This is a busy time of year, as noted in my last review, and when reading time is short, I often turn to collections of short stories, as they are easy to dip in and out of and the temptation to read on for just one more chapter is not so great! On 15 May, independent publisher Saqi Books generously made some of their ebooks on Palestine free to download to mark Nakba Day – the anniversary of the destruction of the Palestinian homeland in 1948 and the displacement of its population – and I was grateful for the chance to read and learn more. You may have heard of Saqi when a flood of their basement caused damage to the building and the books stored there. Fortunately, they have reached their funding target, however, if you would like to show support, I recommend picking up a copy of Qissat: Short Stories by Palestinian Women.
In the introduction to the collection, editor Jo Glanville writes that:
short stories are one of the most popular forms in Palestinian literature,
often being published in newspapers or one of a number of journals that feature new writers. Qissat also contains a mix of established and new writers from across the generations, some still living in Palestine, others based abroad. Some of the stories were written in English, some in Arabic and so, as the reader makes their way through the collection, it builds into a picture of what life has been like for Palestinian women over the years, with a much broader perspective than news reports. As with any short story collection, each reader will pick out different highlights, but a few of the stories that have stayed with me are here.
In Barefoot Bridge by Randa Jarrar, the act of going to a funeral is complicated as the journey cannot be made directly and is broken up by checkpoints and bureaucracy. Written from the perspective of a child, all the security theatre seems ridiculous and there is some dark humour when a soldier ‘misplaces’ one woman’s shoes and she retorts:
First my land, now my Guccis! God damn it.
When the child’s mother tries to chat to some of the waiting women around her, at first her Palestinian accent is ‘shabby,’ and they do not understand her, but when she tries using Egyptian dialect, they say she talks like a ‘movie star’ and so she gives up. On reaching their destination, the young girl soon adores her grandmother, Sitto, and her fantastic tales. Her father shows her where he grew up and talks to her about his life before he left, but also about what living in Egypt meant that he could do and how it changed things for both father and daughter, demonstrating the ambiguities and opportunities of leaving.
The Tables Outlived Amin is from Nuha Samara, who wrote many stories about Beirut. ‘A dreamer and an idealist,’ is how the narrator is introduced to people by his friend Amin. They talk and challenge each other, disagreeing on the right response to the violence escalating around them, but when tragedy strikes, the idealist discovers that he is more of a man of action that he had realised. (Translated by Christina Phillips.)
Selma Dabbagh’s Me (the Bitch) and Bustanji is set during Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait as a bored teenager with very usual teenage concerns, navigating piercings and catcalls, at that age of sharp tongue and wry observations of those around her, finds her world suddenly taken over by geopolitics. When she and her father have to decide where to go, after so much moving around, which passport is good to use and where to head to is not a straightforward matter. The insecurity and the perils of making the wrong call and the outcome for those who don’t have any choice at all contrasts with reading back over her teenage diary and its preoccupations.
I really enjoyed Local Hospitality by Naomi Shihab Nye, in which a young couple come back from the US for a visit and get caught up in the competitive hospitality of their relatives.
In Other Cities by Liana Badr (translated by S V Atalla), Umm Hasan dreams of a day trip to Ramallah but as she originally comes from Jordan and never managed to get the right papers, it seems impossible. The trip could also be a chance to get away from and prove a point to her husband, but the roadblocks, security patrols and checkpoint stress takes almost all of the enjoyment out of it.
Pleasure and terror kept her awake that night.
There was the pleasure of seeing bustling marketplaces and people going for an evening stroll without worrying about Israeli attacks. Here people did as they pleased, and nobody bothered them the way the settlers of Kiryat Arba provoked residents in the old city of Hebron.
And there was the terror of going broke, when she counted the little money she had left. Now she also began to fear that their return trip wouldn’t be as easy as the way here had been.
An additional disadvantage being travelling with her six young children, and anyone who has ever been stuck in a small space with an unhappy baby will sympathise with Umm Hasan’s worries.
I could have highlighted details from every story in Qissat: Short Stories by Palestinian Women, but hopefully that gives a flavour the variety of experiences brought out in the stories. I will be searching out more of the works by the authors featured, as well as reading more from Saqi in the future! Are there any short story collections that you are enjoying this winter, especially in translation? Let me know your recommendations in the comments.