A Conversation With British-Palestinian Writer Selma Dabbagh

Dabbagh's first novel imagines a family in Gaza under siege from without and within.

Selma Dabbagh’s life story, like that of so many other Palestinians, has been an odyssey, with a simple question about the bare-bones trajectory of her biography eliciting a good 10-minute response. Though born in Scotland and today a resident of London, Dabbagh, 42, a lawyer who has in recent years become a full-time writer of fiction, has spent long stretches of her life in Kuwait, France, Cairo and Bahrain, even as her heart has largely been focused on Palestine. Her first novel, “Out of It” (Bloomsbury, 320 pages, $15, paperback), portrays the Mujaheds, a family not unlike hers, except that its physical base is in Gaza, and each member is forced to confront the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a very direct way.

The time is recent, with some second intifada mixed in: Gaza is under blockade, and Israeli aerial bombings and assassinations are carried out in response to terror attacks within Israel, in a familiar, endless cycle of violence. The Mujahed parents have been separated for some time: The father, a former PLO official, now lives a comfortable life of exile in a Gulf state; the mother, with a secret past as a freedom fighter, remains in Gaza City caring for the eldest son, Sabri, confined to a wheelchair after losing both legs and his wife and young child in an explosion set in his car some years before. Today he works obsessively on a written history of the Palestinian struggle, trying to keep alive a fading strain of secular nationalism. The middle son, Rashid, is repelled by politics, and more interested in love and marijuana; a scholarship to study in London gives him an opportunity to escape. Iman, the youngest, is torn between her passions and her sense of responsibility, and her struggles are the emotional heart of the book. Dabbagh writes with empathy, knowledge and a surprising amount of humor, and one never feels that one is reading a political tract, even when some of the characters sound like they are declaiming one. Haaretz spoke with Selma Dabbagh by phone from London.

Q. When I wrote to you to set up this conversation, I received an automatic response that you were in isolation from civilization in order to get some writing done. What are you working on?

A. My second novel. I actually started it in 2008. It’s all planned out, and I’m about halfway through the first draft, but I’ve had a couple of unsettled and rather crazy years. I just wanted to have a period of time where I was isolated. I went to a town where I knew nobody, and didn’t speak the language. And it was good; it worked.

Q. Is it also about Palestine?

A. No. Some characters are Palestinian, but the conflict definitely isn’t central. The connection, I would say, is the idea of liberal political consciousness and how much you are aware of what’s going on around you. It’s based in an isolated, privileged, mainly expat community, surrounded by political repression and unrest. My novel’s based in the Gulf, but it could be a compound development anywhere where there is a significant social divide. It’s a gated community whose inhabitants are supposedly disconnected from what’s going on in the villages around it, but the connections are evidently there.

Q. Tell me about your family’s background.

My father is Palestinian, from the Ajami neighborhood in Jaffa. His father was arrested several times by the British for his role in Palestinian politics and was in prison for a significant time when my father was growing up. There were also two assassination attempts on my grandfather, but the family finally left in 1948, when my father was hit by a grenade that was thrown by one of the Zionist paramilitary groups onto a crowd of children that he was playing with in an alley behind their house on the Jaffa beach. When my grandparents arrived on the scene, they were told, “You’re not going to be able to find a bit of him. He was right in the center of the explosion.” They tracked him down in Dajani hospital, where he was badly injured. They decided on the advice of a doctor in the hospital to leave, despite my father’s condition: “It is better to lose one than to lose all seven.” The extended family all left on a truck, my father on a stretcher, first to Lod, then Nablus for a couple of days, and then Syria.

It’s the standard story. They thought they would be going back within a couple of days, or a week, as soon as things died down and they ended up as refugees. My father went to private, government and later on UNRWA schools in Syria. [Eventually,] he came to the U.K., where he studied engineering while working free-lance for the BBC Arabic service.

My mother is very English. My English grandfather was in the Royal Marines. My parents met after my father saw a picture of my mother in a mutual American friend’s photo album and decided that she was the one. That was 51 years ago this October.

Palestine’s always been in our home. The events of 1948 and the continuing treatment of the Palestinians has always been felt in a very impassioned way in our family. [Later, as a married adult, my husband and I] were quite active on Palestine on the side, going to demonstrations, being part of NGOs, doing talks, that was our world. We used to try to go back every year, to the West Bank or Gaza and see friends that we knew there.

Every time I meet a Palestinian Israeli, they also always have a story like that. Their families seem to be spread around the region and the world.

You find that everywhere with Palestinians. There’s always at least one close family member out of the country. That’s partly why I set my story in three places. It’s so much a part of our way of being now.

Q. But why did you make the family’s base, in “Out of It,” in Gaza?

A. At the time [I started writing], in 2003, Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment was so strong, that I thought it might be a way to help people feel what the situation was like, without being distanced from it because of prejudices. And I wrote in a style of high realism. It sort of worked for a short story, but I realized there was something in it that I wanted to turn into the novel that I wanted to write, but I didn’t feel that I could sustain that style for a novel. I decided to bring it down to earth. The theme I wanted to deal with was how the external political encroaches on the internal, personal world. How is that for Palestinians? What is their emotional relationship with the cause, as such? And how does that vary among us, and how do we deal with it? That’s a commonality for Palestinians wherever we are. Whether they are in the Gulf, or Gaza.

I decided on Gaza, because it’s the extremity of the Palestinian situation, because of the bombings, the siege and the blockade. The first scene that I wrote [was] of a young man leaping on a roof, a bit stoned, but angry and defiant, and it started with an aerial bombardment based partly on what happened in Jenin in 2002. Then I began to get a bit worried that people would read it and say, look this hasn’t happened, and I would get involved in a point-scoring exercise about different historical accounts. I wasn’t trying to describe Gaza in a specific, historical, realistic way, to describe actual events. That’s the role of the non-fiction writer. I wanted to present a state of war, a state of being, a state of pressure, of siege. The more pressure you’ve got on your characters, the more you can build tension and conflict, and all the things that are a novelist’s tools to propel the action forward.

Q. I read your 2007 short story “Down the Market,” which you write from the point of view of a Jewish kid from the U.K. who gets awarded a trip to Israel, and ends up on a radical Jewish settlement in the West Bank witnessing the killing of a Palestinian child. Where you did you get the chutzpah to write that?

A. (Laughs.) I was partly inspired by a short story by Ralph Ellison, which was never published during his lifetime, “A Party Down at the Square.” It’s about a white boy visiting family in the South when a lynching takes place. It has an insider/outsider viewpoint. The boy describing the treatment of this young black boy in the square. And I decided to do the same thing in terms of settlers. I submitted it on the last day to the David T. K. Wong award that was run by International PEN, and it got the English PEN nomination for the prize. It’s probably one of my more controversial pieces. It do believe in the power of literature to transport both writers and readers into the skins of other people. ... It sounds trite, but I do believe that fiction enables us to embrace the universality of our humanity.

Q. I can understand that. But, the story is a merciless depiction of an especially extreme class of settlers. Not all settlers are like that.

A. Maybe, but many Palestinians’ lives and communities are terrorized by settlers who behave like that and they are, as are all settlers, economically subsidized by the government and protected by the legal system. I don’t accept that these are “fringe” or “crazy” groups there is more than a tacit acceptance of them structurally, however much they might be loathed by more liberal sectors within Israeli society. I did research that story quite closely. I looked at the work of international, Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups that document Israeli abuses and at the websites of settler organizations. ... It wasn’t a story that was meant to have a feel-good factor.

Q. What kind of reactions have you been getting to “Out of It”?

A. A pro-Palestinian reviewer seemed uncomfortable that I had “unflinchingly” portrayed divisions in Palestinian society. She is wrong about that; I flinched a lot, but I also could not bring myself to write a novel where all the Palestinians were heroic either. It would be absurd to expect universal heroism, given the hideous circumstances many are forced to live under. It would also be boring if all the characters were noble. And I feel that it would be irresponsible to try and whitewash over the rift between different Palestinian factions. In 2007-8, when I was finishing the novel, this divide seemed far worse. It is commendable, really, that a more violent outcome was avoided.

My hope is that the book can help a curious readership to get into the lives of the Palestinian characters, and to feel how hard the situation has become, and how much energy and enterprise of educated kids is going to waste because of the blockade, how frustrating the situation has become for them.

I’ve written about a family who represents the secular Palestinian left. They’re stuck between an Authority that they feel has sold out and the religious groups they don’t identify with. It’s a shrinking group. Their heyday, which Sabri reminisces about, was the first intifada. It was a time of non-violent resistance, collective action, a time of working together for a common goal.