Palestine +100: Stories from a Century after the Nakba

This year, Comma Press published what is – in their own words – ‘probably the first anthology of science fiction from Palestine’. The book, Palestine +100: Stories from a Century after the Nakba, edited by Basma Ghalayini, is a collection of short stories in which 12 Palestinian writers offer visions of life in 2048. The stories deploy a range of approaches ‘from science fiction noir to nightmarish dystopia, to high-tech farce – these stories use the blank canvas of the future to reimagine the Palestinian experience today’. Those genres involve a new departure for many of the writers involved – often seen as the type of escapism in which Palestinians cannot afford to indulge. But, as Ghalayini points out, for those living in Palestine, science fiction in some ways speaks quite directly to their own experiences and can in fact be a useful device to tell their story:

‘Everyday life, for them, is a kind of a dystopia. A West Bank Palestinian need only record their journey to work, or talk back to an IDF soldier at a checkpoint, or forget to carry their ID card, or simply look out their car window at the walls, weaponry and barbed wire plastering the landscape, to know what a modern, totalitarian occupation is – something people in the West can only begin to understand through the language of dystopia.’ (p.xii)

TWAILR: Extra is happy to share a couple of excerpts from the book with permission – the first from Basma Ghalayini’s introduction, the second from Selma Dabbagh’s short story ‘Sleep it Off, Dr Schott’. The book is available here.

Excerpt from Basma Ghalayini’s introduction

When Palestinians write, they write about their past through their present, knowingly or unknowingly. Their writing is, in  part, a search for their lost inheritance, as well as an attempt to keep the memory of that loss from fading. In this sense, the past is everything to a Palestinian writer; it is the only thing that makes their current existence and their identity meaningful. And the Nakba, of course, sits at the heart of this. Whether it is Jabra Ibrahim Jabra’s novels, A Cry in a Long Night or In Search of Walid Masoud, or Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun or Returning to Haifa, Palestinian authors have all felt obligated to, as well as inspired by, the Nakba. They have a cultural duty to remember it.

It is perhaps for this reason that the genre of science fiction has never been particularly popular among Palestinian authors; it is a luxury, to which Palestinians haven’t felt they can afford to escape. The cruel present (and the traumatic past) have too firm a grip on Palestinian writers’ imaginations for fanciful ventures into possible futures.

Another reason why science fiction might not have been popular among Palestinian writers is it doesn’t offer an obvious fit to the Palestinian situation. In classic science fiction, the battle lines are drawn quickly and simply: the moral opposition between a typical science fiction protagonist and the dystopia or enemy he finds himself confronting is a diametric one. But in Palestinian fiction, the idea of an ‘enemy’ is largely absent. Israelis hardly ever feature, as individuals, and when they do, they are rarely portrayed as out-and-out villains. In Ghassan Kanafani’s Returning to Haifa, for example, we follow the unlikely visit by two Palestinians, Said and Safeyya, to the city they fled twenty years earlier, where they get to know the Israeli woman, Miriam, now occupying the house that was stolen from them. Instead of portraying her as a zealot, a woman self-convinced of her people’s holy right to the land, Kanafani presents us with a sensitive, compassionate individual, someone who, when confronted by it, is ashamed of what her people did to the Palestinians.

The absence of an ‘enemy’ isn’t the only absence in Palestinian fiction. You might even say absence generally is one of the defining features of Palestinian fiction – which is where science fiction might be able to contribute. Absence, and the feelings of isolation and detachment that come with it, are easy to magnify in a context of galloping, future technology. In the twelve stories specially commissioned for this project, absence is everywhere. In Saleem Haddad’s ‘Song of the Birds’ and Rawan Yaghi’s ‘Commonplace’, young protagonists are haunted by the voices of their dead siblings. In Anwar Hamed’s ‘The Key’, Israelis are plagued by nightmares about Palestinian ghosts. In Abdalmuti Maqboul’s ‘Personal Hero’, the absence of a grandfather in her mother’s life, inspires a scientist to make a game-changing invention. In all cases, the future’s technology, though designed to ease conflict or ameliorate trauma, manages only to exacerbate it.

Perhaps another defining feature of Palestinian fiction is the cultural disconnect felt between different sets of refugees and, within those, different generations of refugees. Once more, science fiction – in this case its love of alternate realities – offers surprising opportunities for exploring this. In Saleem Haddad’s story, the existential boundary between Aya’s world and Ziad’s provides a metaphor for the author’s own dilemma as a Palestinian in exile: do you accept your condition and make a home for yourself where you are? Or do you return, fight, and give up all the comforts of your life abroad? In the story, ‘N’, by Majd Kayyal – a writer whose grandparents were displaced inside what became Israel but never left it – we are presented with a cosmological solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict: the creation of two parallel worlds – one for Palestinians, one for Israelis – both occupying the same geographic space. In this future, only Palestinians born after the establishment of the parallel worlds are allowed to travel between them; thus a deep cultural fissure opens up between the eponymous ‘N’ and his father when he leaves to study in the Israeli world. Once again, we see how even the most extraordinary future technology can do little more than mirror or reframe the current, real-world impasse.

But that’s what science fiction does; it uses the future as a blank canvas on which to project concerns that occupy society right now. The real future – the actual future – is unknowable. But for science fiction writers, the mere idea of ‘things to come’ is licence to re-imagine, re-configure, and re-interrogate the present.

Larissa Sarsour, In the future, they ate from finest porcelain 2, 2014

Excerpt from ‘Sleep it Off, Dr Schott’, by Selma Dabbagh 

I’m going to send this on as a voice file to both of you. It is a vocal, digital letter of apology. No, it is more than that. It is a vocal, digital letter of apology with evidence. I have the recordings and I will include them. That is what I do after all. I record things. Like you two, for example. 

If you’ve ever been in the Enclave’s basement, you’ll know where I am by the sounds that are being picked up. The drones are a bit more muffled down here and you can hardly hear the netting. It’s just the rattle of the air-conditioning vents most of the time. 

Given that this is a letter of sorts, I should possibly be more formal and present my case with specifics, as any scientist should. It’s 15 June, 2048. I’m recording this in the Security Bunkers, Secular Scientific Enclave, Gaza and my name is Layla Wattan. I’m from Deir el Balah. You know Deir el Balah, the camp in the South that’s spilling over into the sea. My family are from Haifa, but by that, I mean my great-grandparents lived there over a hundred years ago now. 

As I said, this is an apology; a way of explaining to both of you. I couldn’t explain at the time, because I couldn’t speak. I still can’t get your voices out of my head. It doesn’t help that I keep replaying the recordings. Here’s the one of Dr Schott shouting at me when we finally met, our first and last encounter. The one where he asked who I was. 

SCHOTT: [Shouting] Who is this girl? What are you doing? Mona, why is this woman in the corridor? Give me that! 

I can tell you what Professor Kamal said after that, but I think you may prefer to listen. 

KAMAL: She’s a Recorder. Look at her equipment. Who gave you this? 

I’d rather you didn’t think of me as being a creep, or a snoop. I’m not even a proper spy. Okay, yes, I was a Recorder, but I really hadn’t known what that meant when I was recruited. I am sorry for the shock I caused you both. I can hear it in your voices. Listen. 

KAMAL: They can’t do this to me. I was granted non-monitored status years ago. Did the General Assembly authorise this? 

SCHOTT: Of course they authorised it. They make up the rules, they can do what they want. What did they tell you about us? Are you going to speak, girl? Why were you spying on us? 

The short answer was that I would’ve sold my kidneys for a job in the Enclave. The whole of Gaza is desperate to move here. Not just because the food is guaranteed and it’s about as safe as it gets; if you obey the rules that is. It was mainly because the Enclave was the type of revolutionary idea we were starving for; turning global perceptions of us on their head. I’d watched them build it from my home. The Secular Scientific Enclave; it sounded like heaven to me. At that point, there’d been rumours about the Hyperloop, it was true, but there’d also been talk of the coming of the next Messiah, the return of our lands in ’48 Palestine and compensation. I’d never believed any of it. 

For decades, our building methods had consisted of little more than plastering over dirt-packed bags, so for us to see those steel frames and glass panes shoot up to create giant quartz spikes piercing the sky was like wow. Awesome. We watched them grow from our baked-in alleyways overrun with wheelchairs, chickens and petty criminals. 

I should explain that the noise out there, back home, was without end or form. It was as though it grew out of the walls and expanded when released. We spoke of the Enclave’s silence as a mystical force and I’d anticipated inner calm to go with it, but when I entered the walls, it wasn’t like that at all. For all of us in security, accommodation was down here in the bunkers. I went for weeks without seeing any natural light. I had electricity and hot water, but after a while, I started to feel like the water, my uniform, even the walls, were all trying to bleach me inside and out. 

I knew of you, Professor Kamal, since I was a young. The faces of you and your family were graffitied onto the walls of our camp. Mona Kamal; a legend. We all worshipped you, particularly the women. I knew of your construction of the first generation of Body-Bots in the underground bunker in Rafah; your ingenious use of 3D printers to create robotic limbs for the disabled, creating our own army of semi-indestructible fighters. I’d heard of how this bot army burst through the borders in 2032. I knew that your husband had been killed in the bombardments that followed, that you’d also lost your daughters to shelling. 

I wanted to believe that I was protecting you, Professor Kamal. As you’ve probably guessed by now, part of the purpose of my mandate was to find out what the nature of your ‘interpersonal relations’ were with Dr Schott. The General Assembly informed me of its… 

… concern that emotional connections are forming between the Gaza-born Professor Kamal, and one of her co-workers, the Tel Aviv-born (and Guest Visa holding) Dr Eyal Schott, in a way that will compromise their professional integrity and the security of the Economic Hyperloop or Bullet Project. Aural and sensory monitoring have detected distinctive tonal variations, all consistent with romantic empathy. Positive indicators show an ‘erosion of the natural boundaries of professional camaraderie’ giving rise to a danger of ‘compromising national security,’ as set out in the Koh’ Code of Conduct Manual (2034) for the Guest Visa holders in security clearance positions. No physical rituals indicating a consummated relationship have been identified to date. 

Security around the Bullet was such that even I, as a resident of the Strip, hadn’t been aware that it was about to launch. It was explained to me as a… 

… high-speed, underground shuttle link carrying goods from the Strip’s economic zones to neighbouring, affiliated countries in exchange for medical, educational and infrastructural materials. 

That, at least, is what the General Assembly told me it was for. My understanding is that essentially, it’s frictionless transportation down a tube. I couldn’t see how we could afford to undertake such an extravagant project; traditional international banking systems had been completely closed off to us for decades. The breakthrough came only, as I was told… 

… with the development of cryptocurrencies and the agreement to make block chain backed Ethocoin an official currency of the Strip, opening Gaza to new investment, from countries that felt a political solidarity. Countries as far away as Mexico, Central Africa, and China – 

There were other parts of the world where people lived behind walls, it turned out. And you know how the trend goes: the more countries whose citizens’ freedom of movement is restricted, the more call there is, from those countries, to only recognise Ethocoin as an international currency. The global economic balance is shifting, they say.