations are realist and generally gritty. A sexual relationship drives the plot. The milieu is low-level drug dealing involving “getters” and “freshies”. The main character works in a sports club where the carpet is “a multi-colour galaxy. Yellow stars, red crescents and green comets on a cyan background.” He is flawed but not deeply. He’s looking for love. His behaviour is borderline self-destructive. When things go wrong for him he finds a “fat Leb” in a matching tracksuit. Does a blowie in the toilets and is given some crystals. He moves back into the family home. It seems he always has a room there.

“The 25th Paragon of Filial Piety” by Amanda Yeo is a collection of finely wrought, slightly tongue-in-cheek snippets of the family, work and social life of a young woman. The Yuan Dynasty scholar, Guo Jujing wrote exemplars of filial piety towards parents, nearly all about the piety of sons. These were assembled into a book called The Twenty-four Paragons of Filial Devotion. Amanda Yeo tells her stories of a daughter’s exemplary conduct, helping her mother prepare kai lan, pouring hot water into an aunty’s mug while the women interrogate her sister about her ang moh boyfriend. In the story “The Curtain Between” Maryam Azam explores the tender beginnings of a relationship between two Muslim students. Tamar Chnorhokian writes about an Armenian-Australian woman who reminisces about her late aunt in “Let Me Look at Your Face”. In “Five Arrivals” Luke Carman’s character is torn away from a conversation with an artist at a party in Concord by a phone call from his cousin growling, “Where the seven fucks have you been dick-nigger?” He gets into his Camry, with its bald tyres and speeds down the highway towards Western Sydney. The road outside his cousin’s house is “streaked with tyre marks from doughies and burnouts leading to stretches of muddied lawn.” PM Newton’s story “Aqua” is superb in its rendering of emotion. The geographical setting encompasses Sydney from Chatswood to Marrickville but focuses on the North Sydney Olympic Swimming Pool with Sydney Harbour Bridge to one side and the leering grin of the Luna park entrance on the other side. It is a story told through the eyes of a daughter, now a mother, of her family’s painful experiences of the war in Vietnam, and the pool’s significance in her life.

In the Editor notes, Alice Grundy and David Henley write:

. . . there remains a divide between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ Sydney, between the new-formed establishment and writers who live in Western Sydney, or who speak English as a second language, or whose families are migrants, or from an Indigenous background; or a combination of the above.

So what of the pressing question of diversity? It seems that here, diversity is about cultural minorities or “lives you don’t often get to see, from authors as varied as the city itself” becoming more visible, being heard, accessing the centre. In an article she wrote for The Guardian about racism in Australian theatre, Nakkiah Lui interrogates the use of the word ‘diversity’, claiming that “diversity doesn’t challenge whiteness, it bolsters it, because we are never questioning what is at the centre.” Rather than asking, why is there not enough diversity in the arts, she argues people in positions of power should be asking questions like “Why am I in the position I am in? Why do I think I deserve to be here?” She says:

We need to remember that diversity is the means to an end. Diversity isn’t complexity, and ultimately, what we want is not a diverse country but a complex one.  By accepting diversity as an end we are just fooling ourselves into thinking that the playing field is equal.[2]

Rather than critique Stories of Sydney for not including for example, more First Nation writers or writers from African communities or of African heritage, I would ask that publishers and editors look at the processes. When applying for funding for a writing/publishing project, they should think about working to  include leaders and decision makers from diverse communities. It is not a matter of ticking boxes, or token last minute inclusions to make a collection of stories diverse. It is an organic and lengthy process of searching for and inviting existing writing groups from different communities to participate, of acting in solidarity to assist the development of new groups, new writers. It is a process of opening up to varied story telling and literary traditions, different uses of language, of seemingly unusual or irregular and sometimes uncomfortable realities. It is also a process of invigorating Australian short fiction through the reinvention of writing aesthetics and reading values. The publishers of Stories of Sydney Seizure and Sweatshop Western Sydney Literacy Movement, are at least on the right path. The launch of the First Nations Australia Writers’ Network in February, and the Accessible Arts NSW Scribbler Literature Forum held in June this year are also positive moves to achieving this kind of complexity.

The Book of Gaza and Stories of Sydney present us with tales from two very different cities. While generally recognising established short story traditions, both books offer writing that contests dictates of form and style. The stories, especially those from Gaza and Western Sydney, give voice to perspectives that challenge mainstream victim, terrorist, criminal, and superhero stereotypes. Instead of flattening people into one-dimensional images these stories offer the reader a chance to feel and experience the day-to-day life of individuals, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, children, lovers, workers, living in Gaza and in Sydney. Much of the writing in these two anthologies is an act of resistance. The writers in Gaza have responded to the latest Israeli onslaught by continuing to write. [3] According to an email from Ra Page, director of Comma Press, “all of the Book of Gaza contributors are writing away like crazy, whilst they have power.” [4]

The writers in both anthologies provide bridges for readers to cross over chasms of misconception, and meet the inhabitants of different communities, neighbourhoods, suburbs, cities and surrounds. This is one way of looking at people we don’t know, to look and actually see, at least partially, the depth and complexity of their humanity.

In reading these stories we also begin to understand our own identities, our privileges and our oppression. We begin to understand our responsibilities as human beings. With Israel’s relentless aerial bombardments, shelling and ground attacks in Gaza over the past two weeks, I believe this understanding is urgent.

1. Sahar Khalifeh’s books include We Are Not Your Slave Girls (1974), Thorns(1975) translated into English by Al-Saqi Books in 1985, Sunflower(1980), Memoirs of an Unrealistic Woman (1986), The Door of the Courtyard (1990) and The Inheritance (1997).

2. Nakkiah Lui, “Is Australian Theatre Racist? The Guardian 12 June, 2014

3. Follow Najlaa Ataallah’s blog

4. Sarah Irving, “Gaza’s writers keep writing under the bombs”, Electronic Intifada, 20 July, 2014 (Eighty percent of households in Gaza currently have only up to four hours power per day)

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