Great Escape

Life During Wartime

How Palestinian novelist Atef Abu Saif writes his way out of Gaza

May 14, 2018 — Gaza City, Gaza. Photo by Etienne De Malglaive/Getty

AAtef Abu Saif had one of the formative experiences of his literary career in an Israeli jail in 1991. It was Ramadan, and the other prisoners asked Abu Saif, then in his early twenties, to compose a story for a breakfast. During the first Palestinian intifada, in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Abu Saif was one of the teens in Gaza’s Jabalia refugee camp throwing stones at Israeli soldiers — he was shot on three different occasions and still has a shallow scar peeling into his left cheek. He wrote a story about a mother who prepares her house for the return of her son from an Israeli jail only to learn that another one of her sons has just been arrested.

Abu Saif got a cold reception as he read the story aloud to his fellow inmates. There was “strong shock” on his listeners’ faces. It was an important lesson. “You don’t write a story for a prisoner to tell them that there is no hope in life,” he says. “What we write should matter for the people. You don’t write because you want to write, and you don’t write because you have the pleasure of time or your talent.”

Atef Abu Saif. Photo via Twitter.

“Gaza is like any place in the world, you know,” Abu Saif says. “It has its own stories, it has its own characteristics, and it’s full of life.

In The Drone Eats with Me, Abu Saif’s diary of the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas and his only book currently available in English, he mentions a brother named Naeem who took a leadership role in a militant group and whom Israeli security forces killed during the second intifada, in the early 2000s. “I often think about how close our starting points were,” Abu Saif writes, “and how that could have been me instead.” But it wasn’t him: Abu Saif, who is now a political science professor and perhaps the Gaza Strip’s foremost novelist, did not become a militant, or even a polemicist. He has turned down public events with Israeli writers, but largely because he resents being pigeonholed. “I’m not against reading with an Israeli author, but I’m against limiting me to the context of the conflict.” As he tells me, “I’m not writing a political statement about our rights. I’m not writing to say that the soldiers are killers, because politicians and human rights activists can say this. But I’m writing because I want life to continue through my writing.”

During the 2014 conflict, writing the journal that became The Drone Eats with Me served a dual purpose for Abu Saif. His account of the war became a record of lives that could be snuffed out at any moment: “I wanted them to survive in the text if it happened that we died,” he says of his family, which includes a daughter who was 18 months old at the time. Writing was also a way of placing himself outside of his immediate conditions. Writing marked both endurance and escape, as it had in prison a decade and a half earlier. “The moment of writing is a moment of isolation,” he explains. “You’re encaging yourself, you’re putting up your own borders, and believe me, you cannot write about things if you don’t escape from them, especially when you write about conflict. You have to detach yourself from the reality… Distancing yourself was a process of making sure that you were there. I was there, so this means I survived.”

Abu Saif was not easy to get ahold of. Because of Israeli and Egyptian border restrictions, as well as the Islamist militant group Hamas’ control of the coastal territory, Gaza is among the most isolated of the world’s populated areas. Facebook messages and emails to his publishers went unreturned. One Gaza-based fixer came up short in reaching him, and by the time we located a replacement, who had a contact who knew Abu Saif, violence had erupted in the territory. Gaza-based militants and Israeli forces traded rocket attacks and airstrikes for the ensuing couple days. Not to worry, the fixer assured us. They were just “normal airstrikes, like usual in Gaza.”

When Abu Saif and I finally faced one another across a WhatsApp video call, a truce between Hamas and Israel seemed to be holding. Abu Saif wasn’t outwardly concerned about the situation deteriorating. He was seated on the patio of the Oregano restaurant in the seaside Rimal district of Gaza City, a location with reliable internet and electricity roughly 10 minutes from his house in Jabalia. The video chat revealed a tranquil dusk in a Mediterranean city, and the sky eased into a pleasant dark blue as we talked, with Abu Saif speaking an easy and melodic accented English. The cries of playing children pierced the background, and stately ivy vines latticed the courtyard walls. Abu Saif has a dad’s face, friendly and fleshy in the way of middle-aged men the world over who have young children to take care of. He would take long sips of coffee to indicate that he had finished speaking — helpful, considering how often the signal flickered.

Faced with the pressures of life in Gaza, writing becomes a “safe passage” and a psychic escape hatch.

“Gaza is like any place in the world, you know,” Abu Saif says. “It has its own stories, it has its own characteristics, and it’s full of life. Here in the place we’re sitting, you have kids playing, you have a girl and a boy sitting together whispering, you have a family having dinner.” There had been Israeli airstrikes just a day earlier, and the bombs would fall again in some unknowably near future. In the meanwhile, life continued, even if it was a life in which the phrase “normal airstrike” had an eerily descriptive quality. “It’s a break, you know,” Abu Saif says of the calm that allowed our conversation to take place. “It’s a break between two wars.”

In his writing, Abu Saif tries to “make something universal from the peculiarities of your situation.” He wants his writing to encompass both the wars and the life that takes place in between. Take A Suspended Life, which was nominated for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2015. As Abu Saif and online summaries explain, the still-untranslated novel uses the Israeli military’s killing of a local print-shop owner and the Hamas-run government’s attempt to build a mosque and a police station on the land on which his house stood to track the relationships between the inhabitants of a Gaza refugee camp. The book captures a widely relatable everyday existence enduring within tenuous and often violent circumstances.

This interplay between the normal and abnormal is also a running theme in Abu Saif’s nonfiction The Drone Eats with Me. An all-too-rare account of modern war written from a civilian’s perspective, the book is a nerve-grinding 230 pages that reproduces the fear and confusion of conflict, as well as the monotony. Abu Saif spends the fighting worrying about how his wife and young children will survive, but he also frets about getting enough sleep and keeping his phone charged. The politics of the fighting are at an almost absurd remove from the events Abu Saif describes. Combatants are total abstractions, while the destruction and panic they cause is evoked with a tactile directness and a demystifying lack of flourish. Abu Saif records a conflict shorn of all glory and idealism, writing that “the only real heroism is survival, to win the prize that is your own life.” It’s a heroism for which the heroes pay dearly. “It’s not that you become stronger. It’s not true,” Abu Saif tells me about making it through rounds of fighting in the Strip. “You become more fragile.”

“You don’t write a story for a prisoner to tell them that there is no hope in life,” Abu Saif says. “What we write should matter for the people.”

In war, civilians contend with events far beyond their control. Whatever the battlefield realities, they face a chaos in which people seem to die at random. Abu Saif tells me that living in Gaza is “like watching yourself on television — but of course you never see your name on the lips of the anchor saying that ‘He’s dead’ or ‘She’s dead.’” As the surrealism of his analogy hints, one never totally adjusts to living this way. There is nothing normal about life being reduced to second-by-second proof of not yet having been violently killed, although one can become disturbingly habituated to such a mindset.

“It’s normal as you hear the bombing — you expect the bombing, and when it happens, it becomes part of your regularity,” he says. “It gives you a different kind of experience, but it’s not an experience where you can overcome the situation. It’s an experience that lets you at least survive. But you never survive, actually. You never know if you’ve survived or not.” A Gazan could make it through one war, or even two or three wars, just to die in the next one.

Writing literature isn’t easy anywhere, but the obstacles are especially challenging in Gaza, even when the fighting pauses. Israel and Egypt restrict the import of books and make it difficult for writers to enter and leave the coastal strip. Abu Saif did not see a copy of A Suspended Life until after it was released, and he has never met the novel’s Amman-based publisher.

Then there’s Hamas, the Islamist group that effectively rules the enclave. Abu Saif, who is also a playwright, says the Hamas culture ministry demands to see the texts of works before they’re staged and has the ability to shut down productions. When A Suspended Life was short-listed for the International Prize for Arab Fiction, Hamas wouldn’t give him the travel permit needed to attend an event introducing the finalists in Morocco because of his links to the rival Fatah party. In 2015 Hamas’ deputy culture minister sneered to the Associated Press that Abu Saif was “a politician, not a man of literature.” “External restrictions become internal,” Abu Saif says of living under the group.

Faced with the pressures of life in Gaza, writing becomes a “safe passage” and a psychic escape hatch. “You isolate your soul and your art and your body from the actual life, and you put them somewhere on an island the moment you write,” Abu Saif explains. “You encapsulate all those feelings and memories and you take them with you to this island, and there you open the capsule and you start to look at the details with your microscope again.”

Armin Rosen is a New York-based freelance writer and reporter-at-large for Tablet Magazine.

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