‘Fractured Destinies’ offers a window into Palestinian nostalgia and loss

Madhoun the novelist proposes no solutions but rather paints finely shaded pictures of characters and places.
Sunday 16/09/2018
Cover of Rabai al-Madhoun’s “Fractured Destinies.”
Exploring Palestinian exile. Cover of Rabai al-Madhoun’s “Fractured Destinies.”

In 18 years at al-Sharq al-Awsat, Rabai al-Madhoun has written fiction while keeping up a day-job editing stories about the Palestinian territories. “In 2004, I published my last article saying farewell to politics,” he said. “At that time, I believed the Palestinians were in a circle that was closing and I preferred to shift to literature.”

His “Masa’ir: kunshirtu al-hulukust wa-l-nakba” (“Destinies: A Concerto of the Holocaust and the Nakba”), which won the 2016 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, recently surfaced in English as “Fractured Destinies.” Both Arabic and English titles suggest the novel’s subject matter — the varying lives of Palestinians after 1948 in camps in neighbouring countries, dispersed to Arab countries or further afield, living in what post-1967 became “occupied territories” or “Palestinian territories” or as citizens of Israel.

The novel reveals and colours their differing experiences. Jinin, a novelist, is an Israeli citizen while her husband Basim, a US passport-holder from Bethlehem in the West Bank, cannot gain a work permit in Jaffa.

Walid, Jinin’s relative and also a novelist, is from al-Majdal Asqalan, a town in southern Palestine. Walid and his family left al-Majdal Asqalan in 1948 for Khan Younis camp in Gaza, from where he moved to Britain and became “British.” His wife, Julie, who plans to repatriate her mother’s ashes to Old Acre or Jerusalem, is the child of a British doctor father and a Palestinian-Armenian mother.

Madhoun bases Walid partly on himself. The author was born in al-Majdal Asqalan and his description of Walid’s visit there echoes personal experience. “At that time, it was considered a city, of around 11,000 population,” he said. “Most of the people left. When I went back I found only two families there now.”

He writes in “Fractured Destinies:” “Behind me was some ground stripped of its features by American Caterpillar trucks… What my mother had described to me was now just barren land, and it was difficult to be sure that houses had ever stood on it… I went back to looking bitterly at the remains of the great mosque built by the Mamluk emir Sayf al-Din Sallar in 1300… Oh my God! How could I pray two rak’as and dedicate them to my mother in a mosque that had turned into a museum and a bar?”

Madhoun’s road to fiction came through a 2001 autobiography “The Taste of Separation,” published eight years before his novel, “The Lady from Tel Aviv,” but he is subversive of form and genre.

“No fiction can imagine what has happened in Palestine and no reality could give more fiction [appear more fictional] than the reality in Palestine,” he said. “I build on this idea.”

Twice in “Fractured Destinies” Madhoun is himself mentioned — first, when Walid reads Madhoun’s article on his border dealings with Egyptian security and, second, as a character relates a lively exchange between Madhoun and a poet, ostensibly over hummus.

The effect is unsettling, evoking the Palestinian experience of being unsettled. “Yes, this is a shock to the reader, to wake him up,” said Madhoun. “Wherever the Palestinian goes, he is investigated.”

In further play on form, within the novel, Jinin is writing a novel. Its title “Falistini Tays” might translate as “The Stubborn Palestinian” or “The Palestinian He-Goat” and centres on a man dubbed The Remainer, who stays in Palestine in 1948 as his family flees.

“In our language, from one side he is stupid but from another he is strong,” Madhoun said. “Like a donkey, he insists on not moving but is he clever, determined to stay in his country? The people who stayed in Israel in 1948 were not always respected and were even seen as some kind of traitors. How could they stay with the enemy who took their land? But because they stayed, other Palestinians also envied them.”

The Remainer seems a harsh, obstinate man but the reader warms to him and his kindness to a Jewish neighbour traumatised by her suffering in Ukraine. A Communist and Sufi, The Remainer plans a silent public protest as the novel-within-the-novel and the novel itself move towards their close. Will Basim leave Jinin because he cannot work in Israel? Will Julie persuade Walid to move back to the Palestinian territories?

Oddly, Madhoun had no contact with translator Paul Starkey, professor emeritus of Arabic at Durham University, during the translation process, only to be sent a draft he found “amazing… even the songs.”

What emerges is a book taking non-Arabic readers, perhaps as never before, inside the fractured Palestinian destinies since 1948. Madhoun the novelist proposes no solutions but rather paints finely shaded pictures of characters and places.

“I’ve been asked with both ‘The Lady from Tel Aviv’ and ‘Fractured Destinies’ why I left the end open,” he said. “Well, the situation — the crisis — is open. How can I put an end to something that has not ended?”