Haifa Fragments by khulud khamis (Spinifex Press)
With her debut novel Haifa Fragments, Palestinian Slovakian writer khulud khamis pens a compulsive narrative that examines the complex of nationality, gender, sexuality, religion and culture in Palestine.
Haifa Fragments opens with the protagonist, Maisoon, a Palestinian citizen of Israel raised within an affluent Christian family, struggling to gain credibility and success as a jewelry designer. Alongside exasperation with her faltering career, Maisoon has incurred the disapproval of her father by taking up with a young Palestinian Muslim man named Ziyad.
Despite the Palestinian backgrounds of both Ziyad and Maisoon, their respective families are unsupportive of the union and are locked in a mutual distrust of the other built on religio-cultural grounds. In further defiance of intra-Palestinian solidarity, both Ziyad and Maisoon live sheltered lives within Haifa, a city in present-day Israel.
This soon changes, however, after Maisoon’s chance encounter with Shahd, a Palestinian Muslim from the occupied West Bank. As a friendship between the two women blossoms, Maisoon learns more about a side of her country she had previously ignored.
She finds out about the day-to-day injustices and lack of freedoms that her companion suffers. By visiting Shahd’s home, Maisoon notes the similarities between her own Christian family and her friend’s Muslim family.
Simultaneous with her transformative friendship with Shahd, Maisoon achieves belated career success as her jewelry garners the attention of a Jewish Israeli goldsmith named Amalia. Maisoon’s steady prosperity gains her the respect of her boss and, not before long, Amalia is forced to confront her ignorance towards Palestinians.
Amalia’s realization is part of the novel’s broader call-to-arms for female solidarity across national, religious and cultural divides. Thus, Amalia and Maisoon become painfully aware of the comparative lack of opportunities that Shahd is afforded simply due to the place of her birth and status as a West Bank-dwelling Palestinian Muslim.
To this end, the novel is an exposure of the various ways multiple ethno-cultural and religious identities exist and commingle within historic Palestine. Amid dominant perceptions of the intransigent difference between Christians, Jews and Muslims in the region, Haifa Fragments stresses the commonality between these identity groupings.
This multiple layering of different identity markers through female voices calls to mind many other feminist writers within the Middle East such as Egyptian writer Salwa Bakr or Algerian novelist Assia Djebar, both of whom have pursued similar goals in their fiction.
The novel’s titular reference to fragments becomes apparent in relation to the multiple female viewpoints. The idea of fragmentation and the fragmentary nature of identity permeates the text.
Maisoon’s occupation as a jewelry designer means she works with fragments of material. Some of the materials that Maisoon uses in her work are imbued with cultural significance, such as her use of old Palestinian coins.
Submission and dissent
The novel’s structure is also fragmentary as it oscillates between different timeframes and perspectives. At one point, fragments are openly addressed by Maisoon as she finds her father’s old notebooks and photography albums, discovering “fragments of his past” as a political dissident and poet.
Maisoon tries to piece these fragments together to build an encapsulating picture of her father, Majid. However, her efforts prove futile, therefore asserting the impossible task of rationally understanding another person’s various identities.
Even so, the discovery of her father’s politically fraught past is an engaging subplot and one which is never fully given space to develop. It emerges that despite Majid’s disapproval with his daughter’s choice of partner, he previously had a Palestinian Muslim lover.
His support for his ex-lover Asmahan caused him to take up armed resistance against Israeli forces. A long spell in an Israeli prison changes Majid’s worldview, however, and triggers his eventual submission, stupor and political apathy.
As well as Majid’s past, the novel also alludes to political dissent in Ziyad’s backstory. This sense of murky pasts is a bit overwhelming within such a short novel, especially as khamis chooses not to pursue these narrative threads in favor of foregrounding the experiences of the novel’s female characters. This leaves Majid and Ziyad’s tales feeling rather shapeless and unfinished.
There is no intended criticism in khamis’s choice to privilege narratives of female experience within a corpus of narratives that tend to typecast women as bereft mothers protesting on the sidelines. However, the novel’s appeal to a sense of cross-cultural female solidarity falls a little flat with the imposition of homosexuality into the narrative.
One evening — fueled by alcohol and the exchange of emotional hardships — Maisoon and Shahd make love with one another. The awkward morning after is dealt with in an unsatisfying half-page, where Shahd complains that she wants to marry men but also enjoy sexual encounters with women, before making some tea.
The implicit bisexuality revealed by Shahd’s comments is disappointingly dropped almost as soon as it’s picked up. The reader is left wondering why khamis has not taken to probing how her character’s sexuality impinges upon the otherwise complex texturing of identity patterns within the novel. Likewise, Maisoon’s happy complicity in same-sex love-making remains a stone unturned.
Homoeroticism within the novel takes another ill-judged turn when a white, Western traveler named Christine is introduced within the novel’s final segment. Christine, who is traveling around the West Bank as an artist, is rescued by Shahd after a traumatic experience at the hands of Israeli border control.
This results in Christine making a sexual advance on Maisoon. The reader is left wondering why many of the upsetting incidents within the narrative drive female characters to engage in acts of same-sex sexual intimacy.
Despite the rather clumsy introduction of homosexuality within the novel, this is an engaging read that goes far to examine the commingling of different identities within Palestine.
Peter Cherry is a PhD student in comparative literature at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Twitter: @peterjcherry