Under occupation in exile

The Parachute Paradox by Steve Sabella, Kerber Verlag (2016)

Steve Sabella often talks of burdens in his memoir, The Parachute Paradox. He writes of carrying “the stones” of Israel on his back everywhere he goes, his personal burden in the form of artistic grief and depression.

The book’s construction itself is rather cumbersome: hardcover with a wraparound flap and unattached spine. The result is a book that one must be conscious of while reading – something that fits with the depressive state induced by the text throughout.

Sabella, an award-winning photographer who has exhibited work internationally, writes of both his internal struggles as an artist and his external struggles as a Palestinian in exile.

Both dovetail into and feed off each other in his mind.

Born in Jerusalem, Sabella lived in the Old City, constantly dealing with the pressures of a Jewish society that increasingly did not want him there as a Palestinian. These built-up pressures, along with consideration for the comfort and safety of his wife and daughter, led to the author’s move to Europe and ultimately to Berlin.

The feeling of exile from his homeland and that Israel still “occupies” him, coupled with his strife as an artist who finds purpose for his work in the occupation, is the crux of the book.

The Parachute Paradox tells much of its story in anecdotal vignettes. These allow Sabella to delve into the daily reality of life under Israeli military occupation.

The “parachute” of the title alludes to one of Sabella’s experiences in which he went skydiving in Haifa. Sabella comments that, while in the air, he felt that the borders of countries were erased.

Rooted to Jerusalem

Creating an account of these stories, when Palestinian Jerusalemites are often excluded from the larger narrative of Palestinian history, is valuable.

It is sensed throughout the book that, while Jerusalem is deeply rooted in Sabella’s heart, the city was constantly attempting to uproot him through alienation, intimidation and bureaucracy.

Indeed, a constant thread is that Palestinians are despised by many Israelis and that, at the same time, Palestinians – including Sabella himself – punish themselves through self-loathing.

In one instance, Sabella describes his youthful wish to visit Israeli bars and how, in order to do so, Palestinians learn to dress in Israeli fashion and passably speak any language other than Arabic, lest their true identity be discovered and they’re thrown out.

Sabella calls this “the game”: “We all played the game because we knew that if Israelis found out we were ‘Arabs’ they wouldn’t leave us alone. Nobody liked Arabs. We developed a self-hatred, triggered by a system that considered and treated Arabs as inferior.”

Another vignette describes in great detail what it takes to get into the offices of the Israeli interior ministry, which Sabella was forced to do in order to fight for citizenship for his Swiss wife – something guaranteed to the spouses of Jewish citizens.

The author recounts Palestinians arriving in the queue at midnight with sleeping bags to make the narrow window when the offices are open, only for anyone still in line by noon to be turned away.

In a particularly harrowing scene, Sabella describes his and a colleague’s kidnapping by militants in Gaza while working on location for the United Nations. The kidnappers, mistaking him as Israeli because of his unusual name and “foreign” fashion sense, abduct the two in order to negotiate the release of one of their members.

Despite his predicament and the kidnappers’ threats of violence, the author is sympathetic toward them because of the dire situation he witnessed in Gaza and their lack of self-worth – a sense that there is nothing to lose.

As Sabella recounts:

But then [the kidnapper’s] shoulders slumped, and in a voice filled with self-pity, he said,

We are shit.

We deserve everything that’s happening to us.

The Jews are just better than us.

These words echo those of a doctor, who Sabella meets a couple of days prior, who categorizes a third of all Palestinians in Gaza as exhibiting severe signs of depression and mentions that such talk is a sign of extreme ailment.

The book is rife with stories of Sabella’s friends and their brushes with the occupation. One recounts the author’s friend Hani, an artist who was detained by the Israeli army without due cause.

On the day of Hani’s eventual release, an interrogator demands that Hani draw something for him to hang over his chair. When Hani refuses to sign the drawing, the interrogator breaks the hand he drew it with in a fit of rage.

Predicament of Palestine

These anecdotes, supplemented by explanations of the predicament of Palestine and its “peace” process, are the strong points of the book.

However, there is a self-indulgent streak that detracts from its strength.

Sabella focuses often on his romantic relationship with his wife, the “open” nature of this relationship and love interests throughout. While some pages would of course be used to write about such matters in a memoir, some of this text fails to support the overarching theme.

The most prominent example of this is a discussion of the person Sabella calls “the muse” – a woman he meets in Berlin who helps him out of a depressive creative phase while they engage in a romantic relationship.

While including some of her artistic input makes sense in such a book, rehashing the full extent of their relationship – including the reaction of Sabella’s wife – makes less sense.

Similarly, some of the stories peppered throughout appear to be there in order to paint Sabella in a flattering light instead of to drive home a point.

For example, Sabella describes how he taught himself Hebrew mostly through home study and in a matter of weeks obtained a language certification that usually takes a year and a half to complete. Other than the fact that the reader is told that Sabella understands Hebrew, the story’s inclusion seems extraneous.

It’s an unfortunate miscalculation that hurts the book’s overall integrity and might have been avoided if the text was filtered through another writer – and a more detached eye.

Marguerite Dabaie is a Palestinian American illustrator and cartoonist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work can be found at www.mdabaie.com.