Describing the Past by Ghassan Zaqtan, translated by Samuel Wilder, Seagull Books (2016)
Ghassan Zaqtan is best known in both the Arabic and English-speaking worlds for his poetry.
The award was almost overshadowed when Zaqtan, who lives in the occupied West Bank, was denied a visa by the Canadian authorities. The decision was eventually reversed after protests by high-profile writers and artists, enabling Zaqtan to receive the prize in person.
Describing the Past, however, is one of Zaqtan’s rarer works of prose.
The novella has an autobiographical setting, telling a story largely from the point of view of a boy in the Karameh refugee camp in Jordan.
Zaqtan moved to Karameh in 1961, when he was 7 years old. He was born in Beit Jala, near the West Bank town of Bethlehem, but his father’s job as a teacher took the family to several Palestinian refugee camps across the Middle East.
The Karameh camp is most known as the scene of a landmark battle between Israeli forces and Palestinian fedayeen fighters.
In March 1968, some 15,000 Israeli troops, with dozens of tanks, attacked the camp, hoping to eliminate Palestinian fedayeen based there.
In a 15-hour battle, just a few hundred fedayeen and civilians from the camp, with late-coming support from the Jordanian army, inflicted unprecedented losses on the Israeli troops.
Although the total number of Palestinian dead, injured and captured exceeded those lost by Israel, and the Israeli army destroyed the camp, the battle marked the first time that Palestinian troops successfully confronted their enemy head-on.
Describing the Past is not, however, a story of the battle. Zaqtan’s family left Karameh one year before it took place.
In its elegiac, shadowy view of the past, though, the novella echoes the battle’s importance in the history, memory and myth-making of Palestinian identity, while bittersweet images of childhood draw on the loss and heartache caused by Israeli shelling and attacks.
One suspects that Zaqtan is playing a quiet trick by writing a story about Karameh which is not directly concerned with 1968, but which is nigh impossible to read without this historical filter.
This theme of the unstable balance between myth and memory recurs constantly throughout the novella.
“Things evaporate and die if they don’t find someone to remember them,” Zaqtan comments through his narrator.
But the same unnamed character tells of many examples which question what exactly “remembering” means in this context.
There is, for instance, his uncle, known as “The Iraqi” for his obsessive claims to have helped a battalion of Iraqi troops in northern Palestine during the war of 1948.
As Zaqtan makes plain, the wider events described are real, commemorated in a monument which stands in the West Bank city of Jenin.
But his uncle’s tales – which grow grander in scale as the events recede into the historical past – are more doubtful, as the aging man creates a dreamlike past for himself.
The trauma of 1948, when the residents of Karameh fled Zionist violence in Palestine, blend with newer dreams and passions to create – like the humidity of the river valley’s vegetation – a constant backdrop to the austere clarity of daily domestic life.
Indeed, the image presented in Describing the Past is the opposite of the warlike picture evoked by references to the Battle of Karameh. Zaqtan conjures up the sultry, humid atmosphere of the Jordan Valley in descriptions of how “The scent of guava, orange and mint fanned from the river and weighed down the air.”
Although the story focuses on the comings and goings of humans, the atmosphere of tropical, stifling quiet highlights the idea that the transient affairs of humans take place against a backdrop of unchanging, vegetable lushness: “a darkness filled with the breathing of plants, with the rustling of fruits as they grew and moved.”
The other stable figure within this landscape is a young woman, an object of desire to the narrator and his friend. She is strong and tough but also vulnerable, “her body trembling, sinuous, and pulsing with strength.” The narrator’s voice repeats several times that, for all his love for her, she is “terrifying” and he “knew she was greater than us.”
This young woman first appears in the book as the wife of an elderly man in Karameh, in an apparently celibate marriage enacted by the kindly Hadj (the honorific title for a man who has made a pilgrimage to Mecca, or is respected within his community) so that she will be provided for after her mother’s death.
Indeed, it is the Hadj and the girl’s mother who have more in common, but the young woman insists that her admirers feel deep sorrow for him when he dies.
The “simple, content” Hadj and the woman’s life with him create a core of quiet, unostentatious domesticity and religion, a framework of household tasks and prayer around which all else revolves.
The girl herself is also a calm center to the passing men in her life and their desires, as symbolized by her stately manner as “a fine trail of dust flew behind her as if the wind were sculpting her body.”
The interweaving in this figure of the strong, desired but distant and eternal female with the similar calm, beautiful but also threatening natural world parallels other classic evocations of Palestinian femininity in the writings of Mahmoud Darwish and Ibrahim Nasrallah.
The overall experience of reading this novella is one of a taut, perfect object, beautifully crafted (and translated by Samuel Wilder). Little is clear and there are few answers, but the ultimate impression is one of controlled gorgeousness.
Worth mentioning is the glorious cover to Describing the Past, designed by Sunandini Banerjee. With burning oranges and vivid turquoise evoking the brilliant heat of the Jordan Valley, Banerjee’s artwork complements the contents to create an altogether beautiful object.
It’s also exciting that such a volume comes from Calcutta-based Seagull Books, rather than the dominant English-language publishing houses of the UK and US.
Seeing Zaqtan’s novella emerging from this vibrant publishing house, and in such distinctive and elegant form, is an optimistic act of decolonization from a book trade centered on the UK and US. If Seagull’s vigorous list of Arab authors is indicative, there should be plenty more to come.