Palestine + 100: Stories from a Century after the Nakba

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This is an ‘expanded’ version of the review originally published in Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction 135. 49(1), Winter 2020: pp. 103-106.

Palestine + 100: Stories from a Century after the Nakba. Edited by Basma Ghalayini. Manchester: Comma Press, 2019, Reviewed by Emad El-Din Aysha

Palestine + 100 is an anthology of science and speculative fiction stories penned by Palestinian authors for Comma Press, an independent publisher in the UK. The stories are all set in 2048, a century after the nakba [catastrophe] of 1948 with the establishment of the state of Israel and the forced displacement of Palestinians. The book follows on from the success of Comma Press’s Iraq + 100 (2016), set a hundred years after the US invasion of 2003. Both book projects were meant to ameliorate a similar problem, namely, the dearth of SF in the literary traditions of countries like Iraq and Palestine if not most of the Arab world. Gritty realism, the historical novel, surrealism and magic realism, are the chief genres that Palestinian and Iraqi authors are comfortable with, evident in both anthologies. Many of the stories are borderline, SF and magic realism, while themes of loss, despair and hopeless pervade the vast majority of the stories, themes all too common to realism and the historical novel. This is perfectly understandable given that Palestine and Iraq have always been conquered lands, on the front line of many an invading force ravaging the Middle East.

The “Curse of the Mud Ball Kid”, by Mazen Maarouf, is the most surreal and tragic by far in Palestine + 100. It is set in a future world where the dreams of Palestinian children are quite literally stolen, by satellite, and beamed into the past as cannon fodder for debilitating video games. The central character in it is a boy, the last remaining Palestinian, who can’t be killed by all of the bioweapons the Israelis deploy against him, dying and resurrecting himself repeatedly. He’s clearly a stand-in for the Palestinian who stubbornly refuses to go away. This is a common motif in Arabic literature and art and can be found in Iraq + 100, the story entitled “The Worker” (Diaa Jubaili), with a statue-like blue collar Iraqi as the magic realist protagonist.

There are some notable differences however between Palestine + 100 and the Iraqi anthology. Whereas both books sport authors from the Iraqi and Palestinian émigré communities, cultural cosmopolitanism is more of an explicit theme in the Palestine anthology. This is most evident in “N”, by Majd Kayyal, with parallel worlds inhabited by Palestinians and Israelis used as solution to the coexistence problem or the two-state solution. The cosmopolitan past of cities like Cairo is touted as a model, housing people from all over the world, Jews included, in a wonderful cultural mix. Palestine cities were much like that themselves, prior to 1948. Cosmopolitanism is evident even in the “Curse of the Mud Ball Kid” since the caged Palestinian boy is displayed to tourists. This has shades of Kafka’s classic “The Hunger Artist” in it. The sufferings of the said Palestinian are also akin to the never-ending plight of Sisyphus and Prometheus, mythical characters punished for their defiance but nonetheless examples of free will to mankind. Even the phrase ‘mud ball kid’ sounds like ‘Billy the Kid’ while the cycle of death and resurrection is a clear nod to the Christ-saviour motif that bears the burden of the sins of others.

The more humorous “Final Warning”, by Talal Abu Shawish, has an alien mothership forcing the Palestinians and Israelis to make peace with each other. The alien non-invaders begin by knocking out all the electrical equipment, reminiscent of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). The story also has much in common a little known short story, “Or Else” by Henry Kuttner, with an alien threatening the whole human race with annihilation if two desperately poor Mexican farmers don’t stop fighting over a common water well. (Shared land and problems with religious extremists is mentioned in “Final Warning”).

Palestine + 100 is also more innovative in terms of narrative construction than the Iraq anthology, and actively utilises the blending of genres in this regard. “Sleep it Off, Dr Schott” by Selma Dabbagh is told through a first-person narrative interspersed with transcripts handed over for approval to the UN, something no doubt meant to reflect the internationalised existence of the Palestinian cause. Unless international bodies like the UN recognise you, and unless you write to them in the proper formal way, you don’t exist. Stories like “The Key” (Anwar Hamed) and “Digital Nation” (Emad El-Din Aysha) are told from the perspective of Israeli characters, as if Palestinians don’t exist, except as a nightmare on the fringes of Israeli mass consciousness. Nonetheless they are there and won’t go away, since the conscience of any human being – including an Israeli like Dr Schott – simply must acknowledge the rightness of their cause.

“The Key” is also borderline and in more than one way. The story is about a gravitational wall that keeps the Palestinians at bay, only for Israeli residents to repeatedly hear the sound of a key scraping away in their front doors come midnight. No explanation is given for this ghost-like activity, even the initial ‘temporal’ effects first experienced when the gravitational wall was first activated. At the close of the story you have an Israeli becoming satisfied that he can sleep peacefully once more because he’s blown a hole in his door, where the lock was. This is where the story transforms itself from a modern short story to an Arab-style parable or hikaya (حكاية), since the moral punchline is what counts not the storyline or world-building. Hence the closing sentence of the Israeli in question: “I can sleep quietly now! There is no lock left, where will the intruder put his key?” (pp. 76). As powerful as the Israelis are, they will never feel secure, because a thief always fears that someone will steal what he stole from somebody else – a moral you often hear Arabs voice about Israel.

Similarities and differences abound between Iraq and Palestine + 100 when it comes to the key role of history as well. In the Iraqi story “Baghdad Syndrome” (Zhraa Alhaboby) the past comes to haunt the present through dreams, actually genetic memories that jolt people out of their oversatisfaction with the technologically sanctioned good life. Nonetheless, the preservation of memories of the past is more than a defence mechanism in Palestine + 100. It is a springboard to the future. “Digital Nation” deals with a forgotten chapter in Palestinian history as its ultimate modus operandi, the story of the failed attempt to build a Palestinian government in exile straight after the Nakba, a role eventually usurped by the more complaint Palestinian Liberation Organisation. This long sought after dream is finally resurrected here in the form of a virtual online government all can access and sanction, even Israelis. In the process it displaces both the PLO and the Israeli Knesset.

More explicit still is “The Association”, by Samir El-Youssef, since the story itself begins with the mysterious death of a historian, an apparent suicide. Later an investigative journalist tries to discover the identity of a secret society that is believed to be behind the assassination. Its mission is to expose the historical lies that went into a peace treaty that has left a future Palestine stultified and unable to move on. Another noteworthy story is “Vengeance” (Tasnim Abutabikh), which is about setting the historical record straight. A young Palestinian, Ahmed, is trying to get even with a black market engineer, Yousef, the descendent of a Palestinian who is supposed to have sold his land to the Zionist settlers. The fact that Yousef is a kind and benevolent man cuts no ice with Ahmed, whose own ancestors suffered from this supposed land-sale. It is only the historical facts that open up an avenue to the future, since Ahmed takes up from where Yousef left off; building black market respirator units that help people survive the polluted air.

This is a motif Arabs recognise, not being able to breathe (think, speak) without the permission of the ruler. Getting something off your chest in Arabic is called tanfees (literally, deflating your lungs). Yousef himself says the Israelis control everything, even the air we breathe, and the only way to fight back is to stop fighting (and suspecting) each other. There is a long history of Palestinian literature exposing the class fissures that made the country susceptible to foreign domination, blaming the 1948 defeat on these self-same social divisions.

But is that really the case, or just an exercise in self-flagellation? Focusing too much on the past can blind you to the prospects of the future, which might be the reason why Palestinian literature has been inching in a fantastical direction and for a long time. SF may be a rarity in Palestinian literature but the fantastical is not. Palestinians have been living a surreal existence ever since 1948 and this has tempted many a writer into the realms of surrealism and magic realism, from Emile Habibi to Ibrahim Nasrallah and with some sci-fi themes emerging in the fray. There are rumoured UFO visitations in Habibi’s The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist (1974) and social media technologies that change your biology and moral makeup in Nasrallah’s The Second War of the Dog (2018).

Note that both Habibi and Nasrallah were also dedicated to chronicling Palestinian history in their novels, seeing no contradiction whatsoever between flights of fancy and preserving the identity of the Palestinian people. Likewise in Palestine + 100. The opening story, “Song of the Birds” by Saleem Haddad, is the epitome of this. You have a prosperous and independent Palestine only for the narrator, Aya, to discover it is all an electronic illusion. Her rebellious brother Ziad guides her, supposedly from the grave. Aya’s father however, representing the older generation, is happy with this virtual world and does not want to question it. His wife, comatose, suspects something is wrong but can’t face up to it. Hence, her highly symbolic medical condition.

It is only Aya, and Ziad, that fight back. Identity isn’t just the past, it’s the future, and preserving one helps with facilitating the other. That’s what science fiction is all about and as genre-bending as Palestine + 100, it meets the criteria of a good and path-breaking work of SF.

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