Come What May by Ahmed Masoud, Victorina Press (2022)
The opening of Ahmed Masoud’s second novel Come What May is startling, not in terms of the scene being set – which is an aerial bombardment of Gaza, the likes of which we are sadly all too familiar with – but the responses of the couple at the center of it. The husband turns off the radio, puts aside his cellphone, and the couple “watch[ed] TV, played cards, had lots of sex.”
The husband Ammar then goes out for coffee and never returns. He is later found dead.
This was during the time of the Shujaiya massacre, in July 2014, when Israeli airstrikes destroyed 670 buildings in the Shujaiya neighborhood, killing at least 120 Palestinian civilians over the course of several days.
Ammar’s wife, Zahra, the narrator of the story, is told he died as a result of the bombings. But she has evidence he was murdered.
Everyone tells her to forget it and to move from her apartment in Gaza City to her family home in the Jabaliya refugee camp or to remarry someone as a second wife. She refuses and finds one man prepared to believe her, the supersleuth Mr. Nouman. And so the story begins.
Zahra’s lack of fear in a terrifying environment drives this page-turning account forward. With her first-person narrative, the reader sees Gaza from the ground and is familiarized with its food, smells its odors, learns the areas to avoid, the ways to figure out who to trust, which service taxis to take and how to act in them.
It is an exciting journey filled with loving details that work in counterpoint to the harsh realities that everyone is enduring as individuals and as a collective.
At his book launch at SOAS on 4 May, Masoud explained that the novel was formed “over a long time,” but that he wrote it “in a month and a half,” which, by any novelist’s standard, is fairly record-breaking. (Alice Munro, for example, is cited as taking eight months to write a short story.)
Masoud, who is also a playwright and director, said he first allows his characters and the storyline to crystallize in his head before any words appear on a screen. He arranges storylines as he washes up, cycles around London streets and open-water swims in its ponds. This process of formulating the novel takes him up to two years, but the writing itself has to be quick – he fits it in whenever he gets time away from his work and his family – a couple of days in Paris, on plane journeys.
But speed suits the novel, which is a fast-paced work and recreates the tensions and energies of surviving in a battered, heavily populated and sealed-in environment.
The bare linguistic style also suits the substance. This is a plot-driven novel – the characters twist and turn around the buildings, uprooted orchards and bombed-out homes of Gaza. It is one where the couple, Zahra and Ammar, are brought together across the divide between Jabaliya camp and Gaza City by a common love of literature.
The novel could be classed as a murder-mystery or a whodunit – for there is a quest to find both the murderer and to discover their motive – but it is also a novel about the influence of reading on the characters’ lives.
It’s in a category with Reading Lolita in Tehran, Checkout 19, The Possessed and Shelf Life: Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller, where English literary texts – from Shakespeare to Charles Dickens (whom Masoud relates to most) to Robinson Crusoe – provide an additional cast of characters that their contemporaries befriend, ban and find comfort within.
Here, Masoud draws on the autobiographical. From 1998 to 2002, he studied literature in Gaza, where reading provided a portal for escape.
A gripping read, Come What May is also one of the most vivid literary portrayals of Gaza available to the English-language reader. Despite the apparently depoliticized outlook of the narrator, much is covered in few pages, including refugees, class, borders, tunnels, spies, bombardment, cost of staples (food, cement), the destruction of olive trees, illegal drug trades, resistance leaders with mystical powers, old train routes and drones, aid workers and student drama production.
The specific and vital nature of trust and community comes through its pages in a way that possibly only a literary form can capture. The society is divided externally and by class, but at the end of the day there is a common sense of purpose and belief. This is managed delicately without being either didactic or sentimental.
There is nothing new in a male author choosing to write in the voice of a female narrator, from Dickens and Alberto Moravia to Philip Pullman, but the choice is a good one, for it increases the sense of vulnerability and urgency of Zahra’s plight. Even getting into a taxi next to a man holding prayer beads requires negotiation.
“He was a large bloke and I didn’t want to be beaten up, spat at or be pushed out of the car. I had never seen anything like this happen in front of my eyes, but men scared me, especially those who believed God told them to treat women like that. But women here can only be empowered when they’re either old or divorced and ostracized from society.”
The novel is not without its flaws. There are a couple of errors in dates and some of the behavior and reactions of the characters struck this reader as implausible, but one is willing to overlook these glitches, for Masoud’s tone is upbeat and cheeky, his energy palpable and the story he tells is a ripping read.
Selma Dabbagh is a writer of fiction and a lawyer.