A Compelling, If Foggy Debutby Rayyan Al-Shawaf
Out of It
(Bloomsbury USA, 2012)
Some might grumble that the novel Out of It, with its secular, nominally Muslim, and Westernized Palestinian protagonists who oppose Islamists both for their ideology and their attacks on Israeli civilian targets, was deliberately crafted with the intent of making a much-maligned Arab people more palatable to a Western readership. Yet even if true, this would not change the fact that such Palestinians exist, and that they rarely receive media or literary attention.
Just as important in this debut novel by Selma Dabbagh, a British-Palestinian writer, is the author’s examination of the dehumanization inherent in according the Palestinians a single role—even if positive—from which any departure earns severe censure. In London, Lisa’s romantic interest in Rashid, whom she met on a solidarity visit to Gaza, reveals itself to be based entirely on his status as a human rights activist—with all its attendant obligations. The longer he stays in London and the less engaged he becomes with the Palestinian cause, the more prosaic and even frivolous he begins to appear to her.
The story centers on adult siblings Rashid, Iman, and Sabri Mujahed, who live in Gaza with their mother. Raised by cosmopolitan parents who are now separated (the father lives in an unnamed Gulf Arab country), the Mujahed kids grew up in several Middle Eastern and European cities, at a time when their parents were politically active in the Palestinian cause. They are now suffocating in Gaza. In a phone conversation with Lisa about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Rashid exaggerates only slightly in asserting “that it was not a war, that it was more of a cage fight, where the other side could throw these flying kicks but their side was limbless or heavily disadvantaged in some way and kept getting disqualified for spitting.”
Dabbagh inhabits the minds of all three of the main characters in Out of It, which is set in Gaza, the UK, and the Gulf. Twenty-something Rashid emerges as more fleshed out and multi-dimensional than his sister Iman (also in her 20s) and older brother Sabri. This is due in large part to his character being endowed with more than passion for a political cause. Rashid feels guilty that Sabri is not the one in London on a scholarship, puzzles over Lisa’s waning interest in him, and grapples with a dependency on marijuana’s sedative effects that he developed while in nerve-wracking Gaza. Ultimately, he best embodies the book’s title.
Cerebral Sabri, a former militant whose legs were blown off years ago in a car explosion orchestrated by Israel, is immersed in writing a history of the Palestinians, and comes to life only when reminiscing about his now-estranged wife and child. Meanwhile, Iman, who seems unable to carve out a niche for herself in Gaza, the Gulf, or London, proves intriguing, but never matches Rashid in commanding the reader’s attention.
Chief among secondary characters is Ziyyad Ayyoubi, a shadowy but apparently honorable member of the Palestinian Authority who saves Iman’s life—and may be smitten with her. But Ziyyad remains too distant, both in terms of his personality as well as his physical proximity to the story’s protagonists, to make as much of an impact as Dabbagh clearly would have liked. Moreover, the reasons for his increasingly untenable position in Gaza are frustratingly generic; he is a man of principle who opposes the Islamists for politico-ideological reasons but cannot countenance rampant corruption in the Palestinian Authority. Specific examples of his struggles with adversaries are not provided.
Although her protagonists come off as a bit too restrained and mannered, even when lambasting Israel, Dabbagh does not shy away from exposing the iniquity of Israeli actions toward the Palestinians. For example, an oblique reference is made to the frighteningly harmful white phosphorus gas (which Israel admitted to using in the 2008 – 2009 Gaza campaign). There is also an explicit mention of Israel’s alleged use of dum-dum bullets (technically inaccurate; Israeli troops use high-velocity bullets that break up inside the body, often causing damage to vital tissue—but which resemble the dum-dum bullets of expand-upon-impact notoriety). However, Dabbagh does err in underestimating the percentage of British Mandate Palestine allotted to its Arab inhabitants in the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan, and the amount of land over which they obtained full or partial autonomy following the Oslo Accords in the 1990s.
The most memorable encapsulations of the Palestinians’ plight assume the form of spontaneous musings or commentaries. Over decades of oppression at the hands of Israelis and fellow Arabs, the Palestinians have honed a unique kind of humor, at once indignant and wry (and inescapably similar to the world-weary outlook for which Jews have become renowned). This humor has become so ingrained that it manifests itself unconsciously in statements that are entirely sincere. At one point, seconds before Israel assassinates a suspected militant a few yards away from her, Iman looks up to see a hovering American-made Apache attack helicopter, and wonders: “Are we to be killed off in reservations by helicopters named after others killed off in reservations?”
When Jamal, a friend of Rashid’s, is arrested by Israeli troops who raid the human rights center where he and Rashid work, the Kafkaesque vagaries of “preventive detention” come to the fore. Sabri explains: “As he doesn’t have to be charged with anything, it is very difficult to show that he is innocent because no one knows what it is that he has to be innocent of.”
A gratuitously dramatic ending mars but does not spoil this novel. In certain respects, Out of It underwhelms, which is probably why Dabbagh, in a belated attempt to jolt the reader, tacked on a jarring conclusion. Yet while its deliberate pace will not quicken one’s heartbeat, the story never flags. For this, credit must go to the author’s admirable insistence on resisting the urge to portray her protagonists as mere victims. To be sure, Dabbagh depicts Rashid, Iman, and Sabri as members of a people that has been—and continues to be—wronged. Yet she also unspools their many loves, follies, and idiosyncrasies, while refraining from making all their compatriots angelic and virtuous.
RAYYAN AL-SHAWAF is a writer and book critic in Beirut.