Find out what two reviewers thought of Selma Dabbagh’s debut novel Out of It in this double book review…
First Review by Dominic Davies
Selma Dabbagh’s debut novel, Out of It, is, as the title suggests, a powerfully spatial text that offers fascinating and nuanced insight into the complexities of the author’s own British-Palestinian identity, and the relationship between those two geopolitical areas. It is split into five parts, the titles of which orient the different sections around specific geographic areas: ‘Gazan Skies’, ‘London Views’, ‘Gulf Interiors’, ‘London Crowds’ and ‘The Gazan Sea’. These sections are organised so as to sandwich London, the metropolitan capital and Dabbagh’s current home, between the more overtly violent topographies of Gaza. It is this juxtaposition that, combined with the movement of the novel’s characters as they traverse these two geographical zones, forces a contrast between these two places, generating a productive friction that drives one of the overarching sociopolitical points of
Dabbagh’s ambitious first novel. A difficulty faced by any ‘post/colonial’ novelist, especially when writing in English for a global market (Out of It has been published in London, New Delhi, New York and Sydney—not Gaza), is the danger of commodifying the alien environment and its peoples for the still implicitly hierarchical and privileged readership of the Global North. But Dabbagh frames her representation of Gaza within a different referential paradigm, designed both to initiate this Western readership into the immediacy of Palestinian everyday life, whilst simultaneously deconstructing, in the tradition founded by the late Palestinian academic, Edward Said, the Orientalist stereotypes and assumptions that those readers might bring to it.
Through her superimposition of the terror and violence of the streets of Gaza onto the more mundane geographies of London’s cityscape, Dabbagh is not only engaged in a project of anti-Orientalist deconstruction. The novel’s topographical overlaying also performs a productive function, working to initiate a sense of cross-border political responsibility between the two geographical spaces that she herself, and the novel’s characters, inhabit. As an unidentified narratorial voice comments, at the climax of a powerful central chapter that is just two pages in length:
The chatterers that filled the streets [of London] became complicit with each missile that blasted the town [in Gaza], each sheet-wrapped body thrown into a mass grave, each screaming child outside a demolished home. (186)
The necessity of inserting the place-names into this quotation simply to makes sense of it is symptomatic of the geographical slippage at work throughout the novel. It is through this contrasting process that Dabbagh’s novel forces, indeed forges, a connection between the banality of the apparently depoliticized everyday life of London’s citizens and the violent horrors faced by the population of Gaza. This connection is not rooted in an historically informed guilt, though of course this would be legitimate. Instead, Dabbagh works these processes out through the distinctly personal prism of her characters, drawing on the movement between individual stories and collective responsibilities in a way that only the extended narrative explorations of the novel form allow. What results is a complex and fascinating critique of those who ignore the injustice of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, alongside a deconstruction and reevaluation of notoriously vehement non-Palestinian activists who have taken up the cause.
Whilst unpicking these pre-existing social nuances, Dabbagh’s first novel also offers some refreshingly original perspectives. Though engaged in a careful project of politicization, she simultaneously works to absolve her Palestinian characters of their political responsibility. The novel’s protagonists struggle with conflicting threads of obligation towards, and rejection of, the Palestinian cause as a defining aspect of both their lives and identities. Dabbagh’s exploration of these multiple dimensions of Palestinian life reclaims the realm of the private: those arenas of individual and family life that are not defined by political circumstance, so taken for granted in a country like Britain, so rare and difficult to come by in Palestine. After all, nestled at the heart of those geographically-oriented sections, and of the novel as a whole, is ‘Gulf Interiors’. It is through its evocation of these personal interiors, displaced spatially and symbolically onto domestic interiors—those parts of the city and of people’s lives not seen from the street, unrepresented in the media—that the novel is able to deconstruct stereotypes and assumptions that have been attached to Palestine in the Global North, whilst demanding a new engagement with the politics of occupation and dispossession on both individual, and global, levels.
Second Review by Sophia Brown
Gaza. The Second Intifada has just begun, and so begins Selma Dabbagh’s debut novel. The Mujahed family house stands amidst the detritus of other people’s destroyed homes, in an ‘elephants’ graveyard of arched steel and clumps of concrete’ (21): a visual reminder of the family’s good fortune, but also of the sheer fragility of life in what is often described by global media as the world’s largest prison.
Sabri is the eldest of three siblings. Wheelchair-bound, following a horrific attack that claimed his wife and child, he now seeks an escape from grief by writing the living history of his country: ‘Documenting destruction. Chronicling chaos’ (36). His younger brother Rashid volunteers for a local NGO but thinks only of escape – the first instance of the novel’s titular statement. To be out of it, ‘[r]ight the hell out of there’ (5), is his only desire. Their sister, Iman, is a school teacher as well as part of a women’s committee working in Gaza, but finds that her education in Switzerland precludes her from being able to voice an opinion – ‘“you’ve just turned up here…you’re new to this”’ (6) is the rejoinder to any point she wishes to raise. The changing political climate and the rise of religiosity stifle Iman’s attempts at belonging to a society she has been kept separate from. She notes wryly that ‘[n]o one joked about not fasting in Ramadan any more’ (11) and wonders how she will ever find her own relevance within the Palestinian struggle.
Their father, a prominent member of the PLO before turning his back on political involvement and moving to the Gulf, is resolutely anti-Islamic and cannot comprehend the Palestinians’ need for religion. After all, ‘God had hardly smiled on them this far’ (162). Jaded by the struggle for independence and yet nostalgic about his own capabilities as a young man, he disparages the generation that his children belong to. ‘They might at best be capable of revolt, but that in itself did not make them capable of revolution’ (162). It is Dabbagh’s exploration of this generation and its troubled inheritance of a fierce, ongoing struggle that drives the novel. Both Iman and Rashid end up in London, ‘out of it’, albeit temporarily. Iman observes those around her and is unsettled by their freedom to think about things other than occupation and is ‘fascinated by the directions that the mind’s interests took when no longer consumed by fear’ (185-6). This is London to her, its ‘streets delirious with inanities’ (186). Rashid seeks solace in these inanities, although it turns out to be a misplaced solace. He sees cause for celebration in how inwardly focused and preoccupied everyone seems to him, asking, ‘Isn’t that how it’s meant to be? Not to care about politics?’ (187).
What gives Dabbagh’s novel its depth and texture are the details that root us unmistakably in the occupied territories. There is the description of the rucksack of a young girl killed during an airstrike, at once ubiquitous and horribly sad. There is the reception that greets Iman on her return from London, when she is asked not about her long period of absence but only about how she fared at the border. There is Rashid’s sense of foreboding, colouring his daily life, a foreboding he does not recognise as a default Palestinian setting until he too returns to Gaza. And there is the photograph of their mother with its revelation of a hidden political identity, finally providing Iman with the heritage she so desperately craves in order to assert herself, both as a Palestinian and as a woman.
The Israeli journalist Amira Hass has commented: ‘To me, Gaza embodies the entire saga of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; it represents the central contradiction of the State of Israel – democracy for some, dispossession for others; it is our exposed nerve.’ (7). Dabbagh explores what this exposed nerve means to those for whom it is a daily reality. That she does so with such energy, perception and even humour is testament to her broadness of vision, and places Out of It in the growing library of smart and revealing narratives about the Palestinian occupation.
Amira Hass – Drinking the Sea at Gaza: Days and Nights in a Land Under Siege (London: Penguin, 1999). Trans Elana Wesley and Maxine Kaufman-Lacusta