In late January the Trump administration unveiled its “Deal of the Century,” a blueprint which grants the Israeli government a green light to annex even the most isolated settlements in the Palestinian territories, yet offers the Palestinians a state in name only.
Presciently timed, The Book of Disappearance by Palestinian novelist and journalist Ibtisam Azem, translated from Arabic by Sinan Antoon, grapples with the themes of disappearance, identity, and the fraught relationships between Palestinians and Israelis.
Set in Tel Aviv after the entire Palestinian population has suddenly disappeared from Israel, it features dual narrators, an Israeli liberal, and the voice of his lost Palestinian friend, whose voice carries on through the journal he left behind.
Author Azem sat down for an interview with Sherif Abdel Samad of the Asia Times:
Sherif Abdel Samad: Your novel is one of the very few in Arabic literature which has a convincing Israeli protagonist. Ariel, who is a journalist and peace advocate but also Israeli through and through. Despite his sympathy with his friend Alaa, he fails to understand the grievances of his friend, and Palestinians in general. Can you tell us more about the creation of his character? And whether Ariel represents Israeli liberals who disappointed you as a Palestinian?
Ibtisam Azem: The relationship between any Palestinian and Israeli living in historic Palestine is governed by power dynamics and it exists in a settler-colonial framework, despite the different legal situations the Israelis have forced on Palestinians living in various parts of Palestine. We cannot speak of “disappointment,” because this relationship is unequal and is not “normal” to start with for there to be love, hate, or disappointment.
Alaa, the Palestinian character and one of the two main narrators, asks a central question posed by anyone living under colonial rule and that is: “How can I sweep their memory from mine?” This is the first step in the process of liberation. It is not as easy as one may think. It is a way of rearranging the relationship with space (Palestinian/Israeli) and a colonized place. It is a way of changing meanings and one’s relationship to place and memory, and a homeland called Palestine. Trying to reclaim it.
Samad: The disappearance of the Palestinians in Israel begins with the death of Tata, an old Palestinian woman, who had refused to leave with her husband when Israeli settlers occupied Yaffa. She uses the term ‘orphan’ a lot to describe her state. Does Tata embody the fear of Arab-Israelis that the new generations will one day lose their identities with the death of old ones?
Azem: The term “Israeli-Arab” is very problematic and I personally refuse to use it even though it is sometimes used by some Palestinians for practical reasons to describe a legal status. Using this term reinforces the Zionist narrative and the negation of Palestinianness before the establishment of the state of Israel. Israeli citizenship, by the way, is forced on Palestinians living in Israel.
There is no fear of losing identity as such. The novel articulates a reading of socio-political and existential realities from a Palestinian perspective. The grandmother’s and Alaa’s voice are the return of the Palestinian who is taking the reins of the narrative.
The narratives of the Palestinians in the novel are also about narrating the Palestinian city. Zionist ideology and propaganda tried to erase the history of Palestinian cities. They “made the desert bloom” is the slogan that sums up the colonial myth. There were more than a dozen cities in Palestine teeming with life and with vibrant economies and institutions. Most of those cities have been marginalized and have serious socio-economic problems. The grandmother’s and Alaa’s voices place the marginals, even as it seems to disappear, at the center.
Samad: How was your novel perceived in Palestine, the Arab World and Israel? There is a Hebrew translation planned. Are you anticipating an angry backlash?
Azem: The response in Palestine has been wonderful. The most rewarding moments for me are when young men and women in readings and events, especially in small towns or villages, express their positive views, or tell me how they felt the novel was telling their stories. I was very moved when one reader told me that now he sees Jaffa, which he visits often, differently. I was happy with how the novel has been received in the Arab world. It was praised by major writers whose work I highly respect, such as Hoda Barakat and Abbas Beydon.
As for Israel, there is no agreement to translate the novel into Hebrew. Any such translation must be in accordance with the principles of BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) as they pertain to Palestinians inside.
Samad: Unlike Sayed Kashua, a Palestinian-Israeli author, you chose to write in Arabic and not Hebrew. At the same time your text is imbued with many Hebrew words that render the reader closer to the settings in Tel Aviv where the novel also takes place. Did you ever envision writing fiction in Hebrew and what is your relation to the Arabic language? And what do you prefer to call yourself? Kashua is often described as an Israeli-Arab? Does this designation negate the essence of what you aim to represent?
Azem: I cannot speak for Mr Kashua. As I mentioned before, “Israeli-Arab” is unacceptable and negates Palestinian identity. I define myself as Palestinian, full stop.
As for language, why would I write in Hebrew? Arabic is my mother tongue. The first foreign language I learned was Hebrew. My relationship with it is difficult and complicated and has changed as my political consciousness did. I used some Hebrew words in the dialogue for several reasons. The most important of these was to take the reader into the city’s atmosphere and the realistic setting. There are instances when the use of these words is ironic and sarcastic too.
Arabic is my mother tongue and one of the most beautiful languages I know. It is very flexible and aesthetically pleasing. It is the language of home, love, and pain. It is quite rich, whether in the standard or all the dialects. How could I squander this treasure and write in another language? I will quote Hoda Barakat here. When she was asked about writing in Arabic and not French despite being in France for more than three decades. She said if she were to write in French, her novels would be someone else’s novels and not her’s.
Samad: I read many Palestinian novels that are imbued with nostalgia for their lost hometowns. Many characters like the Palestinian Alaa in your novel are full of self-pity and lament their suppression, which makes it sometimes difficult to identify with the protagonist. The victimization aspect in the narration might be too political. Can you write a political novel without this purpose?
Azem: Any novel, or any work of literature or art, is created in a socio-political space and a historical context. Even if the events take place in a room and none of the characters leave that room or talk politics, it is political. Politics is always there. The question is: Has the author succeeded aesthetically and artistically or not?
In terms what you describe as Alaa’s “self-pity” and “victimization,” I disagree and don’t think that’s accurate. Why does this come up when some speak of Palestinian literature? Palestinian literature, in general, transcended this decades ago.
Alaa doesn’t see himself as a victim in a defeatist sense. Furthermore, the Nakba is an ongoing process and hasn’t ended. Palestinian refugees cannot return after seven decades. They are killed, besieged, and their homes are destroyed.
Let me add another point: in settler-colonial countries, whether in Israel or the US, the natives are urged to forget the past and to “move on.” We shouldn’t be chained to the past and become its hostages. This narrative is internalized by others at times.
While it is problematic to focus solely on the past, erasing it and detaching it from the present is even more problematic. When we work with memory and framing the past, we are also working on framing the future.
Samad: In your novel Palestinians are treated as if they were invisible. How do you feel when killings of Palestinians occur in the present day?
Azem: It is not a uniform feeling. Every time you read about an incident, watch it, or experience something personally as a Palestinian, another wound is born. But the determination that we will one day be free is reborn as well.
Samad: In your novel the Israeli government reacts to the Palestinian disappearance by sending settlers to their land, and many Israelis are buying homes in the Palestinian territories because housing in Israel is expensive. Do you think the scenario in your novel might one day become reality?
Azem: This scenario started becoming a reality 70 years ago and is still ongoing. By deploying the future fantastic and sudden disappearance, the novel is in effect remembering both past and present through this event. Will the ethnic cleansing that took place during the Nakba be repeated on the same scale? I don’t know. But I cannot deny that I’m not optimistic. I am a pessoptimist, in the tradition of the great Emile Habibi.