Literature about Palestine by Palestinian authors is like a deluge of insights into what is missing from what we proclaim to know. Our knowledge is dominated by news reports and statistics, while stories from the Palestinian people are sometimes used to substantiate the generalised media coverage. Nayrouz Qarmout’s short story collection The Sea Cloak & Other Stories (Comma Press, 2019) offers a literary depiction of Palestinian lives and a deeper understanding not only of the politics that mangles the Palestinian people’s freedom, but also the essence of culture, tradition, transitions from childhood to adulthood, the festering need for freedom and its perpetual annihilation by Israel.
These emotional narrations are necessary. Qarmout goes beyond the rhetoric of human rights violations and oppressions to portray the ramifications of what is usually so carefully disguised under euphemisms. Palestinian society is far from perfect; it grapples with its own social and cultural issues just as it has to continue its struggle for liberation. The people’s experience is a mixture of both, the difference being that Palestinian expression is mostly reinterpreted, talked over or dismissed. These stories do the opposite.
In The Sea Cloak, a story which infuses family traditions and expectations in Gaza with a desire for freedom, Qarmout writes, “The sand is littered with rubbish and tents dot the beach like bales of hay, where dreaming souls shelter, conversing with their most intimate yearnings.” The freedom to love and love of freedom intertwine in this story, as the protagonist contemplates her battles with family traditions and becomes conscious of a reality that is hers alone, and different from the reality inflicted upon her as a result of expectations.
The concept of dreams for Palestinians varies. From generations of choices dictated by expectations which are ultimately shattered no matter what the outcome, and the desire to achieve freedom in love as well as personal endeavours, as reflected in Breastfeeding, to the quest for liberation of one’s self and the land, Qarmout’s vivid descriptions engage the reader at a deeper level than a passive spectator of the imaginings provoked through her writing.
The Long Braid is a detailed remembrance of one woman’s struggle for freedom through her experiences in educational institutions. Qamar’s activism at school is marred by the patriarchy exhibited by one of her male teachers. Now a writer, she starts her day by penning slivers of memory: “She writes down another word that stands in defiance of all the meaningless symbols her maths teacher put on the board that day.”
For Palestinians, education is not just a necessity but also imperative. Pen and Notebook tells of a family afflicted by Israel’s colonial violence; the father is paralysed by a bullet to the spine. His three sons – two of them still young – are responsible for the family’s well-being and support. The eldest son hands over almost all his wages to his mother. What remains is shared among his brothers, instructing them to buy a pen and a notebook in the hope that one day the shackles of dependency will be alleviated or removed through the benefits of education.
Qarmout’s stories about Zionist state and settler violence depict the Palestinian people’s incarceration, both in terms of economic assurance and life. Both are precarious. In Black Grapes, a Palestinian labourer is exploited by Zionist settler-elitism when his employer refuses him payment because his son at university needs “a lot more money” than his Palestinian counterpart. Upon demanding his bonus, as per their agreement, another Zionist settler calls for help regarding the presence of “a terrorist” in the colonial settlement. The Palestinian narrative in this case is immediately obliterated due to the state’s preference for Zionist fabricated stories, upon which Israel’s foundations rest.
White Lilies explores the dissociation employed by drone operators in targeted assassinations of Palestinians. The dehumanisation of Palestinians, including children, is portrayed through the brief communication over “targets” and collateral damage. The link between relationships, nature and humanity is lost to the explosion. In Tel Aviv, the assassination is limited to the description of merely pushing a button.
Qarmout’s writing imparts what is missing in our learning about Palestine and Palestinians: the humanity that is so easily dismissed in favour of information that does more to alienate than foster a connection. Furthermore, the stories communicate the untarnished roots of hope for the completion of what was disrupted but remains relevant. Palestinians are the embodiment of such truth.