“When I came out of school, I was facing a poster of Arafat in army fatigues. He was clutching a rifle, which looked like a giant penis . The cheap white glue they used to stick the posters to the gate was dripping from the edge of the paper toward the mouth of the barrel. The scene was perfect. A white liquid trickling from the rifle.”
With this description, Nur, one of the main characters in “Crime in Ramallah,” captures the despair of young Palestinians from the post-second-intifada generation, as he mocks the sanctity of Fatah, Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian resistance.
The attempt to wrestle free of imaginary chains that tie the Palestinians to the resistance and the occupation as the sum of Palestinian life in the West Bank is a central motif in Abbad Yahya’s novel, which has not yet been translated into English or Hebrew. It was published earlier this year from Italy by Al-Mutawassit Press. Sale of the book has been banned in the Palestinian Authority due to “indecent language” and for “threatening morality and public decency."
With detailed descriptions, the author presents a vivid picture of Palestinian daily life in the territories. The occupation may only be in the background, but it affects every aspect of the characters’ lives. Yahya focuses on young Palestinians who are at a dead end, trapped in the big prison that has been created all around them.
This prison has two walls: the wall of the Israeli occupation, and a wall that isn’t talked about often and relates to the self-definition of Palestinian society – the occupation is bad, but the society is dependent on it. Without it, it has no raison d’etre. Without it, there is no one to blame for the situation.
This is the story of a generation for whom the occupation has become an inseparable part of its identity. The older generations have gotten used to the occupation, but the children, the protagonists of this tale, don’t know any other reality.
Three men’s stories
The story is told from three points of view, those of the main characters – Rauf, Wisam and Nur, three Palestinian young men. They live in Ramallah and were children or adolescents when the second intifada broke out in 2000. Rauf is now a student at Birzeit University. He lives in a rented apartment with three roommates.
Riding in a taxi van, he has a brief conversation with another passenger, a woman. Though he doesn’t even get her name (in his imagination, he calls her Dunya – “world” in Arabic), his life is deeply affected after that fleeting encounter. He gives up studying and starts working two jobs – as a researcher for a polling company and a bartender in a restaurant. And he decides to go on a quest in search of Dunya.
Rauf is a “typical” Palestinian male: He is straight and has come to Ramallah from a nearby village in search of a purpose in life. Ramallah is a place that tries to maneuver between aspirations of progress, culture and modernity on one side, and conservatism and loyalty to tradition on the other.
The tension between the city and the village finds expression in the duality of Ramallah. It’s a place where one comes to feel freedom, but also a very conservative place, like Palestinian society as a whole, in which religion is becoming ever more central.
“You didn’t see drinking anywhere in the city. There were just a few bars and restaurants that served alcohol. Drinking was something that people did in their houses or in abandoned places. For years, drinking alcohol wasn’t something you could do openly,” Rauf says after the first time he downs a beer – at a party thrown by his boss. The people in the city drink, but not publicly, almost in secret.
Nur is a gay man left heartbroken when the man he loved left him. Like Rauf, he left his village and family, who support Hamas, and moved to Ramallah. He’s a victim of an abusive conservative society that has no place for shuwad – deviants – as gay people are often called in the Arab world.
Wisam, unlike his two friends who are broke, has managed to establish himself as an accountant. But after a night out in a restaurant, his world comes crashing down when his girlfriend is murdered.
Forget the politics
These are three men in search of meaning, love and feeling that will save them from their banal lives inside the big prison. But all three are trapped. Rauf can’t shake his fantasies about the woman he met, Nur can’t forget his lost love, and Wisam is left feeling empty after his girlfriend’s death.
It’s a claustrophobic novel in which the characters seem to have no hope on the horizon. Its focus is more on the personal tragedies of the three Palestinian men and less on the political tragedy of the Palestinian people, and therein lies the secret of its appeal.
Still, despite its defiant take on macho Palestinian society, which is strong against the weak but weak in dealing with corrupt officials, Yahya’s novel falls into a familiar trap. The women in the novel have no voice.
As in Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s “The Madwoman in the Attic,” that’s where the women are mainly found – in the attic; that is, locked away in the consciousness of the male characters. There are really only two female characters in the novel: Dunya, about whom the reader knows nothing except for Rauf’s speculation and fantasies, and Ruba, the murder victim, whom the reader only gets to know through the prism of Wisam’s memories.
Various marginal female characters crop up, and for the most part are depicted from an objectifying male perspective; the mothers are anxious and hysterical, the women who come into the bar where Rauf works are desperately seeking attention, and so on.
Despite its shortcomings, Yahya’s book offers a glimpse into the Palestinian tragedy by focusing on the generation that was born into the occupation and almost takes it for granted. This is what life really is for many young people in the West Bank.
And without resorting to slogans or clichés, Yahya portrays the Palestinians as human beings with feelings, desires, loves and pain. And, above all, despair.