The Sea Cloak & Other Stories by Nayrouz Qarmout, translated from Arabic by Perween Richards, Comma Press (2019)
Nayrouz Qarmout describes Gaza – the territorial center of this finely written collection of short stories – as being like “a young girl, yet to learn the art of elegance.”
The collection spans out to capture other geographies of Palestinian existence, in Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank, Tel Aviv, Paris and Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, where Qarmout grew up.
In Qarmout’s inelegant Gaza, the roads are narrow and unless an Apache helicopter has blown a car to smithereens, they are jammed up with traffic, populated by children begging and blocked by donkey carts. Life is encaged and broken up, men are militarized and under surveillance by the enemy or each other, and women are under surveillance by men.
Fragments of beauty in this environment have to be absorbed in small morsels, tasted slowly, and moments of horror have to be endured stoically, for they too, Qarmout’s stories tell us, will pass, as others have passed.
Broad time range
The 11 stories contained within the collection also have a broad range of time periods in Palestinian history. Stories are frequently divided up by dates and will skip from the distant past to the near past or the present.
“Our Milk” takes up the 1946 attack on the King David Hotel in Jerusalem by terrorists belonging to the Zionist Irgun militia and the suicide bombing at Sbarro restaurant by a Palestinian in 2001.
The story juxtaposes the two midday explosions in restaurants more than 50 years apart in a city where restaurants are destroyed but Jaffa Road remains, “dissecting the city from east to west with its usual cacophony of noise.”
Raw prejudice and hatred, however, come through in “Black Grapes,” which starts after the scene of a shooting of a Palestinian worker in a West Bank settlement and then goes back to fill in the story behind the killing.
In “The Anklet of Maioumas,” contemporary lovers separated by Israeli-imposed borders are juxtaposed against the thwarted love felt by a princess for a sculptor in the ancient port city of Maioumas that lies buried off the coast of Gaza.
Qarmout writes poetically, seeking out histories and touches of beauty that enhance her world, inspiring her and those around her, however challenging that may be.
Seeking freedom where they can
In “The Anklet of Maioumas,” the narrator looks “between the rock pool and the waves out on the horizon, she has imagined the princess to be very much like her. Today, though, her eyes are itching and she finds it hard to focus: the image in the water keeps breaking up, as if the rocks themselves were shaking.”
If Gaza is the territorial center of this collection, it is Palestinian women who are the beating heart in this insecure, terrorized landscape.
Caring, gentle, yet strong women mend and sew lives together, without making any fuss or expecting any support as they do so. Compassion, studiousness and civic concern permeate the female characters of Qarmout’s collection.
They seek freedom wherever they can find it, with the men they love, through the husbands they are forced to marry and in the after-school classes in dance and song that they’re ultimately forbidden to attend.
Insecurity is everywhere in the world of these characters, from the drones that buzz in children’s ears (in “White Lilies”) to the hands that grab at 4-year-olds in dark stairwells in Yarmouk, the setting for the narrator’s flashback in “The Mirror”:
“She doesn’t know what these hands are trying to do. Are they feeling for a pattern, a drawing of a treasure map perhaps? Her nanny once told her the story of a sea captain who drew a treasure map on his arm to hide it from others. But she doesn’t know what these hands are trying to do, or why they are removing her underwear.”
The title story of the collection, translated by Charis Olszok, is possibly the only one where the arm that reaches out to help is male and loving.
The story centers on a young woman, shamed since puberty for her gender and sexuality, who is drawn to the sea during a family outing.
“It was as though the sea had cast a spell over her, making her invisible to those around her and carrying her like a bride on her wedding day,” Qarmout narrates. She swims out as far as she can until the waves take over and she finds herself drowning, pulled down by the weight of her dress.
But even here the inhibiting clothes that nearly drown the protagonist are proscribed by social conventions enforced by men: “she longed to escape the black folds of her dress.”
A prepubescent girl grows up in “The Long Braid” screamed at by a male teacher in a colorful shirt who literally spits his disgust in the girl’s face. He is revolted by her singing, by her long plait that moves as she walks, by her confidence and spirit.
Qarmout is not didactic in her writing, although her observations on societal hypocrisies are sharp. Her role as a women’s rights campaigner is clear from the sympathies she develops in her reader for the plight of her female characters, who are not victims, but the finders of solutions, of joy and the providers of comfort.
The arbitrary nature of on-demand religious edicts is picked up on in “Breastfeeding,” where a man is able to leave his wife (and their three children) when he discovers her mother, his aunt, breastfed him as a child when his own mother was incapable of doing so:
“‘Three separate breastfeeding sessions is sufficient,’ the sheikh at the Zarqa Mosque tells him. ‘That would effectively make you the “son” of your aunt … and the “sister” of your wife.’”
Like the stones collected by three young brothers from demolished houses in “Pen and Notebook,” all of the stories in this collection have a history and a weight; they are brought together with grace, kindness and humor and arranged meticulously.
A delicate, heart-wrenching collection by a perceptive writer.
Selma Dabbagh is a British-Palestinian writer of fiction.