With her searing new novel, Selma Dabbagh depicts the realities of life facing Gaza's long-suffering residents.
Out of It: A rich and rewarding portrait of Gaza
The news conveyed to the outside world about Gaza has always been unremittingly grim. Administered by Egypt after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War until 1967, it was then seized by Israel. For years, the city and its accompanying strip of coast have suffered military occupation, extra-judicial killings, bombardments and the demolition of homes, as well as economic deprivation, unemployment, and the reduction of its people, according to a quote attributed by Selma Dabbagh's character Sabri to a former Israeli prime minister, to "beasts walking on two legs".
This is quite apart from the further struggle carried out among the Palestinians themselves, especially since Hamas's victory in the 2006 parliamentary elections led to the separation of Gaza from the West Bank after most of the rest of the world decided that this was one democratic vote they did not feel inclined to respect.
It is perhaps understandable that these are the subjects that fill the reports the international media file about Gaza. It is a "bad news" story with plenty to fuel its regular appearance in the schedules. To suggest a lighter item about this small piece of territory on the Eastern Mediterranean shore might be deemed inappropriate levity. And even the most nuanced reportage that shows instances of hope - the rebuilding of a school, the creation of a youth football league among the crumbling, wrecked buildings and bulldozed wastelands - also carries with it the suggestion that these ventures are bound not to last long. Misery will soon return and extinguish that small flame.
We have all become so accustomed to this that it was not until I was a few pages into Selma Dabbagh's terrific debut novel that I realised that I had never read an account of how people actually live in Gaza. Amid the chaos and fear a population of just under half a million must still raise families, study, trade, eat: do all the things that those in any settled community do. The very fact that we hear so little about this side of their existence comes dangerously close to dehumanising them, not necessarily to the extent of the description attributed above, but certainly to lending them the monochrome status of helpless victims, for the most part passively enduring their fate and unable to act except by lobbing the odd missile over the border into the land that was once theirs - Israel.
Out of It disabuses the reader of that notion from the very first page when a younger member of the Mujahed family, Rashid, wakes up quite literally "out of it" after indulging too heavily on the leaves of his room's other permanent resident, "Gloria - the Finest Marijuana Plant in Gaza". Yes, people in Gaza party too, even on a night when the Israelis are attacking a hospital in retaliation for a suicide bombing. Even if they have lost their legs, as Rashid's elder brother Sabri has (after his car was rigged to explode), that does not mean that their lives are without purpose; Sabri sits in a book-lined study documenting Palestinian history when not cooking - he "could spend hours chopping parsley for tabbouleh, stuffing vine leaves or trying out different seasonings on the Sultan Ibrahim, that prince of Gazan fishes".
And even while the territory is under military assault the mother of Rashid's friend Khalil can still appear in a "mercurial, silky outfit", her hair "orange-streaked", her eyes lined and her lips made up, to press a freshly-made cocktail on her visitor rather early in the day. Life, and a way of life very much recognisable as that of the cosmopolitan, educated, politicised and Westernised class that has long constituted a major part of the elite on the Mediterranean littoral, continues in Gaza. This - notwithstanding the inclusion of its primitive opposites, such as a donkey and a bucket pathetically being sent to put out a fire - is a very valuable reminder.
But if this is the most eye-opening aspect of Out of It, especially initially, that is not to say that it does not address political issues; more that it does so not in an overly-obvious narrative sense but in a wry, sharp manner that leaves the reader to conclude whether the Palestinians have been most ill-served by a leadership frequently grown corrupt and self-serving or by militant elements whose attacks on civilians allow their Israeli enemy to justify draconian, disproportionate responses that only make the life of Gazans more desperate.
Our central characters, the Muhajed family, were historically part of the "Outside Leadership", those top tiers of the PLO who became international nomads during the decades when it was designated a terrorist organisation by the West. On their return the father, Jibril, suddenly leaves and makes a new home for himself in the Gulf - an unexpected departure, the dramatic secret of which is slowly and shockingly revealed in the novel.
His left-behind children, Sabri, Rashid and Iman, have different views on how and if to perform the "national duty" they have been brought up to know as their destiny. Rashid cannot wait to get "out of it", ie out of Gaza. He grudgingly admits that his work in a refugee centre recording Israeli atrocities is important, but he is fed up with relying on handouts from his mysteriously absent father well into his 20s and is keen to win the scholarship to study in London that will allow him to spend time with Lisa, a British supporter of the Palestinian cause with whom he is romantically involved. Iman resents the fact that her time abroad means that she is marginalised in the meetings of the Women's Committee. Her opinions are disregarded to the extent that she is tempted to follow a much more perilous path, and ultimately must be removed from Gaza for her own safety. Sabri, the most ideologically committed of the three, pines for his lost wife and son. He alone cannot get "out of it", restricted not only by his wheelchair but by the fact that the apartment in which the family lives is on the first floor and he can only view life vicariously, through his historical work and, more prosaically and poignantly, through the restricted aperture of his window.
Dabbagh is highly insightful on Westerners who are drawn to the romance of the Palestinians' plight but are less interested in individual lives and people. Lisa disappoints Rashid by delighting in wearing his old clothes and a kaffiyeh when she takes him to lunch with her patrician parents in the English countryside but still refuses to admit to being his girlfriend. At some point, we infer, the family will talk of Lisa's "adventurous" youth. The idea of being formally committed to a Palestinian, however, is a step too far; she cannot, and has no wish to, escape from the bonds of her essentially parochial worldview.
Likewise, Dabbagh's references to the compromises of the Outside Leadership that then effectively became "the Authority" are clear enough. But she does not hand down her judgements. It is for the reader to decide if, however flawed and ultimately shallow she may be, Lisa is still doing good work campaigning for her chosen dispossessed people; and whether, despite their mistakes, the old leaders and their younger, better successors, continue to stand for a vision of the Palestinian Territories that is more inclusive than that of the extremists who see violence as the only meaningful option.
Amid all this there is much humour: in Dabbagh's description of Jibril's superficial new girlfriend in the Gulf; in her wickedly true-to-life depiction of how Lisa's Sloaney sister Anna speaks; and especially in the charming way that Socialist tropes still infect even the youngest in Gaza. When a young boy selling carrots in the street enters a cafe and orders a feast the owner asks him where his shoes are. "Are you bourgeois or something?" replies the boy. "Food comes before shoes."
Neither does she avoid the appalling, the almost unspeakable: when the refugee camp centre in which Rashid and Khalil work is trashed by Israeli soldiers, their desecration includes not only smashing computers but also tearing down children's drawings and defecating on them. But there is, too, a hero. Not a swashbuckling superman but a haggard, lean young fighter in whom, and in others like him, we realise, still resides hope. The fact that rivals in the Authority's leadership feel threatened by him and perhaps want to do away with him does not dispel the sense that to whatever terrible a pass Gaza comes - and whatever troubles are visited upon it, both by its own people and by others - there is still that possibility: not that it will become a utopia, but that one day it can become a society that can deal with its own multiple, multilayered, quarrelsome identities on its own. Selma Dabbagh has written an accomplished, compelling and enormously readable book.
If it is not nominated for, or does not win, several first novel awards then the judging panels will simply not have been looking in the right places.
Sholto Byrnes is a contributing editor of the New Statesman and a frequent commentator on South-east Asian politics and religion.