Ghassan Zaqtan: النقل القديم مع الستائر، (An Old Carriage with Curtains)
Not surprisingly, like many Palestinians, Ghassan Zaqtan writes about memory and the Israeli occupation. The memory is, of course, about an era before the occupation/Nakba, even though the Nakba may have taken place before the author’s birth. The focus is partially on the village of Zakhariyya, a village we will find in his other novels. The novel can best be described as episodic as we get glimpses of the protagonist’s life, presumably, at least in part, based on the author’s own life.
We start off with a journey he makes between Jericho and Jerusalem, on foot. (It is around eighteen miles.) He gives us descriptions of what he sees. He visits the monastery of Saint George where he is refused admission. Apparently the relatively unknown Battle of Wadi al-Qalat took place here, where the Persians slaughtered many people. He had tried to get information about the battle but not much is known. He passes through Anata, whose name comes from the Canaanites’ goddess Anatut, their goddess of war, love, and the hunt. As we can see he enjoys tracing the origins of place names. However, this road is a notoriously dangerous road: he knew, painfully, that here everything leads to everything, and that they all passed through the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ without protection.
However we soon move onto the problems of everyday life for Palestinians in Israel, namely the security checkpoint. We learn that, for Palestinians, there are numerous types of permits and woe betide you if you do not have the right one. There are Permission of Passage, Permission of Visitation, Permission for Commerce, Permission to Visit Relatives Permission to Work, Airport Permission, Bridge Permission, Prayer Permission, Permission for Treatment and, finally, the Lam al-Shaml, an enormous and impossible prize whose ghostly prospect lived inside every home. It is a super-permit, almost impossible to obtain. The Arabic means City of the North.
As mentioned he is from Zakhariyya and his mother would love to visit it again before she dies. He has a permit to go there and does but she does not and we learn of the complexities Palestinians have in getting permits, for example to visit their old villages and see the graves of their loved ones, with the bureaucracy sometimes dragging on for years.
He often sneaks back, stopping at the Moroccan coffee shop on the outskirts of the village and sees their village (the home, was destroyed) now, of course, occupied by Israeli settlers. His mother has a mild obsession with the railway she alleged went there but he can initially find no trace of it: It all seemed like nothing but empty carriages with old, dusty curtains, not convincingly alive, because of the absence of the railway station. (The Nakba took place before he was born so he never lived there.) She was born there and has a faded photograph to remind her of what it was like. Unlike many neighbouring villages, which were destroyed, Zakhariyya survived, though of course the Palestinians were driven out and ended up in camps, in the case of out narrator and his family in the Jordan valley. Many of the houses were destroyed but the tomb of the prophet Zakhariyya and the house of an uncle survived.
The whole issue of return is key. His mother tries to return and is convinced she will get a permit but does not. Their neighbour had been trying for twenty years to get a Lam al-Shaml for her husband and continues even after he dies. The problem was that during the 1948 Nakba many people ended up on the wrong side of the line so families were split up and struggled, usually without success, to get back together.
We see the security checkpoint in detail. It is more bureaucratic than cruel but bureaucracy can be cruel. He has little problem, as an older man, but younger men are routinely pulled out of the queue and subject to interrogation. The process is also very time-consuming.
While it is mainly about the Palestinians we get examples of others who have returned home after an enforced absence to find their homes taken from them, Imre Kertész being one example, though we also get stories of Arabs who have suffered a similar fate. He describes visiting an abandoned village: Suddenly you see the houses in front of you whose families left them in haste: the astonishment of windows, belongings, pictures, clothes, and the open door of the cupboard, a picture of a father or grandfather in the sitting room chest.
The mass graves, the old man struggling at the security checkpoint, the horrors of insects in the Jordan Valley, his patchy relationship with a woman called Hind (Hind, too, seemed like a missing story), the Wavel Camp (named after a British soldier, not a French one as Zaqtan says in this book) are just a few of the other images/stories this superb book gives us. It starts on the Jericho-Jerusalem road and ends up in Zakhariyya and, in between, Zaqtan shows us life under the Israeli occupation, the Nakba and its consequences for the Palestinians and memories and their influence, particularly for a dispossessed people.
First published in 2011 by Azminah, Amman
First published in English in 2023 by Seagull Books
Translated by Samuel Wilder