Selma Dabbagh reviews Haifa Fragments by Khulud Khamis

haifa-fragmentsHaifa Fragments

by Khulud Khamis

Spinifex Press

ISBN 9781742199009


The protagonist of Khulud Khamis’s first novel, Haifa Fragments, Maisoon, is a jewellery designer and her story resembles an assemblage on a jeweller’s worktop; a thickly strung necklace that tailors off without a clasp, several loose, coloured stones lying around and about it – glass fragments and dark shards among textured stones.

Khulud Khamis is the first Palestinian women writer with Israeli citizenship I have come across. Several of the most prominent Palestinian writers hold Israeli citizenship, being from ’48 Palestine (i.e. present day Israel); Emile Habibi, Anton Shammas and Said Kashua. Shammas and Kashua write in Hebrew. All three are male. Their gender is not necessarily relevant, as a writer who believes that it is the way that texts are read, rather than written, that is gendered. It is, however, relevant to Khamis’ work as her focus is very much the feminine, the female, the sensual and the sexual. One senses that this work, despite being fictionalised, draws heavily on her own autobiographical experience, dealing with her everyday life as a young woman of Palestinian origin living in Haifa: a Christian, an Arab, a person with a negated past, a subject of discrimination, second class and potentially a security threat. The challenge that Maisoon takes on lustily, is to not to allow any of these labels to define her. Working against the confines of family, partnerships, territorial borders, checkpoints and gender roles Maisoon emerges as a hedonistic free spirit, with an eye for beauty, a commitment to change, an extraordinary talent for design and an ability to change the perceptions of others around her, through kindness, patience, hard work and generosity.

There is no definitive plot line in Haifa Fragments. It is a late coming of age novel; an existing relationship with a man is redefined, the acceptance and love of family is renegotiated, a woman is loved, bedded and enabled to move on, with nothing but friendship and good will between the two of them, a Jewish woman supports Maisoon and learns (and profits) from the process. To reveal these steps does not spoil the book, for it is evident from the opening pages that little hardship will befall those who come within Maisoon’s orbit. Unlike most novels set in the Arab world where the female characters are romantically hung up and sexually gauche, Maisoon even forgets that there is a man in bed with her, ‘The alarm clock went off at 3:45. Maisoon fumbled in the dark, brushing her arm on something warm and hairy. Yamma! She forgot ZIyad was spending the night.’

This book is very different from one with a similar title, Beirut Fragments, (1990, Persea Books) written by another Palestinian Christian woman living across a border, Jean Said Makdisi. Makdisi’s work is sharper in observation and reportage, but her ambitions are also very different to those of Khamis. Khamis appears intent on humanizing, softening and showing beauty and hope in an ongoing situation of inequality. Said Makdisi’s book is labeled as a ‘war memoir,’ Khamis’ is no such thing.

It is not easy to avoid dates, political events and national catastrophes in Palestinian literature, but Khamis is determined not to catalogue or explain out. The work is contemporary and those who are familiar with the political background would be able to place events that are alluded to, but this vibrant novel is completely open to those with little or no knowledge of Palestinian history. It does not seek to instruct the reader, but allows them to understand how a reality can feel, how it impacts behavior, relationships and allegiances. Everything is political and yet many of the key aspects of Maisoon’s life (family, lovers, work) aren’t overtly so. There is a luxury, Khamis concedes, in having the status that she has, as a second-class citizen of a state, rather than as a subject of occupation. She can struggle to live as fully as she desires, but she does not have to struggle to survive and she appreciates the space allowed to her not to have to do so.

For all Palestinians, there was a moment in their own or their family’s history when their parents or grandparents were faced with a decision: to stay or to go. The process of dispossession is ongoing and unrelenting and many (in Israel, Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem) are still forced to consider this question every day. In Maisoon’s family the last battle of Haifa is described as the time when her family had to decide whether to leave and despite the fearful ‘barrels that were rolled down from Share’a El-Jabal,’ Maisoon’s family stayed. They even stay in the same house. This potentially sounds banal, but the references to the house, its history and contents were as baffling to this reader as they were heart wrenching. In Palestinian literature houses are usually lost, confiscated, destroyed, fled from and abandoned and characters are forced to move on, move on. It is rare for them to be transferred from generation to generation, with stories as to who sat where and whose coffee table or cupboard it was. Palestinians are more used to being separated from their past to stepping into the footprints of it.

To return to the analogy of the half strung necklace, the cord in Haifa Fragments is made from recurring images central to the culture Khamis describes: shay bi naa naa (mint tea), drums, dancing the darbuka, the salu, the souk, the sea, the food. These are overly repeated, but they link in and out with the past, the present, across borders and checkpoints. Towards the end of the book the shards, in the form of scrawls of Death to Arabs! graffiti in Maisoon’s neighbourhood, references to bombs on buses and rockets falling on Haifa, are explained as are moments that come and go.

The colour in Haifa Fragments though is intense. Khamis is unusual in her rejoicing of sexuality and sensuality in a way that is more familiar to writings from and about the Arab world of the 19th not the 21st  Century, where the ‘Orient’ was almost wholly associated with licentious sexuality rather than bombs, religion and death. The novel also made me realize how culturally variable our approaches to personal vanity can be and Maisoon’s awareness of her own desirability to others, can be off putting.

Khamis’s work is playful and it can come across as deliberately naive. Maisoon seeks to engage with the Palestinian political situation, but she does not talk about that side of her life with her family or boyfriend. Her family have learnt to endure, to know societal ills and political injustices, but to put up with them. It is a politics of avoidance, rather than overt resistance. The situation is too precarious, they believe, for the demand for equality and a historical recognition to be made. For decades after the Nakba or ‘catastrophe’ of 1948, ’48 Palestinians were cut off from their families and former neighbours; a host of legislation made communication nearly impossible. There was a stigma of dealing with the enemy attached to those who remained, as well as not a small amount of jealousy from the majority of Palestinians who were forced into becoming refugees. It is only in recent decades, that prejudices have diminished and a new political cohesion has been sought. Maisoon is more confident than most Palestinians in Israeli society, possibly because as an attractive woman she has advantages her Muslim boyfriend Ziyyad is denied; she is a woman who has learnt to charm par excellence as well as to play a little dumb in order to break free. She is determined to live however she wants despite the constraints forced upon her, without compromising her beliefs. Khamis’ is an interesting voice; one that bears a message that goes beyond the political situation that she and her characters live under.
SELMA DABBAGH is a British Palestinian novelist, author of Out of It,  published by Bloomsbury in 2011 and 2012 (pbk). Out of It was positively reviewed in the UK, the US and the Middle East. It was nominated as a Guardian Book of the Year in 2011 and 2012. The Arabic edition, Gaze Tahta Al-Jild (Gaza Under The Skin) translated by Khulood Amr, was published by BQFP in August 2015.