Born in Scotland in 1970, after a life split between Europe and the Middle East, Selma Dabbagh settled in London, where she combines her activity as a human rights lawyer and her support for movements of solidarity with the Palestinians with her work as a writer. Her short stories have appeared in several collections, one of them has been adapted for radio by the BBC, and her novel Out of It, now published in Italian as Fuori da Gaza, in the Altriarabi series by Il Sirente (translation by Barbara Benini, 184 pages, €15), was named Book of the Year by The Guardian in 2012.
“I had no need to draw inspiration from my own family history to give life to the Mujahed family, the protagonists of the novel, because there are painful experiences, such as exile, that belong to all Palestinian families,” she told il manifesto.
“My grandfather came from Jaffa, ended up in prison several times and was in danger of being assassinated because of his political involvements. He decided to leave after 1948, when my father was hit by a grenade thrown by a member of a Jewish paramilitary group. They first ended up in Syria, then in Kuwait, and finally in the U.K., where my father met my mother, who is British. But Palestine never left our home: We have always taken part in demonstrations, have been members of NGOs, and in my extended family there were also some who were members of the PLO.”
The novel, which Dabbagh will introduce Sunday in Rome as part of the ninth edition of the Salone dell’editoria sociale (at Porta Futuro, via Galvani 108, at 6 p.m.), describes the daily life of a Palestinian family in the Gaza inferno, where young people, like Rashid and his sister Iman — who also try to build a life far from the war, between the Gulf and London — see their own lives hemmed in by the Israeli bombardment and the growth of Islamic fundamentalism. It is a novel that, beside the claustrophobia of a city and a world under siege, evokes the desire for freedom that is rousing the younger generation of Middle Eastern societies, and which has already been fueling the Arab Springs.
Your novel seems to be built on the dialectic lived out by the young Palestinian heroes, between wanting to stay and fight and the impulse to flee and pursue their own aspirations. What remains of the individual and their desires in such a situation?
It is the tension between these two impulses that goes back to the idea behind the book: to be ready to give one’s life for the cause or to run away from those places. Starting with the English title, Out of It, I tried to hold together the two dimensions of this “outside”: of a physical place and of a mental dimension, or a political consciousness if you will. It is an exploration of the different factors that have so far prompted people to stay or to leave, to oppose the political context in which they live or to simply look away from all that.
In this sense, the space given to their individuality and their own desires is a big issue. I remember having attended the wedding of a Gaza family that took place in Jordan, shortly after the Israelis had begun to bomb the Gaza Strip. A young man who was there burst into tears, because he had in fact broken up with his girlfriend, and his sister spoke to him harshly, asking him why he cried about that and why he didn’t cry for his people instead. For Palestinians, the feeling of not being able to investigate this interior space is often very real.
Did setting the book in Gaza in particular make this conflict, which is also an internal one, more explicit?
I chose Gaza because it expresses in an extreme way the situation that all Palestinians are living through. I wanted to explore the way in which the political context, the war, the violence, all loom over the interior world of each person. I was not trying to describe Gaza specifically, but rather to recount the state of war, of siege, and the pressure exerted on individuals. This pressure that the characters are living through, the conflicts and tensions in which they are immersed, are, after all, essential tools for a novelist.
Although the questions that run through it affect particular individuals, in your book a certain chorus-like dimension prevails. Do you imagine it as the novel of a people?
I hope that this will be the result. I wanted to try to capture the various dimensions of Palestinian life, which has become increasingly diverse in the last 70 years. The Palestinians are spread out across the whole world. They have adapted to, and now live in, different countries and cultures. This novel is my dissertation on all the ways, legal or not, in which they have been separated and divided. I asked myself what is that which still binds them, despite all this separation, and I decided that it is the awareness of an injustice that has not been made right. And each one of the characters in the novel has a different emotional relationship with this sense of injustice.
From the mother of the protagonists, active in the Popular Front from the start, to Lana, the wife of Sabri, one of the sons, who was involved with politics since she was a little girl, to Iman, who seems almost tempted by the message of the Islamists — the story you tell is, perhaps more than anything else, a story of women.
It would have been hard not to tell it that way. Women were involved in every phase of the Palestinian struggle, since the Arab uprising of 1936. From that time on, female figures are present in all the different waves of the movement. And they are still there today. You cannot write this story without talking about their role and involvement in everything.
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