A book set against the backdrop of Israel’s 2014 war shows the agony and resilience of Gazans. Works such as these are alternative landmarks in a war-ravaged land.
Book review: Atef Abu Saif’s The Drone Eats With Me shows how the only heroism in Gaza is survival
Plenty of news flows out from Gaza, but very little human information. This emotional blackout bothered Ra Page, founder of Comma Press, a Manchester-based publisher producing groundbreaking short story collections. It was Comma that gave the astounding Iraqi surrealist writer Hassan Blasim his first break. Comma has published a high-quality series of literary responses to scientific innovations as well as several collections based around cities such as Tokyo, Istanbul and Liverpool. Why not Gaza too?
“My rather naive idea with The Book of Gaza,” writes Page, “was to try to inch the city ever so slightly closer to a state of familiarity, to establish it as a place and not just a name, through the simple details that a city’s literature brings with it – the referencing of street names, the name-dropping of landmarks and districts.”
Published in June 2014, the book was by no means the first literary project to aim in some way to normalise Palestinian life. Since 2008, the Palestinian Festival of Literature (Palfest), brainchild of novelist Ahdaf Soueif, has tried to reaffirm, in Edward Said’s phrase, “the power of culture over the culture of power”.
In practical terms, this means transforming a literature festival into a roadshow – Jerusalem one night, Bethlehem another, Ramallah on a third ... Though these places are only a few miles apart, checkpoints prevent Palestinians from travelling between them.
So the guest writers travel to their audience, and at the same time learn something of Palestine’s enormous creativity. This stateless nation has boasted many great literary talents, most notably Mahmoud Darwish and Mourid Barghouti in poetry and Ghassan Kanafani in prose. Meanwhile, there are burgeoning film and music (especially hip-hop) scenes.
For decades, writers had to smuggle their manuscripts out of Gaza to presses in Jerusalem, Cairo or Beirut. The shorter the text, the more likely it was to be published. As a result, the Strip became an “exporter of oranges and short stories”. Edited by novelist and journalist Atef Abu Saif, The Book of Gaza contains stories from three generations. It achieves both the sense of place that Page hoped for and “familiarity” through its treatment of universal themes. The stories are as likely to deal with women “besieged by preconceptions” (in Najlaa Ataallah’s words) as the siege imposed by Israel. The project succeeded in “depoliticising” Gaza, at least to some extent.
But then, immediately after publication, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge. Story contributors were directly affected by the assault. Writer Asmaa Al Ghoul, for instance, lost nine members of her extended family. Page was driven to this bleak conclusion: “There is no stability in Gaza on which to build a reader-familiarity.”
Protective Edge lasted 51 days and nights in the summer of 2014, killing 2,100 Palestinians and injuring 11,000, the overwhelming majority civilians. 71 Israelis, the majority soldiers, were also killed. As usual, the war changed nothing.
What could Page do? He shared Gazan writers’ comments on Facebook – these were frequently reposted. Inspired, he assembled a team of translators. Soon more than 30 accounts were published in the international media. “For a brief moment,” he writes, “this minuscule, indie publisher of short stories became a conduit for unparalleled eyewitness accounts from a war zone supposedly under the world’s spotlight.”
Now Comma has published The Drone Eats With Me, Atef Abu Saif’s book-length diary of the war. Intelligently, passionately, fluently, and sometimes poetically, written, it’s the story of a family in Ramadan, of the agony and joy of fatherhood under fire and of a community which somehow survives through rolling blackouts and sudden flashes of light, queueing for food or to use the bathroom, with whirring drones as familiar an irritant as mosquitoes (in Gaza the onomatopoeic word for “drone” is “zanana”).
According to Abu Saif, “the only real heroism is survival, to win the prize that is your own life”. But there are many losers. The planes, tanks and warships kill taxi passengers, sweet sellers, children playing football; they crumple homes; they hit the port, schools, hospitals, farms, even cemeteries – grey bones flying out of graves. Abu Saif pictures this war machinery “feeding on” the city, devouring its landmarks. The streets are filled with trudging crowds, hundreds of thousands searching for haven in ever-smaller circles, the expulsions of 1948 and 1967 in eternal replay.
He describes, too, the importance of rituals and routines to fence off the hallucinatory intensity of war. Alongside the constant undertone of terror – darkness “a ghoul that grinds and chews at our calm” – the account also provides a sensuous appreciation of beauty, in the scents, trees, food and people of Gaza.
It offers insight into the thought processes provoked by fear and the inadequacy of the ways of counting the losses – agriculturally, industrially, medically, educationally. The radio does it through endless statistics, “new ways of adding up the war, turning it into maths”. But statistics are lethally reductive. “When a human being is made into a number, his or her story disappears. Every number is a tale; every martyr is a tale, a life lost.”
Abu Saif tells his tale in a resonant prose full of symbolism and weight, like this: “We awaken from death. We return from absence and oblivion, jump down from our crosses, still bleeding, trembling. At first our legs cannot hold us up and we fall to the floor. Then we gather our strength and start to walk.”
But the great honesty of the book is in the way even the literary consolations of pattern and device are denied the author by the war’s concrete brutality. One detail poignantly hints at this: at the onset of the bombing Abu Saif decides not to shave until the skies are quiet again, but after three weeks of privation he gives up. “It was a silly idea to mark the days of the war in millimetres of hair. You have to take what comfort you can, put yourself before the symbolism.”
While inevitably and everywhere political, the narrative is concrete and free of “politics” in the rhetorical sense. Politicians are rarely named, there’s hardly a mention of Israel even, except through its visible (the weaponry) and implied (the operators) presence.
Abu Saif imagines the latter unable to comprehend the reality of their targets. “Who will convince the soldier driving a tank that his vehicle is not a toy? That what he sees from behind his wall of armour-plating are not cartoon characters but real people?” Another day he imagines them far away at their screens “photoshopping” the city, “deleting walls and buildings”.
Protective Edge destroyed “every attractive piece of architecture in Gaza”. These books survive as alternative landmarks. Gazans, meanwhile, struggle for normality, or something more than that. “Happiness is not something that you find or is given to you,” writes Abu Saif, “it is something you make.”
None of the ceasefire terms have been met. Palestine awaits the next round.
Robin Yassin-Kassab is the author of the novel The Road From Damascus. He is writing a book with Leila Al Shami on the Syrian revolution.