Selma Dabbagh, Out of It: A Novel. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.
Selected as a Guardian Book of the Year, 2011-2012.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Selma Dabbagh (SD): All writers are driven by a sense of compulsion. This compulsion has component elements of arrogance and vanity, as well as an artistic desire to put the messy rush of everyday life into a dignified, meaningful form. Out of It was my first novel, although I had published short stories previously, and the seeds of it came to me as an image and an idea. The image was of a young man leaping up on a roof, under fighter jets, his mood being a combination of recklessness and defiance. In the beginning I did not know that much about him, although I knew he was a bit stoned. Initially, I wasn’t even that sure where he was. It could have been Iraq, Lebanon, or Palestine. The idea behind the novel was that the Palestinians are becoming geographically, religiously, physically, legally, and linguistically divided as a people. I wanted to probe for an issue that connects them all, which I thought could be the “cause” itself and Palestinians’ personal emotional response to it. The Mujahed family members reflect different responses to the situation.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the novel address?
SD: I wanted to write a contemporary novel about the Palestinian struggle that considered what it meant for individuals to have to, even at a quotidian level, constantly weigh up the competing demands of the cause and their society, on the one hand, and their own personal wishes or desires on the other.
When I first started writing the novel, I wanted it to have a strong educative purpose for the Western reader, covering all the major events in Palestinian history: 1936, 1948, 1967, the first and second intifadas, Sabra and Shatila, the expulsion of Palestinians from Kuwait, etc. But as the characters became more alive to me, I felt that I could not justify including non-fiction material unless it developed the characters or the plot. Much of the earlier, more historical sections got cut out by the time I reached the last draft.
In terms of the style of the novel and the type of literary heritage that it follows, I only read in English and so the types of contemporary novelists whose work I admire are writers like Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, Zadie Smith, Michael Hollinghurst, Hilary Mantel, and Dave Eggers. Although I admire them, it does not mean that I write like them, but their work, as well as more classical literature, does influence mine and they do set a bar for what I would like to achieve.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from subjects addressed by your previous works?
SD: I trained as a lawyer and worked in the human rights field in the West Bank, Cairo, and London for many years. In my twenties, I was surrounded by people engaged in political causes, particularly connected to Palestine. I then spent my thirties living in Bahrain, where my former husband was posted with an international law firm. It was a massive transition, not just from one geographical terrain to another, but also from having an activist type of existence to that of being a corporate wife in the Gulf. When I first started writing short stories, I found that these characters kept coming through: revolutionaries who either felt that they had failed the revolution or that the revolution had failed them. These characters continue to appear in Out of It, as does Palestine, which has dominated my work to date.
J: Who do you hope will read this novel, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
SD: I wrote Out of It over a period of many years, and often, as you get more embedded in the world of your book, you are writing for no one other than yourself. The novel has first and foremost to be true and compelling to its writer. As I mentioned above, I found that my initial laudable intentions of presenting the Palestinian cause to an uninitiated English-speaking readership were not wholly sustainable within the medium of a novel. It felt gratuitous to include non-fiction material, as it broke the dream-like spell of the novel to keep giving direct explanations of Palestinian history. The novel does, however, try to go some way towards explaining just how devastating an impact the ethno-religious segregation of the formation of the State of Israel has had on the Palestinians. However, I also felt that it was not altogether responsible to completely whitewash failings on the Palestinian side—which is where my book became more controversial and uncomfortable to some readers.
[Panel on "Literature as Resistance" at the Lahore Literary Festival, with Ali Dayan Hassan, Basharat Peer,
Selma Dabbagh, Mohammed Hanif, and Lyse Doucet. Photo by Sam Ruddock.]
J: What other projects are you working on now?
SD: I’ve just finished working on the script of a feature film by Azza el Hassan, and I have recently been commissioned to write a radio play for BBC Radio 4 that will be set in the West Bank. I am also working on my second novel, which is set in a compound in the Gulf, another siege setting that is concerned with personal complicity in societal ills. Apart from my work as a writer, I also work as a lawyer in the field of human rights and have two young children, who could also be described as projects under development.
J: How does your book reflect upon the social, political, and personal liminality of Palestinians?
SD: I believe that it is for the reader to complete the text, rather than for the writer to explain the message. That said, I didn’t want to write a book that was just an elegy to the past, to a paradise lost. I also didn’t just want to write a novel that documented abuses by the Israelis, like a human rights report with a loose story line. The novel is unique, in my view, as a medium of communicating internal realities and I hoped that in ‘Out of It’, I was able to reflect upon not just the external divisions forced upon Palestinians, but also how Palestinians are engendering their own internal divisions. It is also a reflection on the state of the Palestinian secular left and the difficulties that they face in perceived cooption by the Palestinian Authority and the conservative religiosity of parties in opposition to the Authority, which they find to be alienating. The personal quests of my characters, which is heroic in many cases, is to find a point of meaningful engagement in a hostile political terrain.
Excerpts from Out of It
Gaza. Early Morning. Iman Mujahed (daughter, late 20s).
She looked up at the buildings. The shutters were blank. There was no one on the street. Iman got up, dropped her cigarette and paced across the road pretending that she had purpose, somewhere to go, that she hadn’t been sitting, smoking on a playground wall in the aftermath of a bombing. There was mud on the road, the paving slabs broken. She took a small leap over some cracks around a tree’s roots then, sensing again with the sickening pump of a lost heartbeat that someone was watching her, looked up.
It was her brother Rashid…but it wasn’t. The same profile, height, slimness, but not the same stance or clothes, nor the same look.
The man was wearing a rough green jacket with large pockets and toggles like those on a child’s jacket, and was propped up, shoulder blades resting against the wall, as if this was New York or Paris and he had just come out for a smoke in a back street. He looked stuck on to the scene; everything close to the ground was sunken and sepia, but to Iman the jacket’s green was somehow out there with the sky in this other world where trees were allowed to respond to light, a world where Mediterranean sunrises were allowed to just be.
He rocked on to his feet as she approached and gave her a familiar look, although she was sure she had never seen him before. Long and gaunt like Rashid, he had the high-cheekboned looks of a North African and the posture of a foreigner. He also had a gun.
By taking a step backwards he indicated that she could pass in front of him on the dry pavement. As he did so, his gun hit against a shutter sending a metallic judder down the street. She stepped so close to him that she would have been able to smell him, had she inhaled any breath at all, and then she was past him and he had not moved. He made no effort to follow her but he was still watching when she turned back to check.
Gulf. Airport. Jibril Mujahed (father, 50s).
The boy, Salem Abu Wazir (Abu Wazir, eh?), turned back to his staff. A queue was forming of servicemen, businessmen and backpackers. All pushed up behind Jibril to see into the counter. Jibril thought of trying to recreate their village using the salt and pepper pots to show this boy where the Abu Wazir house had been compared to the Mujahed’s, but it would be difficult as the village had been built on the slopes of two hills and the houses had been like cubes stacked up the sides. Jibril could quite clearly see and feel himself as a child in Palestine. When he was there he wore shorts and a dangly belt, always (the outfit had been frozen in a photograph). Behind him, the village was a series of blocks and arches, rough stone straddling from one building to another in semicircles, arched windows, domes smoothed over with sand and outdoor staircases. There were days when the smell of his village would come and sit on his nose like a flirtatious djinn. He would wake from a dream and feel himself boyish, a spirit running through alleyways, over roofs, in the olive groves, leaping in the sun, a sun that was always bright but never harsh. And then at other times (it was there in him), when he had maybe drunk a bit too much, or been talking to someone who knew his village or a similar village, he would suddenly feel like saying, “Yes, that place! How about it? How about we go back and see how that place is doing?” as though he had just gone around a corner and if he were to turn back quickly enough it would be there. But it would take less time than the words took to get to his mouth for him to realize that it was absurd. He could never go back to that place, it had been sealed off to him forever, blown to the sky with explosives then flattened to the ground with bulldozers, built over with tarmac, lived on top of by other people.
People of a faith he didn’t have.
He tried to go back to his newspaper, but Abu Wazir, eh? He wished it would stop affecting him. He wished he didn’t care. He wished that he were free of it all. It was now almost eight years since he left the Organization and all political involvement with it, but it still got to him. When Jibril announced that he was leaving, their Leader had looked him hard in the eye. “You can leave the Organization, Jibril,” he had said. “Of course, Jibril, we do not want you to leave, for you to leave is your choice. But, Jibril, you must understand that you can leave the Organization but the Organization will never leave you.” Jibril did not know what that meant, but to be safe he had decided to treat it as a threat. It was true though, people still acted as though he was part of it.
“This is Jibril Mujahed of the Palestine Liberation Organization,” his Western friends would say, as though they had a piranha in their fish tank, and he had no idea how they knew. The Arabs would just mouth “the Organization” at each other, “Jibril was with the Organization,” they would say with a nod and that was enough. Enough for some of them, particularly those who had been in Kuwait, to never stop banging on about the fraction of their salary that had been deducted every month to support the cause. “So, your children went to school in Switzerland, did they? And us? Kicked us out of our homes in Kuwait because of your leadership and then what? Left to rot; the education of our children disrupted. And you? Went to live in Paris, did you? So where’s our five percent? Lost it in the casinos of Monaco, did you? While our families rot in the refugee camps? Bravo my friend, bravo!” He never encouraged any of this talk about the Organization. No, he never encouraged such discussions. There was nothing he could do, anyway. It was all in the past.
Not for the first time Jibril offered up a prayer of gratitude to this Gulf state that had taken him in despite his background and his papers, or lack thereof, and had allowed him to work. He thanked the glittering forest of duty-free shops around him, complete with their electronic moose heads singing Christmas carols, the three-floor high columns of mirrors, the polished four wheel drives displayed high on velvet platforms. He even thanked the posterior of the cleaner squeezing out her mop. I’m so glad to be here. I’m so glad to be out of it. He had done his bit. No one could hold him to account for the Organization’s mistakes. No one. He had wiped his hands of it long ago.
London was quiet to Iman. The traffic, planes and people worked along allocated channels. They moved along the grooves cut out for them. It was not a world shaken down and cut through night after night. The noise was conformist and the talk and expressions appeared to operate on one level only. People behaved in ways that seemed unconnected to others. Their actions had repercussions only for themselves. There was an enviable ability to relinquish involvement in the bigger picture, to believe that it was all under control, that somebody with your interests in mind was looking out for you.
But close up the whole place was talking. London was babbling.
The air was crossed through with questions and fragments of sentences, the tails of the kites of conversations that flew elsewhere:
...so I said to Nisha…
...could always do Ibiza if we can’t do Goa…
...machine-washed my dinner jacket three times already…
...knocked through into the dining hall…
...like a crêpe rim around the bottom…
...he just won’t talk to the children…
...she’s a dancer, doesn’t have any fat on her…
...I told him about the Viagra…
...her mother sang at the Sydney Opera…
...it’s a mini form of typhoid…
To get more of their lives, Iman followed strangers, fascinated by the directions that the mind’s interests took when no longer consumed by fear. But then her world caught up with her and she could not do it any more.
The news became so terrible: an onslaught on a West Bank town, rumors of a massacre, of mass graves, and yet the chatter did not ease up for a second, there was no pause. The humanitarian Organizations were being refused entry. The dead were rotting in the streets.
...it was bliss, it really was. Sailing on Thursday?...
...no one’s going to go near you when you’re breastfeeding…
...she does it to wind me up, every morning…
Food could not get into the town and the water was dirty; medical professionals spoke of the spread of cholera and typhoid.
...if I were single and could still get it up…
...he has the same land but better money…
The UN monitors still were not allowed to enter. The numbers of dead flew between the tens to the thousands. Day after day the town was pounded by missiles, hit by tank shells, mowed down by bulldozers.
...are you taking your camera on holiday?...
...you are always in my heart…
...the most amazing curtains…
The chatterers that filled the streets became complicit with each missile that blasted the town, each sheet-wrapped body thrown into a mass grave, each child screaming outside a demolished home. As soon as Iman had the satellite wired up to bring sympathetic commentators to her, she no longer felt any desire to be out there, in streets delirious with inanities.
[Excerpted from Out of It, by Selma Dabbagh (published by Bloomsbury), by permission of the author. © 2012 Selma Dabbagh. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here. The author’s website can be found here.]