Ibtisam Azem: وسفر الاختفاء (The Book of Disappearance)
The book opens with one of the main characters, Alaa, a Palestinian cameraman, who lives in Tel Aviv but who is from Jaffa, looking for his grandmother. She lives in Ajami, part of Jaffa, with Alaa’s parents, as she is too old to look after herself. She has a habit of wandering. Eventually, he finds her, dead, in a church.
A good part of this book is Alaa’s tribute to his grandmother. She had lived in al-Manshiyye, another district of Jaffa, but she and other Arabs had been driven out in the 1948 War and forced into Ajami, which was something like a prison compound for the Arab population. Alla gradually tells us her story, about her attachment to Jaffa and its people and how her husband left her after 1948 to go and live in Beirut. Her stories have nourished Alaa over the years (he is now forty). She said that the Arabs and Jews used to be friendly but it all changed when the Zionists came.
Above all, she told him stories of Jaffa, how its population dropped from 100,000 to 40,000 after 1948 and how she claimed to know everybody, even though she may not have met them. She also told him how it had changed after 1948. You used to say that you would walk in the morning, but could not recognise the city, or the streets. As if they, too, were expelled along with those who were forced to leave.
We follow others, both Palestinians and Jews. We learn of the friendship between Alaa and Ariel, an Israeli journalist. Both men live in the same building in Tel Aviv. We meet David and Yusif, who may be opening a restaurant together. We also meet Shimon, an Israeli, who runs a flower-growing business for exports. He could use cheap foreign labour but he prefers Palestinian workers.
As we follow the stories of these people, we learn of the difficulties the Palestinians face. The flower workers, for example, who have to cross through a checkpoint, from Palestine to Palestine as Azem laconically puts it and are subject to the whims of the guards as to how long it takes to get through. They also have to put up with Shimon’s pesticide spraying. There are many other examples of the daily inconveniences and threats Palestinians have to face.
However, one day Shimon is surprised to find that none of his workers turn up. He phones the neighbouring farm to see if there has been a problem at the checkpoint. Apparently, none of the other farm’s workers have turned up, either. Gradually, we learn that, across the country, that no Palestinians have turned up anywhere. In short, as the book title tells us, they have disappeared. There is no explanation for this, no evidence of a mass exodus, no evidence of their hiding in their houses or villages, no evidence of them at all. The rest of the book is about the consequences of this.
Not only have all the Palestinians who have limited freedom of movement disappeared, all the ones that have no freedom, i.e. those in prison, have also disappeared. The missing Palestinians are not just the ordinary workers. A Palestinian doctor who is to carry out surgery has not turned up, so the surgery is cancelled. A prostitute’s Palestinian pimp has not turned up so she feels unprotected. Newspapers are not delivered, buses do not arrive. And Alaa, of course, has disappeared.
For some Israelis, this is good news. The leading article in Yisrael Hayom was titled “Have Our Problems Disappeared Forever?. Many welcome it. The government is worried about what it means. Ariel, however, writes No news or war experienced by this city in the past has ever created this kind of calm. There is a reduction of the fear level, with restaurants doing away with their security guards. The prime minister, Titi (presumably a mockery of Netanyahu’s familiar name of Bibi) changes the law which now stipulates that any Israeli Arab who refuses to acknowledge the independence and Jewishness of the state, or commemorates what Palestinians call nakba instead of independence, shall be detained.
The settlers, as they have done elsewhere, decide they want to take over the now abandoned properties of the Palestinians and try to do so, while many Israelis declare that the Palestinians have committed an act of betrayal.
While this is going on, we are following Ariel’s reading of Alaa’s notebook and he learns a lot about his friend and his views. We learn about his determination to preserve the old street names of Jaffa, which have been changed either to numbers or to ones celebrating Jews. Ariel remembers an outburst Alaa once made: By the way, Jaffa wasn’t just groves! Even if it was just desert, this lie you all wanted to believe doesn’t grant you the right to kill us and expel us. Even if we were the most backward people in the world, that doesn’t give you the right to displace us. Nor to kill us. Go and fight the Europe which expelled you and killed you . . .
While Azem does not condemn all Israelis and portrays some of them, such as Ariel, as sympathetic and humane, she does not hide her bitterness about how the Israelis took away a country and a culture. She fully understands their suffering in the Holocaust but, as she rightly points out in the quotation above, it was not the Palestinians who brought about the Holocaust and they should not be made to pay for it.
Whether you enjoy or even read this book, will doubtless depend on your views on the Palestinian-Israeli issue. In his afterword, Sinon Antoon, the translator, quotes from Anton Shammas: The loneliness of the Palestinian [in Israel] . . . is the greatest loneliness of all.. He goes on to explain the background to the novel and Azem’s own story. However, he concludes with a quotation attributed to the first Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion about the Palestinians: The old will die and the young will forget. This book and many others show that this is not going to happen. I urge you to read it to understand why.
First published 2014 byDar al-Jamal
First published in English by Syracuse University Press in 2019
Translated by Sinon Antoon