The Mujahed household, with its grown inhabitants, stands alone “in a tented wasteland.” After years spent moving between Scandinavia, Beirut, Paris and Geneva, the prominent Palestinian family finds itself back, and fatherless, in Gaza. Here, while the mother pickles vegetables and tends to the needs of her almost-40-year-old son, the sentiments of her 27-year-old twins, Rashid and Iman, are largely overlooked.
After a night of heavy Israeli bombing, Rashid opens the email he’s been waiting for. It bears news of an awaited university scholarship – his ticket out of Gaza and all its squalor. Meanwhile, his sister, whose Swiss education has made her feel an outsider in her own community, is desperately seeking a role for herself in the turbulent enclave so she may fulfill her duty to the Palestinian cause.
British-Palestinian writer Selma Dabbagh’s debut novel “Out of It” charts the lives of the Mujahed family over the course of the following 10 months. In doing so, she creates a textured portrait of what it is to inherit a conflict. The author also attains that thing to which so many writers aspire: a book that is much more than the sum of its words.
Within the Mujahed family home, Dabbagh artfully conveys an unspoken division between those who have already contributed to the cause – the mother and elder son Sabri, who lost his wife, child and legs to a car bomb 15 years earlier – and Rashid and Iman, who have not.
Even away from home, the twins cannot escape the complex architecture of their national legacy.
In London, Rashid’s middle class British girlfriend Lisa – who unrelentingly gathers statistical evidence of the misery in Gaza to present to various U.K. parliamentary committees – seems most interested in him when he is a victim.
She cradles Rashid when he wakes screaming from a nightmare, but loses her temper with him when he provides a Foreign Office official with an honest account of a drug-fueled party thrown by a potential “partner for peace.”
“You can’t just go around showing your dirty laundry in public,” Lisa chastizes him. “Keep it to yourself. You can’t afford the luxury of showing that off.”
While Rashid’s efforts to get away from Palestine are repeatedly thwarted by foreigners who have adopted the cause, Iman’s endeavors to contribute are met with an equally stubborn resistance to her involvement.
Her activities in Gaza end with her promptly being shipped to the Gulf to live with her father and his girlfriend – both of whom have abandoned politics and the agonies of their war-torn past in favor of luxury and consumerism. As they pluck, paint and dispatch a disagreeable Iman on a series of dates, neither can understand the girl’s unwillingness to forget Gaza.
A widely anthologized short story writer, Dabbagh has made a graceful transition to long fiction with “Out of It.” Grand philosophical issues do subtly define the scaffolding of the novel, but they certainly do not weigh heavily on the progression of the plot, which moves apace from the first chapter.
Iman finds herself compulsively following a mysterious figure. Sabri is irked by Rashid’s failure to see the significance of their neighbor’s new car. Their mother’s stoic silence about the cause of their father’s departure hints at unknown family history. Unlikely love affairs blossom and disintegrate.
Though its story is undoubtedly compelling, the novel’s triumph lies in the questions Dabbagh raises while developing her central narrative.
Her settings – Gaza, London and the Gulf – skillfully juxtapose poverty, cosmopolitanism and ostentatious opulence, and in doing so they confront readers with the merits of each society without asking them to weigh them as such.
Elsewhere, peripheral characters raise other important questions. For instance, Rashid’s thesis supervisor in London muses aloud as to why he chose to dedicate his life’s work to the Palestinian conflict rather than, say, the Kurdish struggle.
While Israel is consistently and indubitably painted as the enemy throughout the novel, Dabbagh does not shy away from criticizing the activities of and infighting between various, loosely fictionalized, Palestinian factions. As an anguished Rashid finally prepares to take action, the novel thus raises the unwritten question of whether any of it will make even the slightest difference.
Selma Dabbagh’s “Out of It” is published in English by Bloomsbury Qatar.