Out of It – A Novel

Out of It by Selma Dabbagh

In 1973, Mahmoud Darwish wrote,

“Gaza has not mastered the orator’s art. Gaza does not have a throat. The pores of her skin speak in sweat, blood and fire.”  – Journal of an Ordinary Grief

In its review of the novel Out of It, the Egyptian Independent said author Selma Dabbagh’s “portrayal of Gaza is, in some ways, not so different from the gaping wound Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish presents.”

The wound still hasn’t healed.  In fact it has turned septic and widened as now five generations sit within its weeping gap.  But 30 years later, Gaza has found an orator.

British-Palestinian, Dabbagh is like one of the “PLO Brats” she created;  the English-speaking, Diaspora who carry Holy Land DNA in their blood.  The granddaughter of a politically active Palestinian, Dabbagh grew up outside Gaza where her story takes place; yet she carries the memories of place and of the wounds her father sustained in a 1948 Jaffa attack.  Dabbagh’s intelligent, urbane characters promise to give readers an alternative view of the Palestinian OTHER.

I haven’t gotten a copy of the book – yet.  But I am excited to see my friend, fellow bookclub member and former Bahrain resident return to the island to talk about her debut novel.

It wasn’t so long ago when conversations about our toddlers were interspersed with her laments about the difficulty of finding the creative space to finish her book.  But her acclaimed talent and perseverance prevailed against potty-training and garden birthday parties with bouncy castles.

In the land of unexpected coincidences, Selma, featured on the cover of this week’s GulfWeekly, tells of her Bahraini good luck when we met Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif  at a Shaikh Ebrahim Center lecture in 2008.  In 2011, the stars finally aligned and international publisher Bloomsbury UK took on Out of It.

Selma Dabbagh was at the 2012 Dubai Literary Festival.  It was a great opportunity to meet this engaged, articulate and passionate Palestinian.

The US version will be published in August 2012 and an Arabic translation is expected in December 2012.  The WORDS bookstore and cafe has her book in stock.

To get to WORDS take the exit at the Burgerland roundabout towards Budaiya.  WORDS is located in the Palms Square shopping center located between the third roundabout and the fourth roundabout (Al Osra) on the Budaiya Highway. Phone number is 17 690 790.


“I had no say in who I was” – Mahmoud Darwish’s Mural

Mahmoud Darwish Exhibit at Bin Matar House

The Arab world has a long tradition of poetry.

In the pre-Islamic era, in Northern Arabia, Bedouin poets challenged each other to verbal duels.  Before a panel of esteemed judges, they described their nomadic life.  Their poems typically began with a lament for an abandoned camp and a lost love.  In the second verse they praised their camel or horse and described their difficult desert journey to the fair.  The finale was a tribute to the poets’ tribes while their enemies were vilified. ( Al-Bab.com)

The most beautiful poems, the Mou’allaqat, became the Hanging Ones.  The poems inscribed in gold letters were hung on the Ka’ba – the sacred stone in modern Mecca.

In the Arab world, Mahmoud Darwish is the modern day Moudhahhabat or Gilded One.

The “savior of the Arab language” his thirty volumes of poetry have sold over two million copies.  Reporters wrote whether he read his poems in Cairo or Damascus thousands of people, from college professors to cab drivers, attended.

“He could not walk out in public without being recognized.”

Like his Bedouin predecessors, his poets are laments for his lost land and love, Palestine.  They describe his difficult journey to Lebanon after his upper Galilee village was destroyed by Israeli soldiers in 1948.  When his horse finally found its way back to Ramallah in the newly formed state of Israel, he began to write poetry reflecting his experience of exile.

Imprisoned several times for reading his poems, he eventually moved to the Soviet Union, Cairo, Tunis, Beirut, and Paris.  There he continued to lament Palestinian uprootedness while finding the courage, and humanity, to write about his Jewish friends, lovers and Israeli jailors in “tender, nuanced portraits”.

After a life-threatening heart surgery, Darwish’s focus changed to the personal experience that transcends all emotions and politics – death.

The Mural excerpts I posted,

Someday I will become a thought, a bird and a poet,

show Darwish became more metaphysical or Sufi-like.  Like others who are confronted with their own mortality, Darwish described his near-death experience;

I came before my hour so no angel approaches to ask:

what did you do over there in the world?

I don’t hear the chorus of the righteous or wailing of the sinners

I am alone in whiteness

alone …

Alone, in the center of a room at the Bin Mattar House is a 4×2 meter concrete wall echoing the Ka’ba.  Layered on gold sheets, a photographic print of the Mural manuscript is embossed onto its walls.

Until I visited the exhibit last week, Darwish was unknown to me.

His first book, Wingless Birds was published in 1960.  But it wasn’t until 2001 when he won the $350,000 Lannan Prize for Cultural Freedom that his works were widely translated into English.  After awarding his prize, this American foundation began translating his work and publishing it through the University of California Press.

“His courage in speaking out against injustice and oppression, while eloquently arguing for a peaceful and equitable co-existence between Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews is what motivated Lannan Foundation to honor him.”

French artists Marie-Francoise Rouy and Luc Martinez created this exhibit before Darwish’s death in 2008.  Normally Darwish destroyed his manuscripts.  But when this project was proposed, he agreed to write out the last lines.  This living wall is a place people can gather to hear him reading and feel his words with their hands.

Despite the fact that pre-Islamic poetry is etched into the Ka’ba,  its existence causes controversy and Imams debate its significance.  Darwish’s life and work written at this particular moment in time will continue to be a thorn in the side of those in power.

His elegy written on cement walls in Bahrain will probably be the closest this Moudhahhabat’s work will come to hanging alongside his Bedouin predecessors.

Mahmoud Darwish’s Mural  is a multimedia and interactive art installation by artists Marie-Francoise Rouy and Luc Martinez.  It will continue through 31 June 2012 at the Bin Mattar House in Muharraq, Bahrain.

One Day I’ll Become a Poet

On the River Jordan is a site called Bethany Beyond the Jordan. It is said to be the place where John baptized Jesus. It is on the Jordanian side of the river. The water is very low because further upriver the river was dammed and the water diverted.

One day I’ll become what I want

One day I’ll become a poet

Water obedient to my vision

My language a metaphor for metaphors

I don’t speak or indicate a place

Place is my sin and subterfuge

I am from there

My here leaps from my footsteps to my imagination…

I am from what was or will be

I was created and destroyed in the expanse of the endless void.

– pg. 11 from Murals by Mahmoud Darwish

One Day I Will Become a Bird

Dove in Seyahdi House in Muharraq Bahrain

One day I’ll become what I want

One day I’ll become a bird

that plucks my being from nothingness.

As my wings burn I approach the truth

and rise from the ashes

I am the dialogue of dreamers

I shunned the body and self to complete the first journey

towards meaning

but it consumed me then vanished

I am that absence

The fugitive from heaven

pg. 11 from Murals by Mahmoud Darwish

One Day I Will Become a Thought

Poppies on mountain outside Bethlehem

One day I will become what I want

One day I will become a thought

that no sword or book can dispatch to the wasteland

A thought equal to rain on the mountain split open by a blade of grass

where power will not triumph

and justice is not fugitive.

– pg 10 from Murals by Mahmoud Darwish

Flower in the Sand

Desert flower after a winter with less than 3/4s of an inch of rain.

When the sky is grey

and I see a rose sprouting through the cracks in the wall

I don’t say: the sky is grey

but keep my eye on the rose and tell it:

it’s quite a day!

from Mural by Mahmoud Darwish


Tales by Chapter

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