This collection of short stories has been greatly anticipated for some time. And what better place to review The Book of Gaza than from Dundee, the twin city of Nablus since 1980? The collection is edited by Atef Abu Saif who is shortlisted for this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction,an annual literary prize run with the support of the Booker Prize Foundation in London and funded by Abu Dhabi in the UAE.
At long last, here is a collection of Arab voices taken seriously and highly acclaimed by the literary mainstream, and in particular by those in academia. As winner of the well-recognised English Pen Award, the ten short stories have all been translated by academics: Middle Eastern translators, PhD holders, as well as PhD students within the areas of Arabic and Arab affairs.
Abu Saif introduces this collection of short stories by commenting on the fact that, perhaps with the exception of Jerusalem, “no Palestinian city has been so blessed with media coverage over the last half-century as Gaza”.
The writings portray Gaza from the 70s and 80s up to the present day with voices from five male and five contemporary female writers, including Mona Abu Sharekh (“When I Cut Off Gaza’s Head”), Nayrouz Qarmout (“The Cloak of The Sea”), Najlaa Ataallah (“The Whore of Gaza”), Yusra al Khatib (“Dead Numbers”) and Asmaa al Ghul (”You and I”). The short stories portray the everyday activities of the Palestinian people, as in “A Journey in the Opposite Direction” by Atef Abu Saif. Saif’s story depicts ordinary activities such as men smoking “nargilah pipes, cigarettes at the ‘little café” whilst also revealing glimpses of ongoing political affairs.
The journey towards the publication of the stories is in itself an insight into life in Gaza. Abu Saif explains that “Copying and transporting a story to publishing houses in Jerusalem to be printed was no easy take, and so its short length helped facilitate publication”. Thus Gaza became not only the “exporter of oranges” but also of “short stories”.
The main aim of these stories is to illuminate the everyday life of the Palestinians living in Gaza from the perspectives of native Palestinian writers, thus providing a more realistic and natural picture of Gaza than is usually portrayed in the West. This results in a pleasant alternative to the stereotypical coverage portrayed by the media. By looking at Gaza through the eyes of its people and not through the lenses of the corporate media, we are able to see and understand the humanity behind the everyday actions of people. These include, for example, a trip to the seaside on the Gaza strip and even something as prosaic as a taxi driving between sets of traffic lights. Indeed, the short story Red Lights by Tala Abu Shawish, translated by Alice Guthrie, is one that grabs the reader’s attention and challenges the reader to think about the contrasts and interactions between rich and poor in society. The story has a fast paced rhythm, with the taxi driver trying to pass through the junctions but being repeatedly stopped by the red lights. In a moment of humanity, the reader is perhaps inspired by the kindness the taxi driver shows to the children selling chewing gum in the street, despite his obvious frustration at being stopped at the lights for those few minutes.
But mostly, it is the place of Gaza itself speaking to us through these everyday activities. The translators achieve a genuine translation into English, and the writers have more stories to share. This is a book that will allow readers to see Gaza through its human side rather than through its political conflicts. The English language is spoken by a rich diversity of people worldwide and hopefully we will see more books translated from other languages and also written in English from other cultures, for this is what makes the English literary canon so valuable.