Akram Musallam: اسيرة العقرب الذي يتصبب عرقا (The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion)
Our unnamed narrator, presumably based at least in part on the author, first meets the blue scorpion in 1988. He is working at a dance hall and a young French woman later approaches him, to show him her freshly tattooed scorpion, just below her spine. She revealed a small cobalt-blue scorpion lying on a body the colour of the shore; a body that had much to say, a body bubbling with recklessness. They have a quick fling and, at the end of the night, he has her press her naked body against the mirror on the stage and he traces the shape of her hips on the mirror with her lipstick. She kissed him good night and returned to Paris. He never heard from her again. The event is one of the key markers in his life. He will dream of the scorpion trying to climb the mirror but continually slipping back. Isn’t this a novelesque dream or a dream of a novel?
He did not have a particularly happy childhood. Soon after his birth, his father trod on a nail at the building site where he was working. He did not have it properly treated so the wound became gangrenous and he had to have the lower part of his leg amputated.
Not surprisingly this had a traumatic effect on all the family. His mother had no more children and the other women said she had a sad womb because of what happened to her husband, preventing her from having children. As for the father, he continued to feel the missing leg and our narrator has to scratch the non-existent lower leg frequently. He particularly points out that he does not consider his father’s lost leg as a symbol for the loss of Palestinian territory which, presumably, means that he does.
The father eventually spends all his savings and compensation on buying land up in the mountains and building a house. He will raise livestock. As his wife is a science teacher, the family survives.
Our narrator is naturally involved in the intifada but he does not really describe this. He wants to write a novel. Initially he wanted to write it near the dance hall where he first met the scorpion but it wasn’t possible. We learn why later.
The next attempt involves him writing the novel in the middle of a car park. People have to pay for a parking place and he offers to pay the standard fee so he can have one slot and write there. The attendant is initially opposed but his supervisor accepts. The supervisor, whom we will later know as the prisoner because he spent eighteen years in an Israeli jail, says he wants to watch a novel being created and sits with him. The prisoner will comment on the novel and the author but also discuss prison life with the narrator.
We learn that the car park had originally been a building where a man from North Africa rented two apartments and refused to give them up when the owner wanted to sell. The North African sub-let one of the apartments and one of his tenants was the great Palestinian poet Hussein Barghouthi whom our narrator had visited when he was a student. He feels writing his novel more or less at the spot where Bargouthi lived will inspire him.
The scorpion image will continue to appear and we are told a lot about scorpions. There are a lot of different types (five hundred) and many) fifty)are not poisonous. We also learn about the scorpion dance of death, how the female devours the male after sex. Clearly the scorpion is a symbol for our author and his struggle, both political and personal. Am I the scorpion ? Or is the scorpion me? he asks.
There is one other key zoological symbol in this book – the lion statue in Al-Manara Square (you can see a picture of it here), clearly meant to show the resilience of the Palestinians.
As in many cultures, stories are key in Palestine and we get quite a few in this book. Our author’s paternal aunt, known as the dream lady of the mountain, interprets dreams and tells stories, which impress her nephew. Like many others, she has not had a happy life, as her husband left her early on and went to the United States. She has not heard from him since. We hear her stories and many others, too.
Most Palestinian novels I read show the horrors of the Israeli occupation. While this does occur in this book, they are fairly muted. We hear of them in more general terms, rather than seeing them directly. However, the The Palestinian response is also mentioned but again in a muted fashion, with one exception.
He compares terrorism to narration: There is no successful plot without precise camouflage and meticulous timing.
But it all goes wrong. They dig up the car park, the prisoner is rearrested, his parents are getting old and want him to marry and the dance hall turns out not to be a dance hall but is a terrorist target.
Running through the novel are various feelings. The word emptiness appears on several occasions: so it’s the emptiness, emptiness once more and the empty spaces in front of me washed by the drizzle. But, above all, it’s about loss. Yes, he lost the French girl from the dance hall and loses the dance hall, his writing space in the car park and his friend, the prisoner. But is also about the loss of Palestinian culture, of which we get several examples, from Hussein Barghouthi to the rebab, which is rarely played any more.
As I mentioned, Palestinian novels are often, not surprisingly, about the horrors of the Israeli occupation. Musallam is well aware of these but he wants to focus on his own personal situation and though he was part of the intifada, he feels loss, emptiness, nothingness and the disappearance of his culture as much if not more than the horrors of the occupation, making this a highly original Palestinian novel.
First published in 2008 byDār al-Ādāb lil-Nashr wa-al-Tawzīʻ, Beirut
First published in English in 2021 by Seagull Books
Translated by Sawad Hussain