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A novel that explores the disappearance of the Palestinians

At a time when the conflict in Gaza is spinning out of control, Ibtisam Azem’s audacious 'The Book of Disappearance' asks what would happen if all the Palestinians in the area vanished overnight.

May 14, 2021 / 09:28 PM IST
Palestinians run away from tear gas during clashes with Israeli security forces at the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City Monday, May 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Palestinians run away from tear gas during clashes with Israeli security forces at the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City Monday, May 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

In one of his poems, Mahmoud Darwish writes: “We have the right to smell autumn's fragrances and ask the night for a dream.” The current situation in Gaza shows just how brittle those desires are. News from the region is increasingly nightmarish, with a recent report quoting the Israeli defence minister as asserting that the military operation would not stop until “complete quiet” had been achieved. Chilling.

What would happen, though, if all the Palestinians in the area simply disappeared overnight? That is the provocative premise of Ibtisam Azem’s novel, The Book of Disappearance. Originally published in Arabic as Sifr al-Ikhtifa, it has recently been translated into English by Sinan Antoon.

The main characters are two neighbours in a Tel Aviv apartment block: Alaa, a Palestinian graduate student who moonlights as a cameraman, and Ariel, a Jewish newspaper columnist. The novel begins with the death of Alaa’s beloved grandmother, a survivor of the 1948 nakba, and among those who stayed on in Jaffa after it was absorbed into Tel Aviv. A bereft Alaa now carries on an imaginary conversation with her by means of writing obsessively in his notebook.

“Memory is dense fog that spreads or clears as one gets older,” he feels. In many ways, his notebook is another testament to Kundera’s observation about the struggle of man against power being the struggle of memory against forgetting.

Through Alaa’s recollections, a portrait emerges of the intense loneliness of displacement, even for those who have stayed behind. “Your Jaffa resembles mine,” he tells his grandmother: “But it is not the same. Two cities impersonating each other. You carved your names in my city, so I feel like I am a returnee from history. Always tired, roaming my own life like a ghost.”

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Later, he writes: “When I walk in Palestine I feel that am walking on corpses. The images of multitudes of people escaping in terror are always on my mind.” His act of resistance is the despairing attempt to keep the external disappearance from becoming internal.

Ariel, meanwhile, is a skin-deep liberal who astonishes people at parties by stating that Israel should withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza to allow for the establishment of a demilitarised Palestinian state. He otherwise spends time by keeping an ear close to the ground to gather material for his weekly column.

After establishing Alaa’s bleakness and Ariel’s insouciance, the novel moves into another gear. One fine morning, all of the Arab inhabitants of Israel, including those in the West Bank and Gaza, go missing. This is a literal and angrily sardonic take on the opinions of those such as former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir who commented in 1969 that it was “not as if there was a Palestinian people in Palestine and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.”

The novel shows vignettes from the lives of those who remain, some perplexed and some angry at the absence of vendors, bus drivers, flower-pickers, café-owners, prisoners, doctors, and everyone else. Is this a mass strike? A prelude to an all-out attack? No one is sure.

The government is equally baffled. News bulletins announce that a state of emergency has been declared, security has been beefed up, and surveillance camera footage is being examined. The government holds meetings with military chiefs, and the prime minister consults regional and other leaders.

In trying to find out what has happened, Ariel visits Alaa’s now-empty apartment and comes across the notebook. He is riveted by it and in a clearly ironic metaphor, occupies the flat as he reads, showers, eats, and relaxes on Alaa’s bed. This accompanies another striking image: the writing desk that Alaa used in order to stitch his memories together was formerly his grandmother’s sewing machine table.

Official and other reactions to the inexplicable disappearance of the Palestinians start to pour in, in terms that are only too familiar, and not just for those in Israel. One spokesman asserts that the country must preserve its unity, adding that foreign powers are waging a propaganda campaign. The army’s role is saluted, and another commentator feels: “To these leftists I say, if you love Arabs so much, just go with them wherever they have gone.”

What holds The Book of Disappearance together despite its tonal shifts and occasional elisions is the audacity of its premise. It can be read as a thought experiment to probe the attitudes of one country trampling on another, combined with a haunting and tragic sense of what has been lost and cannot be regained.

In his Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison memorably wrote that people simply refused to see him: “When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.” It’s time the world stopped looking at the Palestinians in this way.
Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.

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