Battle to preserve Palestine’s history rages in new novel

The cover of Radwa Ashour’s latest novel to appear in English bears the subtitle “A Palestinian novel.” What does a claim like this mean? What themes might such a story have to tackle? What makes a novel “Palestinian?”

The Woman from Tantoura (American University in Cairo Press, 2014) is a substantial, satisfying, weighty book. Those who know Ashour’s earlier work — particularly Spectres (English edition, 2010) — will find familiar themes: the massacres by which epochs in modern Palestinian history have been defined, the way in which women negotiate life in changing, politicized worlds, and issues of reality, memory and perception.

But where Spectres interweaves the stories of two women in Egypt, one with the same name as the author, The Woman from Tantoura is structurally simpler, its narrative more direct. Less an interweaving of consciousnesses, its multiple voices head generally in the same direction. The result is rich, challenging and indisputably important; imperfect, but complex in its imperfections; a female counterpart, perhaps, to Elias Khoury’s monumental Gate of the Sun.

It follows the life story of Ruqayya, a woman from the Palestinian village of Tantoura. Located just south of Haifa, Tantoura became famous as the site of a massacre by Israeli forces in 1948, depicted from the viewpoint of the young Ruqayya and her family as she and her mother flee, ending up as refugees in Lebanon.

Ruqayya’s story — told partly by her in old age — is the tale of one young girl, her loves, family, marriage, work, children and grandchildren. In Ashour’s confident hands, it is also a grand narrative of Palestinian life since the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing by Zionist forces before, during and after Israel’s establishment. Life is shaped by political events: the uprooting of the refugees, the discrimination and brutality with which they were treated by the Lebanese authorities, the horrors of Lebanon’s civil war and the way in which individuals negotiated their way through it.

And Ruqayya’s family and friends — fighters, businessmen, teachers and human rights lawyers living in Lebanon, the occupied West Bank city of Jenin, the Gulf and Europe — are emblematic of the dispersed, dislocated and yet terrifically productive and energetic existences that disproportionate numbers of Palestinians seem to have carved out for themselves.

Memory and forgetting

Through the interconnecting threads of Ruqayya’s friends and family, Ashour explores several major themes.

There is social and generational change, especially for women. Ruqayya’s mother involuntarily covers her head the first time she hears a man’s voice coming from the family’s new radio, and is scared that she will never again see her daughter if she moves fifteen miles to Haifa to get married. A village woman satisfied in her domestic domain, she never imagines the shattering forces which will drive her from her home.

Ruqayya herself, married in her early teens, lives to see her adopted daughter Maryam’s life choices, reflecting the shifting roles of women and the opportunities created by education and travel. For Ruqayya’s generation, women’s sexual pleasure is accidental and so surprising as to be disturbing; Maryam makes jokes about boyfriends but refuses to get married until she chooses.

But the overriding theme is memory: remembering and forgetting. As with her precise and detailed research on the Deir Yassin massacre for Spectres, Ashour has dug deep into the horrific details of Tantoura and the attacks by Israeli-backed Lebanese militias on the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut in 1982. Through different characters, we encounter the ways in which individuals deal with grief and trauma, through recall or strategic obliteration of memory.

We are led to understand why history might even be feared. Palestinian villagers cover up ancient remains, fearing that they will be used as an excuse by Zionists or the British to appropriate their land. A lifetime later, Ruqayya’s lawyer son wants to document the brutalities of the Israeli invasion, in order to fight legal battles in foreign courts. Ruqayya herself asserts her desire and her right to bury her own histories — in this case, her memories of the Shatila massacre.

“I don’t understand educated people … Leave me alone. God forgive you, go away! … Damn memory: damn its mother and father, damn the sky over it and the day it was and the day it will be,” she cries, defying her son’s obsession with documentation, implicitly critiquing the right of intellectuals and academics to enforce traumatic retellings on those who have suffered.

Terror of war

Questions of the way information is used are also highlighted by the story of the Israeli theft of thousands of papers from the Palestine Research Center in Beirut after the army’s 1982 invasion. To what purpose were these documents put? Was Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization just as negligent and high-handed in dealing with knowledge and the power it confers when it apparently lost the returned documents in a warehouse “somewhere in North Africa?”

Ashour’s delivery of Palestinian history, even in its bloodiest and most tragic forms, is never heavy-handed or didactic. She masterfully presents information through her characters and their dialogue — girls’ gossip in the village, or rumors circulating around a refugee camp.

Set against the terror of war and the pain of separation, Ashour also explores with a light, allusive touch the question of ties. What, for refugees, is Palestine? Ashour herself is Egyptian, but her husband, the poet Mourid Barghouti, has probed this same question deeply in his memoirs I Saw Ramallah and I Was Born There, I was Born Here.

On one hand, Ashour depicts the land of Palestine in almost paradise-like terms. Its lands are lush and fruitful, represented by the green coastal plain of Tantoura. We are regaled with scents and tactile images of fruit and food, and visitors from Palestine bring these with them as visceral reminders of the homeland.

But as Ruqayya grows older, the reality of the generations whose families, memories and eventually their graves lie beyond the land of Palestine impinges on her. Is Palestine a place anymore, or is it a people — both a people in the broadest sense, but most importantly her people — friends, family, loved ones.

Read this book. Then read it again, and then lend it to your friends, their friends, the bloke in the corner shop, his grandma and her poodle. They’ll all thank you for it.

Sarah Irving is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-editor of A Bird is not a Stone, a collection of contemporary Palestinian poetry in translation. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh.