Sambac searches for “home in exile”

"A yellow book cover featuring a small potted plant in black ink, with flowers rising up.

Sambac Beneath Unlikely Skies by Heba Hayek, Hajar Press (2021).

“I’m constantly longing for old places while finding new ones,” writes the London-based Palestinian writer Heba Hayek in her debut book, Sambac Beneath Unlikely Skies.

The book, not quite a memoir and not quite a novel, is a series of vignettes describing the daily life, memories and upbringing of an unnamed narrator whose background bears a distinct resemblance to Hayek’s own.

When the narrator misses Ohio, where Hayek herself attended graduate school, she goes to Tesco Extra, “the British version of America’s Target,” to walk “aimlessly down the aisles reading all the ingredients of new vegan products.” The narrator is not, she assures the reader, a vegan, but she finds “plant-based turkey amusing and it’s important to remain informed.”

On some days there are more police cars outside the narrator’s Southeast London flat than she can imagine, a place where the trees are sticks in the winter, refusing to stay green all year round like they seemed to do in the more affluent northwest area of the city, where she lived previously. When she misses Gaza, she sends everyone away, pretending that she has a meeting, and summons her homeland, calling on its spirit as though through a séance.

Heba Hayek is a Palestinian writer born in Gaza, now in her twenties. Sambac Beneath Unlikely Skies won her the Creative Award for the 2022 Palestine Book Awards. She is one of the most talented Palestinian writers writing in English today.

In Sambac, her narrator comes across as unassuming, surprising and lovable. From discussing shopping in Lidl for a cheap but delicious croissant, to describing the hair-waxing parties organized by her grandmother in Gaza, complete with bizarre aphorisms from her grandmother, such as, “If you want a happy vagina, you don’t get to say ouch,” there is a frankness that is rare and exhilarating in her writing.

Hayek has an ability to combine, to juxtapose, to list, to joke and to move the reader, creating a new form of bildungsroman that captures the destructive, fragmented and mentally torturous existence of many Palestinians living under occupation or in the diaspora. Her writing combines the horrors and killings with the hopes, warmth, food and humor. This is a contemporary requiem to an assaulted, beleaguered homeland, sorely missed.

Hayek writes in her introduction that, growing up in Gaza, she was able to “search for the world in books and movies. On Google Maps, I walked down beautiful streets and cities whose names I couldn’t yet pronounce. But there was no shortcut for the reverse; for finding home in exile.”

The book stems in part, she writes, from seeking to “discover myself in books or movies,” and through doing so she writes the story of how Gaza feels, not as a commentary on the military assaults and bloodshed seen in the news, but how it feels to grow up there – coping, marginalizing and essentially trying to deal with the unnatural circumstances present in Gaza – the daily violence inflicted on this young population.

Point 15 of Chronology of a Girlhood in Gaza:

On your first attempt to leave Gaza, you will stand in a cold dark room to be strip searched. The soldier will ask you to squat. “I don’t want to squat.”

She will push you to the floor and stick her finger up your ass. Your eyes will feel like someone has stuck lit candles in them, but you will try to stop yourself from crying.

“Clear,” she will say to the other soldiers in the room.

You will dress yourself and get sent back for no reason.

The cruelty of the siege is always there, but Hayek refuses to let it define her narrator, to limit her, for the ritual humiliations to reduce her to the place where they are clearly designed to relegate her.

The book is named after the Sambac, or Arabian jasmine, tree that symbolizes her “narrator’s attempts to create life where this shrub doesn’t naturally thrive,” embodying resilience – “a word that has been overused but nonetheless is full of meaning and truth.”

The warmth, love and resolve of the narrator’s family radiates throughout this short book; their wisdom, resolve, patience and kindness. Far from the al-Tuffah area of Gaza City, where they lived for decades, some family members are squeezed into tiny spaces in tiny cities across Europe. Hayek attempts to reconnect with them, with other Palestinians from Gaza and with home. The dispersal of the narrator’s family is yet another example as to how the Nakba continues daily.

The absurdity of the narrator’s life does not escape her – nor do the extreme contradictions or demands placed on her.

“Late capitalism is the bane of my life,” she writes, describing buying the furry slippers that have been repeatedly popping up on social media advertisements. “Sometimes it feels as though my very brain chemistry has been encrypted within these algorithms, yet somehow, they never quite grasp what I actually need. At least not in the long term.”

Sambac Beneath Unlikely Skies comes with a playlist that ranges from Mashrou’ Leila to Nina Simone. Food, music and humor can console and help, can speak to you when the yearning and isolation hurt, but essentially, at the end of the day, Hayek’s short book upholds that nothing really uproots the yearning for home.

Selma Dabbagh is a writer of fiction and a lawyer.