Literature is capable of having a transformative effect, affirms British-Palestinian writer Selma Dabbagh, but a number of issues must be addressed before such an impact can be felt in the Middle East.
The much-anthologized short fiction writer published her debut novel “Out of it” to considerable acclaim late last year. Having recently discussed her work at events in Dubai, Bahrain and Qatar, Dabbagh will present herself to the American University of Beirut audience Wednesday. In early May she’ll travel to Gaza, the principal location of “Out of it,” for PalFest, the Palestinian Festival of Literature.
Speaking to The Daily Star via email, Dabbagh, a lawyer who continues to work as a consultant in international criminal law and human rights law cases, is clear in her conviction that literature is indeed a powerful political tool.
“Fiction can play a powerful role in changing perspectives of the ‘other,’” she says, “the less powerful or the unseen, particularly in the context of political conflict.”
Fiction-writing, she notes, played a key role in addressing slavery and, later, race discrimination in the U.S., serfdom in Russia and apartheid in South Africa.
“I would also define writers like Fay Weldon [in the U.K.] and [Egypt’s] Nawal Saadawi ... as political writers,” she adds, “who affected social change through their depiction of the socially acceptable, but morally unacceptable, treatment of women in their societies.”
In the Middle East, Dabbagh continues, the “story has an ancient and universal power that will never cease to exist. Stories will always be told, written, read and listened to, even with the advent of the electronic media that bombards our lives with fragments of news and tidbits of seemingly urgent communications.”
Last year’s Egyptian revolution, she says, saw “fiction writers like Ahdaf Soueif, Alaa El Aswany and Ahmed Khaled Tawfiq taking on critical roles as commentators ... [They] were followed and trusted partly due to the empathy that their characters evoked in their readers.
“There is definitely therefore, a role for fiction writers in the development of Middle Eastern societies and there are new, dynamic publishing houses ... translating foreign titles into Arabic and disseminating new Arab voices across the region and in the West.”
Still, Dabbagh contends, “there is no room for complacency.”
The Arab world’s literacy levels are low, she points out. “In some countries, like Bahrain, human development indicators for education are declining in recent years.”
Dabbagh goes on to list other challenges. “Writers rarely make a decent income from their work, unless they become popular abroad. [Distribution] channels are weak. There are few agents for writers. [The] copyrighting of their work is inadequately protected and the culture of reading seems to be on the decline ... These issues have to continue to be addressed before literature is able to have the kind of transformative impact that it is capable of having.”
“Out of it” is her contribution to that effort to overhaul society and change perspectives, although she did not initially set out to write a Gaza novel.
“The idea for ‘Out of It’ came with the image of a young man leaping [stoned, exasperated yet defiant] up on a roof while a fighter jet shot through the sky above him.
“The short story – “Stupid Bloody Tuesday” – that I built around the image, which ultimately became the novel, was set in an unnamed location and the characters had letters for names. It could have been Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza. It wasn’t important for the mood and crisis that the characters were in.”
Realizing that it was impossible to “sustain that kind of high-level reality” over an extended work of fiction, Dabbagh decided hers was “a Palestinian novel, about political consciousness.”
She chose Gaza because of the “extremity of the situation there, in terms of the blockade, occupation and siege, the number of refugees, the state of fake independence that the peace agreements brought about and the number of young people alienated from mainstream politics.”
One of Dabbagh’s objectives with this book was to “communicate to a Western audience as well as an Arab one.” Hence her main characters are “insider-outsiders.” Twins Rashid and Iman and their elder brother Sabri are “PLO brats” – the children of the organization’s once-exiled leadership. Raised and educated overseas, they’re now back in Gaza, each working to either cope with, contribute to or escape the struggle.
The novelist says, it was no easy feat to write fiction set in such a politically charged landscape.
“I did not want the novel to read like journalism, so I avoided the use of the word ‘Palestinian’ and ‘Israeli’ as much as ... possible. I did not give political groups their real names as to do so could alienate readers who knew nothing about them.
“I chose to avoid setting events around a particular historical event, or to fix the chronology too much, because I wanted to avoid getting drawn into arguments about the ‘truth’ of certain episodes in recent history.
“I also did not want to have too many ... passages where the situation was spelt out to readers in a direct pedagogical way as that would break the continuous dream-like spell that a novel must evoke in order for it to work.”
Dabbagh’s work is populated by diverse characters, who in the course of their narratives raise countless indirect questions about society, destiny, purpose and obligation.
The novel was grinding hard work, she says. “But [writing] is a mad, rough science that involves a fair degree of magic too.
“Writers sometimes just have to wait for voices to come through. It is like being in a séance trying to coax the dead to communicate more clearly ... Sometimes the characters are just there and it seems obvious that they have always existed.”
Dabbagh’s novel has generally been well received in the regional and international press but the book hasn’t yet been distributed to her most important audience, the readership in Gaza.
“When writing the novel, I was constantly trying to address the need not to idealize, or glorify Palestinian lives in a way that failed to convince, or had the whiff of propaganda about it,” she says, “but at the same time not to further their misrepresentation internationally. It took me a long time to resolve these competing needs. I will be interested to know whether readers in Palestine, particularly in Gaza, think that I got the balance right.”
“Out of It” is set to be translated into Arabic by Samer Abouhawwach, one of the writers who participated in “Beirut 39,” so Gaza readers will soon have a better chance to consume the book.
But Dabbagh discloses no great anxiety at this prospect, saying: “I think that my novel has been read by enough Arabs and Palestinians in English for me not to be overly concerned about how it may be received.”
“It may still hit a nerve somewhere though, or be seen as conveying a political message that I did not intend. Who knows? But at the end of the day a novel is a text for debate, and debate outstrips apathy any day.”
Selma Dabbagh will discuss her work at a lecture entitled “The Literary Landscape and Social Conflict: The Role of the Writer,” Thursday, April 19 at 3 p.m. in West Hall, Room 310, AUB.