Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Qissat – Short Stories by Palestinian Women

I tried to approach this book with an open mind, but I can’t say I fully succeeded. How could I ignore the various images I had in my mind, images accumulated over the years, images of Palestinian children throwing stones at soldiers during the intifada, images of check points, barriers and the like? Qissat, a collection of short stories by Palestinian women edited by Jo Glanville, did not do away with those images. However, it did not accentuate or bolster them. Instead, it gave me a picture of Palestinian people that showed them in their human forms. I could see them arguing, quarrel and fight each other, shout, cheat and love. This is not to say that the occupation is ignored. It is not, it is always in the background, always affecting people’s lives in more ways than one.

The stories that form this collection are set in various locales. Most are based in the occupied territories, but there are stories set in Kuwait during Saddam’s invasion, in Lebanon during the civil war and in Arab Jerusalem. There are a few which are narrated by children or teenagers.

Selma Debbagh’s ‘Me (Bitch) and Bustanji’ is about a (Palestinian) teenager’s life in Kuwait. A foreigner living among many thousands of other foreigners, the narrator is dying of boredom until Saddam’s invasion. The narrator calls herself a ‘bitch’ as a reaction to the way the average Kuwaiti male looks at her. After the invasion, the teenager and her father flee Kuwait, crossing checkpoints set up by Saddam’s soldiers that are no different from the Israeli checkpoints in Palestine. It doesn’t ease matters when when Palestinians, perceived to be pro-Saddam, are targeted by Kuwaitis after Saddam’s army is driven out of Kuwait.

In Basima Takkouri’s ‘Tales from the Azzinar Quarter,’ the children are constantly at war with each other. These stories are not unlike the feel good stories of children playing war-games one reads in the Readers Digest until they talk of an entire village taking up positions behind a boulder to watch a Purim carnival. At once, I conjured up images of villagers in an isolated West Bank village watching a bunch of relatively well-off settlers celebrate Purim. After the event, the children continue with their war games.

Liana Badr’s ‘Other Cities’ is the story of a woman who makes a nerve wracking trip from Hebron to Ramallah. It is not an essential trip and Umm Hasan, the wife of a poor labourer, is only after some shopping and leisure in Ramallah. The journey is not nerve-wracking because of the Israeli check-points, but mainly because Umm Hasan is travelling on a fake ID. At Ramallah, Umm Hasan runs out of money faster than she expected and is forced to return earlier than she had planned. On her return, their vehicle is held up at a check point for a longer-then usual period of time. The Israeli soldiers don’t really care when Umm Hasan’s baby starts bawling until she walks out and confronts them. Does Umm Hasan make it back? Read this beautiful story and fine out.

Nuha Samara’s ‘The Tables Outlived Amin’ is set in Lebanon during the civil war. The idealist narrator’s best friend is a militia fighter who gets killed. The narrator cannot stomach the tragedy and he loses his pacifism with deadly consequences.

Laila Al-Atrash's story, "The Letter", is narrated by a teenage letter-writer and deals with a situation when a pretty woman (whom the narrator admires) runs off with a taxi driver. In patriarchal Palestinian society, the cuckolded husband is derided as a weakling for not killing his wife and avenging his honour. The letter-writer has helped the pretty woman correspond with her paramour. Towards the end, one sees the teenage narrator showing mixed emotions. He is scared of being labelled an accomplice to the infidelity and also feels sorry for the woman. Read this story if you want to find out which emotion pre-dominates.

"A Thread Snaps", by Huzama Habayeb, is set in a Palestinian refugee camp. The protagonist spends all her time doing household chores, but is slowly aware of her bodily desires. The story uses symbolism in a big way. Shoes and slippers are symbols of repression, but the protagonist uses them as a means to escape and meet the man she pines away for. Habayeb's story was first published in a journal and was banned in Jordan. Whoever said Israelis are Palestinians’ biggest enemies was so obviously wrong!

The most touching story for me was Donia El Amad Ismaeel’s ‘Dates and Bitter Coffee.’ After a Palestinian youth is induced to carry out a suicide mission, his organisation organises festivities at his home to celebrate his martyrdom. All those who attend are given dates and black coffee, including the parents of the youth. The total lack of control which the parents have over the whole affair is brought home to the reader by this story.

For me, one very striking feature of these stories was that even when Palestinian poverty is described, it is nowhere comparable to the sort of poverty one sees in India. A poor man or woman is one who cannot afford to shop or travel or eat meat. There is no mention of starvation or of children dying of hunger. I don’t mean to belittle Palestinian suffering, but more than anything else, these stories brought to me the depth of poverty in India.


Joanne said...

'The Letter' seems like an interesting take on 'The Go-Between' to me.

Winnowed said...

Joanne, I haven't read the G-Between, I'm afraid.