The Real Mystery Behind an Excellent Detective Story Set in Gaza

Atef Abu Seif’s ‘Running in Place’ was the first ever Gazan novel to be translated into Hebrew. So why can’t you find it in any Israeli bookstores?

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A Palestinian boy sitting among the debris of destroyed buildings in Gaza City following the war between Israel and Hamas in the summer of 2014.Credit: Ashraf Amra / ANADOLU AGENCY / A

All roads in Gaza lead to death. Not the death we know where the heart stops beating, but a slow and prolonged death in the depths of the soul – a battle for survival that it is simply impossible to win.

“Running in Place” is a novel by author and Palestinian Authority Culture Minister Atef Abu Seif. It takes readers on a journey to the besieged Gaza Strip, between the alleyways of the Jabalya refugee camp north of Gaza City and the A-Ramal neighborhood in western Gaza City, and describes the everyday lives of the residents, teetering between hope and despair, life and death.

Until now, Gazan writing has rarely been translated into Hebrew. There have been poems by Muin Bseiso, and short stories by Talal Abu Shawish and Abu Seif himself (mostly under the “Short Story Project” banner), but “Running in Place” has the honor of being the first Gazan novel to be translated into Hebrew in full.

The novel, first published in Arabic in 2019, received positive reviews thanks mainly to Abu Seif’s skill in expressing the personal world of Gazans, describing the little details that characterize the refugee camp and allowing the reader to dive into life there.

Somewhat surprisingly, he achieves this by using the detective genre. At his story’s heart is a local police investigation following an accident involving a truck and a man in his 80s crossing the road in the Jabalya area. People nearby offer assistance: a fruit stall owner gives the victim first aid; a cabdriver takes him to the hospital; a student insists on accompanying him; and a journalist takes an interest in the affair.

The policeman at the hospital suspects that someone tried to kill the old man and searches for leads to solve the mystery.

There’s only one problem: nobody knows who the elderly man is. He is a John Doe with no identifying marks or papers, and nobody has come looking for him.

“By noon the policeman’s list of suspects had already reconvened at the hospital: the cabdriver, the fruit stall owner, the journalist and the student gathered round the old man’s bed. The policeman stood between them, next to the bed. Under different circumstances, one might have thought them family members,” writes Abu Seif.

This description of the complex situation allows the reader to understand the various hues of human experience in Gaza. The encounter around the injured man’s bed triggers an inner dialogue within each character. The history of the place is woven into their stories and merges into a single narrative – different from the one we have been used to hearing until now.

You won’t find a Palestinian protagonist here seeking to destroy Israel, nor one yearning to avenge the Nakba (when more than 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes during the 1947-49 Israeli War of Independence). Abu Seif’s characters are ordinary people simply living their lives, missing their loved ones, dreaming small dreams.

Such as, for instance, the dream of decent medical care craved by the sick man lying next to the elderly man:

“‘The truth is, we have no way to help you,’” the hospital director told him repeatedly. ‘There’s a lockdown, medical supplies are running out and new ones aren’t arriving. Drugs aren’t coming. We’re waiting for the crossing points to open, and then perhaps we can refer you to a hospital in Egypt or Jordan – maybe you’ll even get a special permit and we can transfer you … to Tel Hashomer or Ichilov [in Tel Aviv]. For now, we need to have patience.’

“‘But I’m over 70. What’s the logic in leaving me like this?!’ the patient asked.

“The hospital director offered no reply and left the room muttering, whether to himself or the other man: ‘What, I’m gonna start giving him a lecture about the occupation now?’”

Unrealized dreams

Abu Seif’s choice of detective fiction is important and interesting not only to the plot itself. It brings something new to Palestinian literature, which tends to present the Palestinian narrative either through waxing poetic or resistance.

Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani was among the first to establish an Arabic detective tradition with the novel “The Other Thing: Who Killed Leila al-Hayek” (published in 1982, a decade after his death). There is no doubt Abu Seif is influenced by Kanafani, whom he often quotes in his speeches. Like Kanafani, he too believes in the power of literature and writing to effect change.

But if with Kanafani the literature serves the struggle, Abu Seif focuses on questions about the meaning of life for Palestinians: What is it like to be a bourgeois Palestinian who loses everything because of the Nakba? How do you cope with having big dreams shattered in one moment? How do you keep holding on to self-worth far from your birthplace, uprooted from your home against your will? And what are the boundaries of freedom for a person dispossessed of all of life’s basic necessities from the start?

The old man remains in a coma throughout the novel. He is physically present but absent. He carries no identification, save a wallet and photo with the date “1945” written in pencil on the back. The choice of having a protagonist in a coma is no accident, of course. It allows Abu Seif to weave around him the story of the place – a story that transcends the boundaries of Gaza. The characters are metaphysically linked to their parents’ stories about life before the expulsion, moving between the world of the present and the world of the absent.

Abu Seif mentions, for instance, the cultural events held in Jaffa before the Nakba with the poet Bseiso. He recalls the Palestinian dream of building a textile factory in Al-Majdal – the Arab town where the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon now stands. But as he writes in the book, “His father’s dreams went unrealized. 1948 severed them. One day in 1947, he went from Al-Majdal to Jaffa and there he met the merchant who imported the new machine for him from Italy. He had already planned everything: the little factory, even a trademark he had thought of. … But those dreams flew out of the windows of the train heading back south from Jaffa, leaving behind only memories that stained the pages of the past and pained those recalling them.”

Abu Seif goes back in time, wanders through the memories of the past, and snaps us back to the intolerable present in Gaza. This is a writing style that may confuse the reader, but it works well to describe the lives of the Gazans – for whom past trauma is an inseparable part of who they are.

And although he was one of the most prominent supporters of the “Great March of Return” in 2018-19, calling to allow Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to Israel, the subject of the right of return does not come up directly in his novel. It seems Abu Seif is hinting to the reader that the way to cope is through memory and imagination, which play a significant part in the average Palestinian’s life, allowing them to continue to be connected to Greater Palestine.

Also to be commended is Yonatan Mendel’s beautiful Hebrew translation, which allows for a natural, flowing read while simultaneously treating the Arabic language with grace, featuring it where necessary to express the force of the words and emotions. For instance, when the student asks the hospital nurse whether to buy food for the old man, “so he’ll have something to eat when he wakes up,” the nurse replies: “When he wakes up? If he wakes up.” She then uses an Arabic phrase expressing hope in God for an otherwise bleak situation.

‘The language of the occupation’

The most prominent historical-political element in Abu Seif’s writing naturally connects to his own life. He was born in the Jabalya refugee camp in 1973, to a family uprooted from Jaffa in 1948, going on to become a highly regarded author identified with the Fatah political movement. He served as its spokesman in the Gaza Strip. In March 2019, Hamas activists attacked him, beating him with clubs. He suffered a serious head injury and, fearing for his life, was subsequently forced to relocate to Ramallah. He has been serving as the PA’s culture minister since 2019.

Reading between the lines of “Running in Place,” one can recognize Abu Seif’s distaste for Hamas and its operatives. He obliquely criticizes their tunneling activities, which have become a thriving smuggling business, and the way they harness people unidentified with the organization to invest in building the tunnels. He also harshly criticizes the “New Gazans” who have come to power, who were never part of the national struggle and do not act out of ideological motives.

The publication of the Hebrew version of “Running in Place” caused a furor in Palestinian circles, with Abu Seif accused of normalizing relations with Israel through Palestinian culture. The attacks – apparently part of a political campaign targeting him – led the author to cave and claim that the translation was done without his knowledge. Frustratingly, the book’s distribution in Israel was immediately halted, removed from booksellers’ shelves and websites, and is currently unavailable to the Hebrew reader.

This whole affair encapsulates the complexity of the conflict for those in the Palestinian cultural scene: the struggle between those who wish to reach out to cultural institutions operating within Israel, and those stridently opposed to any cooperation and who pressure writers against translating works into the “language of the occupation,” as Abu Seif put it when he seemingly reneged on the deal.

A similar fate befell the anthology “Huriya” published by Resling Books in 2018 – stories by 45 female writers from the Arab world, translated by Alon Fragman, which were taken off the shelves when it emerged that the authors had not approved a Hebrew translation of their works.

In Abu Seif’s case, and contrary to his statements, the publisher claims it did receive his approval to translate the book, and it is to be hoped that the dispute is solved soon and the book made available in Israel.

After all, it is not every day that a novel is published here that allows the Israeli reader to encounter the Gazan reality from up close, and meet Palestinian protagonists in a well-written mystery. Without even this fragment, we’ll be left only with reports from the evening news.

“Running in Place” by Atef Abu Seif is translated by Yonatan Mendel and was released by Pardes Publishing and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.

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מליאת הכנסת 28.12.22