Notes on books: Out of it by Selma Dabbagh

So I injured myself again – I am quite accident prone – and finally had time to read! Let’s say I like to see the positive side of things. I will spare you the details though – of my injury not the book.

I have to be honest: this is not a book I would normally pick up. It’s a part of the book club book of the month and so I happen to read it. It didn’t also have a great first line. It actually failed the first line test but I was intrigued by it. However, despite everything, it surprised me by being fast paced, witty and deep.

Just like I had understood the history of India from independence till the 1980s by reading Midnight’s Children, and the history of one part of South America though A Hundred Years of Solitude, I finally started to understand the Israel-Palestine conflict through this book. That is indeed a tall claim for a book that is a first novel. However, Out of It is politically engaged but also at the same time, deeply human.

As far as I can remember this conflict has been around. My earliest memories related to this conflict was not a war but a person: Yasser Arafat wearing his trademark keffiyeh and army greens smiling and waving on grainy Doordarshan News. India has traditionally been pro-Palestine following a shared colonial connect. It seems wherever the British are involved, they tend to cause conflict. I will leave the explanation for the complicated history of this region to better writers and political analysts.

The story follows a set of twins (reminded me of Rahel and Estha of ‘The God of Small Things’ a bit) Iman and Rashid Mujahed and how they try to find their place in the world in the middle of the conflict a process which is confusing and difficult even during peace time.

The novel opens with Rashid receiving an email of acceptance to study in London. He is excited and wants to get ‘out of it’. Iman on the other hand has come back from school in Switzerland and wants to start making her contribution to the cause except she is seen as an outsider with no connection to the homeland. So when a religious woman, Manar, approaches her, Iman is very tempted to go for it. However, Iman seems oblivious that this action would entail probably becoming a kamikaze warrior for a religious faction. She is stopped in time by people from her father’s former political organisation.

Rashid has been working his friend Khalil on recording the situation in Gaza. Their contact in London, Lisa, with whom Rashid is having a relationship is enthusiastic in the unsubtle and non-nuanced Western way. She wants to help but has no clue about the ground reality or the Arab culture.

Iman and Rashid also have an elder brother, Sabri, who has lost his family but continues to fight in a very intellectual way.

Rashid is also increasingly distracted from his life in Gaza because he is bent on leaving. It seems as if Rashid and Iman in spite of being twins are moving in opposite directions. Perhaps this is Dabbagh’s way of pointing out the choices available to young politically aware people in Gaza who want to be involved in the Palestinian cause.

Option 1: Do nothing. (No way)

Option 2: Write about the conflict in an academic way (Sabri’s choice)

Option 3: Join a religious group and blow up people to make a point (Iman’s first choice which she doesn’t make)

Option 4: Leave the country and create awareness of the Palestinian cause abroad (Rashid’s and Kalil’s first choice; Iman’s second choice)

Option 5: Return by courting controversy (Rashid gets caught at a rally for the Palestinian cause for possession of marijuana)

Option 6: Return without courting controversy (Iman’s final choice)

Option 7: Sacrifice oneself in the mistaken notion that it will help the family (Rashid final choice)

I am aware I am being facetious making the choices available at war time into a multiple choice question. If I do that, it’s only because the conflict itself takes on shades of the absurd.

Sabri loses his wife and child and even his legs in an attack on them. While Iman wants to go find her father who is living with another woman in Egypt, she is questioned at the Palestine border. Though she is not overtly mistreated she is not allowed to go to the bathroom even though her period has started. Sabri, Iman and Rashid’s mother turns out to be a freedom fighter/terrorist (choose your term; choose your side) called the Sparrow who had hijacked a flight to blackmail the other side into giving into their demands. Are those demands legitimate? I don’t know because by then the conflict is so murky no knows who is right or left anymore. Who is killing whom and why becomes so muddled up that even within Palestine people start turning on each other. I gave up trying to understand it. As Sabri says:

‘It’s not something that you ever get “straight in your head,”” Sabri says turning away from the television to look at Eva. ‘It’s too wrong to be justified, too screwed up to be straightened out. If you force yourself to understand it in any way that leads you to justify it then you are fucked and we are lost.’  (Dabbagh, 284)

I am reminded of this sentence that I read or heard when I was studying absurd drama. (If you know who said it, let me know and I will add the name.) It’s not an exact quote: What does one do in the face of the absurd but laugh? Indeed several parts of the book this laugher springs out. Rashid nicknames his marijuana plant, Gloria. (Let us pause to reflect on that.) His father Jibril Mujahed doesn’t know his wife is an ex-freedom fighter/terrorist (have you chosen your term/side yet?) called the Sparrow even though British Intelligence agencies and almost everyone in ‘the Organisation’ (the Palestine Liberation Organisation) know it. He finally finds out when someone makes a joke about it.

To balance out the absurd elements, Dabbagh forces the reader to confront the existence of the self/other. At one point in the novel, in London, Rashid is brought to his English girlfriend Lisa’s family home, “as though she had brought home a particular piece of jewellery from a junk shop and could now, against a plain background, appreciate its particular panache” (Dabbagh, 113) Later Rashid gets into the London tube, and spots a woman who:

…tested the air twice with her nose as through trying to detect prey and looked up and down the carriage.

Rashid looked at what she was looking at. It had to be the otherness of the passengers that was disturbing her. Their darkness, for they all were, without exception washed up there like him. (Dabbagh, 120)

According to Post Colonial theory, ‘the other’ is the opposite of the ‘self’, which is the coloniser. The ‘other’ is the (ex)colonised subject, the brown or black people who have been once subjugated. The other is both to be feared and exoticised. It’s kind of an ambivalent reaction. Rashid’s awareness of being othered comes through several times in the narrative. It irks him because it is a kind of prison. His relationship with Lisa is perpetually slipping into these two roles: roles that perhaps they want to escape but don’t know how to.

Iman’s roommate in London, Eva, typifies another reaction of the West to the East. On the face of it, Eva has many good intentions. She is a medical student and works for many charities. Iman explains why Eva’s naïve political outlook irritates her:

‘She was trying to talk to me about what was going on in the news and she kept trying to do this supposedly objective BBC thing of being so intelligent and always looking at the other point of view, and she kept using their terms: “terrorism”, “democracy”. I flipped.’ (Dabbagh, 193)

Eva represents a kind of unsubtle and criminally exuberant response that the West has towards the especially troubled East. It builds on exoticising the East. As Iman says a United Nations/BBC kind of objectivity which is perhaps born out of good intentions but does not necessarily understand the East or its problems. It is in fact another kind of prison.

Prisons are all over the book – the house in which the Mujahed family live, the country itself and once they leave the country, they are imprisoned by ideas of otherness.

I noticed an interesting thing – for much of the book, the other side (i.e. Israel) is mentioned obliquely. In fact I think the word ‘Israeli’ is mentioned either once or less than a handful of times in the book. Usually euphemisms like the ‘other side’ or ‘enemies’ are mentioned. There is a kind of self-censorship at work perhaps to avoid being accused of anti-Semitism.

Throughout the book, there are several secrets that the family has which are not revealed to Iman and Rashid. The fact that their mother is a high level operative of the Organisation is kept a secret. This they find out by looking up the recently released classified documents at the British Library. The sense that this family is not quite the regular one calcifies at this moment. The twins react in diametrically different ways. Rashid is disappointed and offended that this secret was being kept from him. Iman is proud of this heritage and feels empowered by this knowledge. Rashid is so disconnected from his Gazan life that he offers to die instead of another soldier.

Whatever their choices are, as narrators they are easy to relate to. Rashid and Iman have travelled all over Europe with their families; Iman has studied in Switzerland and later London; Rashid goes to London to study. They are young, neither of them is religious and both are insider-outsiders, people who are born in Gaza but educated abroad.

Finally, ‘Out of It’ apart from giving us a glimpse of Gazan life also contributes to world literatures from the conflict zone. Think South American literature, Partition literature, World War II literature, South African literature (apartheid) and Kashmiri-American literature (Agha Shahid Ali).

Read Out of It if you want to question the regular ways of seeing the world.

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