Lahore Literary Festival: Stories from Gaza

If there was one session that you should have regretted not attending at the inaugural Lahore Literary Festival, it was the one with British-Palestinian author Selma Dabbagh, who spoke about her fascinating novel “Out of It” that has been widely appreciated globally.

In its review of the novel, The Guardian had said that Dabbagh’s “writing is both literary and accessible, fast-paced, passionate, exuberant and heart-lurching.” That is exactly how she was inside and outside the session, when she would smile brightly every time a fan went to over to her with a request to sign her book that they had just bought.

Brilliantly moderated by Aysha Raja Alam, owner of a quaint bookshop in Lahore, the session wasn’t very well-attended but those who were in the audience left feeling like it was a morning well-spent. Alam, who was extremely well-prepared for her session, structured it such that she would ask Dabbagh a few questions and then ask her to read specific passages from the novel.

The novel, Dabbagh’s first after a list of short stories, describes the life of a Palestinian family under siege while Gaza is being bombed. The novel follows the lives of siblings Rashid, who is constantly looking for a way out of the conflict zone, and Iman who begins to get involved in the conflict before moving out to London. Their oldest sibling Sabri, meanwhile, works on writing a history of Palestine while sitting on his wheelchair.

Responding to a question on how she chose her characters, which were unlike the characters found in works on Palestine, Dabbagh spoke about her view of the Palestinian liberation movement. “It is a cause that attracts nutters as well as genuinely committed characters. So in my novel, I was careful not to offend some activists who are doing good work by choosing a main character that is unsympathetic to the cause [Rashid]. When I first started writing, I knew I was really attracted to a certain aspect of the revolution – people who have failed the revolution or those who feel that the revolution has failed them.”

Elaborating on her understanding of the movement’s dynamics, Dabbagh said that when she was in Gaza in May, she realized that being in Palestine is a transformative experience. “In Palestine, your ideas matter. People are judging you on your views. You feel as if they are checking you out. So your opinions matter. It has a specific draw for people who are thinking critically about morality.”

Alam then asked Dabbagh to read a passage where her protagonist Iman is in London and having to grapple with a tragedy back home. Was it an angry passage, she asked. “It was slightly angry. At some times, people find it strange that you’re affected by something happening somewhere else.”

Dabbagh said that even though she had lived outside of Palestine, she had always been very connected to it. But also she would see from the Arab world were the same images all the time. And that was something the she wanted to change – bring a fresh perspective from the conflict-ridden region through her writing. “I would read a lot about it but couldn’t find anything very exciting, or at least as exciting as I wanted it to be. So I kept a global perspective on my characters,” she said.

Two young women, who were both aspiring writers, then put some very intelligent and thoughtful questions to Dabbagh. One of them, who herself writes short stories and is working on a novel, asked about how the writer had made the transition from short stories to a novel. “Basically, in a novel, you can give the reader breathing space,” Dabbagh told her, explaining that more descriptions can be and should be added. “I was used to working in short lengths and on deadlines, so that really helped me with refining my novel.”

The second question was about why Dabbagh named her book Out of It. “It means three things. Firstly, it is out of Gaza, the place. Second it means outside of politics and third, it talks about being out of one’s mind.”

This article was written for Dawn Books & Authors and originally appeared here in edited form: http://www.dawn.com/news/789972/lahore-literary-festival-stories-from-gaza

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