by Rana Asfour
Exactly twenty years ago, fresh out of college with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Nutrition and Dietetics, saw me in Haifa and specifically at the Rambam Health Care Campus where my Jerusalem-based uncle, a leading heart surgeon who passed away in 2010, had secured me a place on a week-long training program. A hop and a skip away, living in Jordan awaiting the final details of my contract with one of Amman’s leading hospitals to be finalised, I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity for further training.
I had never been to Haifa, Bride-of-the-Sea, or Aruset El-Bahar as it is better known to Palestinians. I had read and heard about its beauty and charm, about its magic and its history and when I finally walked its streets and filled my lungs with the fresh breeze coming in from the sea, I knew the place was forever to be imprinted in my mind. Of the medical course, I sadly remember nothing, or of the facility or of the speakers.
I can argue that twenty years is a long time ago, but the reality of the matter and what shadows my recollection is how uneasy I felt being there - it was a time when bus bombings were quite frequent - but I also remember there were two Palestinians from the West Bank (I forget their names) who had never been to Israel before and were there courtesy of special permits. It was also, interestingly, the first time I meet Arab Israelis (or Palestinian Citizens of Israel) who after ‘hospital’ time would offer me (and the two West Bank Palestinians) daily tours of their magnificent city. The deep (meaning political), at times difficult (meaning opposing), discussions and alternatively lighthearted banter that ensued over copious cups of coffee and obscene amounts of food is what remains with me to this day.
My mother is a Palestinian from the West Bank city of Nablus. Before the first Intafada, I remember summers in that city that always seemed to conclude with a famous Rukab ice-cream in hand, trips to Nazareth, concerts in Bethlehem, and even leisurely weekends in Tel Aviv. However, with the onset of the first and then the second Intifada and all that ensued in between and after, 1986 was to be my last visit to a country that when I stepped back into years later was unnerving in its complexity and as far removed from that of my childhood summers as to be unrecognisable.
And it is such tension, such layering and complexity of existence that feminist, political activist and author Khulud Khamis has successfully managed to convey in her debut novel ‘Haifa Fragments’. This beautiful story of an Arab Israeli woman whose family is one of many Palestinians who chose to remain in Palestine when in 1948 Israel established its state. The novel is set in modern day Haifa.
The main protagonist is Maisoon, a talented jewelery artist. A feminist, an independent tradition-defying woman, she has just landed a job with Jewish Israeli boutique owner Amalia. She is also a Christian woman in a relationship with Ziyad, a Muslim apolitical man from Ar’ara, the heart of the Muslim Triangle. It is a rocky undefined unequal tense relationship in which Maisoon finds that ‘she walks in the rain, splashing through the puddles, while he avoids even the raindrops'.
She didn't want to look too Arab but neither did she want to look like she was trying to shed her identity' - Maisoon
Maisoon’s father, Majid, a complex man with an obscure past he has yet to reconcile with and who Maisoon sees as ‘of the generation today called the subservient. Those who never dared raise their heads’, is unhappy with his daughter’s choice and is constantly at wit’s end trying to dissuade his daughter from pursuing what he perceives as one dangerous adventure after another undertaken in an equally dangerous, not without severe consequences land. Soon though, Maisoon stumbles upon journals that shed more light on her father’s character and sets her on a scavenger's mission that threatens to unearth dormant skeletons.
Although Arab, Maisoon’s encounters with the Palestinians on the other side of the Israeli border had been ‘sporadic and distanced – mainly communicating with them through the fence at checkpoints or at olive harvests’. When she finally does cross over to the West Bank to visit with Shahd, a woman she strikes a friendship with at a wedding, Maisoon gets a sense of how different life is on the other side. The two engage in a sort of love affair that as a reader I found quite baffling. In general though, Maisoon's sexual encounters with two of the novel's women (Shahd and Christina) is possibly its weakest link in which the build-up to both events is amateurish and the result unconvincing.
However, the novel presents a kaleidoscope of interesting characters that converge and diverge creating a cacophony of diverse narratives that bring home the title of the book. How the author has managed to weave a tale from fragmented bits and pieces of her character’s lives to create a wholly immersive, workable plot is one of the strongest and laudable points of the book. Her characters are well rounded, engaging and plausible. One of my favourite characters in the book was Layla, Maisoon's mum; smart, pragmatic, affectionate and strong, and a kick ass coffee drinker.
The Haifa that the author describes is a beautiful city yet it is a space where its citizens’ relationships are intense and layered although quite harmonious. However, the sense of what the Palestinians of the West Bank have lost and continue to lose is quite acute and how they have chosen to ‘survive’ Israel's intention of eroding their heritage and distorting their history is countered in the way Palestinians under occupation choose to conduct their lives. ‘We want to live. And in order to live, we can’t afford to wallow in the dust of history … and you know what? If we ever lose our smiles and our laughter –then we lose our humanity’, says Shahd defiantly, the West Bank resident who has known nothing but Israeli occupation.
She woke each morning with the words etched inside her mind like stone: Moment of rage, forever of agony. She knew it was something so terrible that a human mind couldn't even begin to understand the meaning' - Maisoon
Although the novel is low-key and subtle when it comes to conflict, one anticipates danger at every turn of the page, as if there were a ticking time bomb in the background waiting to explode and implode on all the characters’ lives. Inside Israel, the Israelis and their Arab citizens live cautiously and are ever observant of each other locked in an undisclosed struggle for identity. Maisoon, for instance, ‘didn’t feel wholly Falasteeniyya. She vehemently refused the adjective ‘Israeli’ that was forced on her. She was a woman with freedoms … but still she felt trapped between her father’s haunting past and her own tomorrows’. Yet as the relationship between Maisoon and her Israeli Jewish employer progresses, it is increasingly evident what the repercussions of living in fear and ignorance of the other can do in hindering understanding and preventing co-habitation that allows a community to not only live in peace but also to blossom and thrive.
On the surface this may seem like an easy read but it will leave you with more questions than answers; a sure measure of the success of its writer. Khamis addresses many themes in her novel such as Normalisation of the Occupation, resistance and refusal to leave, rootedness and the current Palestinian generation's stand with regards to identifying with their collective history. It is about religion, tradition, love, friendship (particularly that of strong women), sadness and loss. Positive and full of hope, this a genuinely powerful debut.
About the author:
khulud khamis is a Palestinian writer and activist, born to a Slovak mother and a Palestinian father. She holds a Master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Haifa and works in the field of social change. She is a member of the feminist organisation Isha L’Isha—Haifa Feminist Centre. She lives in Haifa with her daughter. Khulud publishes some of her writings on her blog HERE.