Alison Glick, The Other End of the Sea (Interlink Publishing, 2021).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Alison Glick (AG): For a long time, I resisted writing about anything connected to the Middle East after I returned to the United States from living six years in the region. I tried and failed to write about different things in my life—my family, other things happening in the world. No matter what I wrote about, somehow my work led me back to the Middle East and my experience there.
In an essay workshop I took several years ago, the teacher’s feedback on my piece was, “I’m not sure what this is but it’s not an essay. It might be a book chapter. I think you need to write a book.” So, finally, I gave up resisting and wrote a memoir, because I always thought of myself as a non-fiction writer. When he saw the manuscript, my editor at Interlink encouraged me to turn it into a novel. He thought my literary writing style would lend itself to telling a story that was broader, more universal than that of a memoir, which is technically bound by what “really” happened.
At first the thought of fictionalizing the manuscript was terrifying because of how I had defined myself as a writer. Once I embraced the fear of the unknown and decided to trust the process (and my editor), the experience was liberating. I could create characters, tweak scenes in ways that added to the narrative, and craft a story that I hope appeals to readers beyond those interested in the Middle East. I drew on my experience in the region and on relationships I had with people, so it was also important to do what I could to respect the privacy of those individuals. Creating a work of fiction allowed me to do that, and to write a love story that reflects the experiences of others in very different situations.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
AG: I think the book addresses a variety of issues, which I hope is one of its strengths. It provides a glimpse into the lived experience of Palestinians, as viewed through the lens of the non-Palestinian protagonist, Rebecca—occupation, settler colonialism, exile, state violence. But it also surfaces issues that are universal: loss, alienation, the cruelty of borders and who controls them, (re)building community and kinship in a world that is antagonistic to both, and my favorite—radical love.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
AG: In many ways, almost everything I have written has led to this book. The reports and analysis I wrote while living in the Middle East helped develop my knowledge base and writing muscles. The few things I published after returning to the United States, including a brief excerpt of the manuscript-in-process, boosted my confidence after a long period of not writing. The big departure from previous work is this being my first published work of fiction.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
AG: One of my goals was to write a book that would be read by those who do not know much about the Middle East, or who are open to exploring different ideas about the region. I think a novel is more likely to be picked up by such readers. As an activist, I am focused on reaching people whose positions on Palestine and other pertinent issues can and should change for the better. I hope that some who read the book will start rethinking what they believe and begin moving in the right direction (or should I say left direction).
For example, the setting for a significant part of the book is Gaza, a place of incredible beauty and immense physical devastation. Gaza has played a pivotal role in the history not only of Palestine but the broader Middle East. Gaza is the subject of dozens of poems—love poems, really—written by poets across the Arab world. Yet, Israeli policy has deemed it a “lawn to be mowed” every few years with gravity bombs and white phosphorous. How many people hear the word “Gaza” and think of lush gardens filled with roses and lemon trees? Or a place where people court and fall in love? Gaza is a place of immense economic poverty but also vast emotional and creative riches. Imagine the possibilities if, instead of the images with which the mainstream media have polluted our minds, what people think of when they think of Gaza is a place that centers and sustains life. To me, that is Gaza. I hope after reading my novel, some will be almost as smitten with the place as was Rebecca, the narrator.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
AG: Another writer and I are developing a project that will focus on first-hand narratives of those who witnessed and participated in the first intifada.
J: Your novel employs humor, often in unexpected places in the narrative. Why did you choose to use humor in this way?
AG: I think we underestimate the value of humor as a universal survival strategy, political tool, and means for social cohesion. One thing I came to understand and love about the Arab world is the importance and power of humor for people facing critical and dangerous situations. It demystifies oppressors and gives the oppressed a sense of power. Humor can be disarming in critical situations. Anyone who can find humor in the situations that the novel’s characters face is asserting control over conditions meant to render them powerless. Humor is also a way of disrupting the process of dehumanization—affirming our humanity in the face of forces meant to dehumanize us. I think it also allows readers, who have not been to these places or do not share these experiences, to relate to the characters. After all, when you laugh with, not at, someone, your perspective about that person or situation shifts. Sharing a laugh makes it that much harder to debase someone, to brand them an enemy.
Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 4, “Shotgun Wedding”, pp. 67-72)
East across the expanse of two-story cinderblock buildings that formed the middle-class neighborhood of Gaza City, a plume of thick black smoke drifted into the startling blue sky— charcoal on pastel. As if on cue, minutes later the gunning engine of an army jeep could be heard before it could be seen roaring toward the barricade of burning tires. The deep thud of a fired tear gas canister was followed by the acrid scent of the fumes that carried on the wind. I picked up my pace to avoid the effects of the gas and wound my way deeper into unknown territory.
The jasmine vine reached down over the large metal gate to greet us as Lutfi and I pressed the intercom button and waited for Um Ayman to buzz us in. The gate was part of a privacy wall that was standard for most middle-class houses in Gaza, and like many this opened onto a well-tended garden, small patio and driveway. Passing through the garden and entering the house, we could hear the dialogue of an Arabic soap opera spilling into the hall. Dr. Riad’s mother lived on the ground floor and could usually be found watching TV from her sofa, which was strategically placed for her to observe the comings and goings of her son’s and daughter-in-law’s visitors. The door to her apartment was closed only when she was upstairs with Dr. Riad’s family.
“Sabah al kheir, ya hajee. Good morning,” Lutfi and I greeted her in near unison.
“Sabah al noor! Tefudulu. Good morning! Come in,” Um Riad’s cigarette-deepened voice replied.
Smoke from her skinny brown cigarillo curled up from the ashtray and seemed to dance in the late morning light. She looked up from her show and grinned widely at us from under a thin scarf. Her large gray eyes never hesitated to meet one’s gaze. Even seated alone watching an afternoon soap opera, she conveyed the authority of a family matriarch.
“Shukran. Thank you,” we nodded, continuing up the stairs to Dr. Riad’s flat.
We rang the doorbell, and Dr. Riad’s middle son opened the door, grinning knowingly at me and extending his hand in greeting. We moved into the living room, past the blaring television with the other two boys gathered around it and into the more formal sitting room. Um Ayman emerged from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a dish towel, her sweet, cherub-like face beaming. She greeted us and motioned for us to sit while she returned to the kitchen to get us something cold to drink.
“Where is Zayn?” I asked.
Dr. Riad came down the stairs, an ever-present cigarette dangling from his lips.
“He’s gone to get the sheikh,” he managed without removing the Marlboro. Islamic law was the default jurisprudence for family legal matters under the occupation, so all marriages were performed by religious clerics in Gaza.
“But how?” I wondered aloud, knowing that Zayn couldn’t drive our orange Peugeot on a strike day.
“In an ambulance,” replied Dr. Riad.
No doubt he had used his connections at Shifa Hospital to facilitate things. My husband-to-be, thirty-five years old and on the lam from the Israeli military, was to be married to me, a Jewish woman from the Midwest, in Gaza, on a strike day, in the middle of the intifada, by a sheikh who was arriving in an ambulance.
Soon Zayn appeared with the sheikh, an older man with a spotty white beard and thick, square glasses so large they seemed to announce his presence a step or two before his actual arrival. He was cloaked in a sand-colored jebbeh and sported a matching emma, the robe and skullcap worn by Muslim clerics.
The sheikh took me in, his eyebrows arching above his massive glasses. He turned to Zayn and started to say something but stopped. Dr. Riad shook his hand and guided him to a chair. The sheikh hoisted his briefcase onto the coffee table that had been pushed close to him and ceremoniously began pulling out sheaves of paper and, finally, a pen.
He began completing the marriage certificate, directing his questions to Zayn. In Arabic he asked my name.
“Ra-bek-ah Klin,” Zayn replied, over articulating the foreign words so they could be transliterated into Arabic.
“Gaza is full of women but you could only find a foreigner to marry, Zayn?” the sheikh muttered in Arabic. His gaze remained on the papers as he pondered whether the “ei” in Klein should be represented by the Arabic letter “ya” or “ayn.”
Zayn chuckled and glanced at me. Lutfi shifted in his chair.
The sheikh looked up suddenly from his paperwork and shot a question at Zayn.
“Khaberet abuk an hathe? Does your father know about this?”
“This is not the concern of my father, ya sheikh. Do you want to perform this marriage, or shall I bring someone else?”
He glared at Zayn a moment and returned to his writing.
“Ism abuha. Her father’s name?” the Sheikh all but demanded of Zayn.
“Ism abuee Marvin. My father’s name is Marvin,” I answered.
At the sound of my voice the sheikh’s head once again jerked up. His eyes—sweeping between me and Zayn—grew larger with each look at the bride and groom. I caught his gaze and smiled. He quickly turned back to scribbling.
I looked at Zayn, who was shielding his face with his hand and laughing noiselessly, his body heaving with the silent effort.
According to Islamic law, I was owed a mahr—a payment from the groom to the bride at the time of the marriage to show his intent to be a responsible husband. In order to complete the marriage contract, we agreed on the spot that mine would be one thousand Jordanian dinars (about fifteen hundred dollars at the time), one dinar of which was payable immediately, with the rest to be paid “at a future date.” Zayn had no cash on him, so my about-to-be-brother-in-law took out his wallet and handed over the marriage’s down payment.
The ceremony proceeded.
“Bismallh, al rahman, al rahim. In the name of God, the most gracious, most compassionate,” the sheikh intoned, indicating the beginning of the ceremony.
But with each vow we made before God and the sheikh, Zayn seemed to lose it a little more. As I affirmed that I was the daughter of Marvin Max, Zayn’s body slid a little farther down in the red crushed velvet chair. A loud giggle escaped him. The sheikh’s face flushed from pink to crimson. Between muffled bursts of laughter, Zayn managed to squeeze out that he was indeed Zayn Omar Seif Majdalawi. Then the sheikh turned to Lutfi to affirm his identity as our witness, giving Zayn a chance to collect himself.
The sheikh focused once again on me. At his instruction, I turned to Zayn and said, “I wed myself to thee.”
With those words Zayn’s shoulders hunched. He squeezed back the tears in his eyes and opened his mouth wide, the laughter escaping unrestrained. The sudden burst of his voice reverberated off the sunlit walls of Dr. Riad’s living room. Riad, chuckling himself, tried to shush Zayn. At that point I began giggling as I watched the man who I think was my husband by then convulse in laughter. Even the face of quiet, subdued Lutfi broke into a wide grin.
We exchanged no self-written vows, nor lit a unity candle that day. But a ceremony ending with peals of laughter from Zayn—his expression of love, nervousness, fear—with me learning to laugh along, was the truest beginning of our marriage there could be.
Zayn regained some control, and we finished the brief ceremony, proclaiming our faithfulness before Allah and signing the marriage contract. The sheikh quickly gathered his papers, waving off Um Ayman’s invitation to stay for lunch. The ambulance was called to take him away.
Kufta (spiced meatballs in a tomato sauce) over rice, salad, and homemade pickled vegetables were followed by tiny cups of thick Arabic coffee. Then it was time for us to go home.
I had avoided thinking about the walk home in the blazing afternoon sun, hoping that the bride would be offered the same courtesy of a ride home as the sheikh, but not daring to ask. Relief rushed up in me when we walked out of the house and I could see the emergency lights shimmering in the mid-afternoon sun.
As we emerged into the blinding sunlight, the driver hopped out to open the back door. Lutfi held out his hand as I stepped onto the ledge and then into the ambulance. I squeezed in against the stretcher occupying most of the small space and clutched the low metal fold-down bench. As the vehicle jostled and bounced over the rutted, sandy streets of Gaza, I peered quizzically at the medical accoutrement lining the walls: bottles of antiseptic were stacked next to various-sized gauzes and bandages wrapped in the crinkly white paper that could be clenched in the mouth and ripped opened with one hand while the other hand stemmed a bleeding wound. Closer to the stretcher were tubes, oxygen bottles and square metal boxes marked with large red crosses, presumably opened when things got really bad.
The worse the roads got, the more the aluminum frame gurney shook and bounced, straining against the wheel locks. One particularly nasty rut bounced the metal frame into my knee. As I leaned over to push it back in place, the ghostly outlines of blood stains seemed to rise up from the otherwise white ironed sheets stretched across the gurney.