An unfulfilled desire has no sanctuary other than remembrance. Radwa Ashour’s novel, The Woman from Tantoura (Hoopoe Fiction, 2019), explores the ramifications of memory and how its story is told. Chronology, while important, plays a lesser role than emotions, while memory takes on its own trajectory. “The story moves on, but sometimes not completely, because as it advances in time it goes back, and remembers.”
Ruqayya, the novel’s protagonist, was just 13 when the Palestinian village of Tantoura was ethnically cleansed by Zionist paramilitary forces. Prior to the arrival of Palestinian refugees from Qisarya, Ruqayya had accepted a marriage proposal. There is an abrupt change from a celebratory tone to one of impending destruction, as refugees bring their stories of displacement and news of colonial settlements. As Zionist forces close in on Tantoura, the Palestinian Nakba becomes a tangible experience for Ruqayya. Whilst fleeing the village with her mother, she sees the corpses of her father and brothers. Ruqayya is temporarily unable to speak due to shock, while her mother refuses to acknowledge the evidence and fabricates a story in which her husband and sons survived yet are unable to return from their self-imposed exile in Egypt.
As a refugee in Sidon, Lebanon, living with her uncle and his family, Ruqayya questions her identity and role. Alongside what she learns of death during the Nakba, she realises that the trauma of displacement in such a short period has also distanced her from her previous plans. Her marriage to Amin, her cousin, adds to her confusion as she settles in, yet questions, her new role. As time passes, and her three children become adults, each with their own way of relating to Palestine, Ruqayya’s memory is haunted by Tantoura and the refugee identity, which she revisits and brings up on occasions when she feels it is necessary to assert her origins.
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For Ruqayya, the massacre of Tantoura is not the only traumatic experience. After marriage, she leaves Sidon for Beirut with her family, where her life is once again lacerated by the Sabra-Shatila massacre.
Ruqayya’s awareness and memory are void of the rigorous analysis usually associated with Palestine. The protagonist’s political education, also a journey of self-discovery, comes at a later stage when her children have become adults and are pursuing different aims and ambitions. It also enhances her ever-present sense of community, which is tested when she moves temporarily to Abu Dhabi where her son Sadiq lives, and later to Alexandria, before returning to Sidon.
As a refugee travelling in different countries, Ruqayya’s consciousness is forever haunted by Tantoura and her dream of returning. When her son, Hasan, suggests that she writes down her memories, there is a point at which she feels she can’t continue. Writing her narrative takes its emotional toll, yet her son insists, “I wanted others to hear your voice, the voice of Ruqayya the woman from Tantoura.”
In telling her story, there is an immediate acknowledgement of all the details that cannot be told, for several reasons. Those fleeing the massacres can only tell a part of the historical narrative, the rest is pieced together gradually. What remains untold, and unknown, is as haunting as the ultimate dream, still unfulfilled, of Palestinians returning to their homeland.
Ruqayya describes her existence as having “remained alive, by chance.” Her testimony of the Nakba and later atrocities validate her statement. Family members and friends have been killed or disappeared, yet Ruqayya is still alive to narrate what knowledge she has of the events, juxtaposed against her own existential quandary. Her life as a married woman and a mother are completely different trajectories from that of Ruqayya who is constantly seeking connections to her past, adamantly asserting her origins and her refugee status, much to the disappointment of Sadiq, who takes a differentiating approach between his current status and his origins as the child of refugees. On one occasion, she ruminates, “There were three wars and a massacre between the two banquets.”
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Many Palestinian voices have been lost since the Nakba. Ruqayya provides us with a representation of those voices which, with encouragement and opportunity, would have contributed to the construction of Palestinian narratives since the Nakba. Her narrative is about a perpetual search to communicate, and when that communication stalls, the identity crisis engulfs her once again. Waiting with other Palestinians behind the fence to greet relatives on the other side is the closest she gets to the land she is forbidden from entering. It is there that she hands over her most cherished relic of Palestine, to a family member on the other side of the fence.
Memory is painful partly because there is no fulfilment and, in the case of Palestinians, an extensive network of complicity thwarting the Palestinian right of return. Ashour’s prose explores this political violation skilfully from a simple narrative, one that remembers and which is a common experience for all Palestinians. The land is colonised, but remembrance remains intact. With no outlet, it becomes an implosion.