LAHORE LITERARY FESTIVAL: Stories from Gaza
By Zainab Imam
IF there was one session that you should regret not having attended at the LLF, it was the one with British-Palestinian author Selma Dabbagh, who spoke about her novel, Out of It. The session, which was named after the novel, was well moderated by Aysha Raja. It was structured such that Raja would ask Dabbagh a few questions and then ask her to read specific passages from the novel.
Out of It describes the life of a Palestinian family under siege while Gaza is being bombed. The novel follows the lives of three siblings: Rashid, who is looking for a way out of the conflict zone, Iman, who begins to get involved in the conflict before moving to London, and wheelchair-bound Sabri, working on a history of Palestine.
Responding to a question on how she chose her characters, Dabbagh spoke about the Palestinian liberation movement. “It is a cause that attracts nutters as well as genuinely committed people. So in my novel, I was careful not to offend some activists who are doing good work by choosing a main character that is unsympathetic to the cause. When I first started writing, I knew I was really attracted to a certain aspect of the revolution — people who have failed the revolution or those who feel that the revolution has failed them.”
Elaborating on her understanding of the movement’s dynamics, Dabbagh said that when she was in Gaza last year, she realised that being in Palestine is a transformative experience. “In Palestine, your ideas matter. People are judging you on your views. The place has a specific draw for people who are thinking critically about morality.”
Raja then asked Dabbagh to read a passage in which her protagonist Iman is in London and trying to grapple with a tragedy back home. Was it an angry passage, she asked.
“It was slightly angry. Sometimes, people find it strange that you’re affected by something happening somewhere else.”
Dabbagh said that even though she had lived outside of Palestine, she had always been very connected to it and wanted to bring a fresh perspective from the place through her writing. “I would read a lot about it but couldn’t find anything very exciting, or at least as exciting as I wanted it to be. So I kept a global perspective on my characters,” she said. A young woman asked Dabbagh about the novel’s title. “It means three things,” Dabbagh said. “Firstly, it means out of Gaza, the place. Secondly, it means outside of politics and finally, it means being out of one’s mind.”
WHAT’S IN STORE?
IN a well-moderated session, writer Afia Aslam introduced the audience, mostly comprising school students and friends of the panellists, to three young writers from Lahore, all of whom are waiting for their books to come out this year.
The session was fascinating because of Aslam’s questions and the enthusiasm and energy of the panellists. It started 20 minutes late as organisers tried to find a venue for it after rain made it impossible to hold it in the garden, the original venue. Panellist Anam Zakaria described it best when she quipped how apt it was that a session on aspiring writers was this chaotic before finally settling down.
Kanza Javed, the second writer on the panel, spoke eloquently about her novel, Ashes, Wine and Dust, shortlisted for the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize at the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival 2013. Haroon Khalid, the third panellist, whom Aslam called an overachiever since he has already started on his second book, has written a travelogue on the festivals of religious minorities in Pakistan. He has covered 19 festivals of five religious groups, including the Hindu and Christian communities as well as the smaller Bahai community. Zakaria has also written a travelogue, about travelling between India and Pakistan.
All three authors read from their books and discussed them. Javed said that she had used each of the things mentioned in her novel’s name to describe and represent the relevant period from the life of her protagonist, Mariam. “Ashes is her childhood, wine encapsulates her experiences in WashingtonDC and dust is when she has to return to Lahore following a tragedy that changes her life.”
Khalid said that he had tried to explore what it was like being non-Muslim in Pakistan. Zakaria said that she had traced and spoken to four generations of Indians and Pakistanis about their perception of Partition. “When I started working with the Citizens Archive of Pakistan, I spoke to many people from the Partition generation, many of whom told me stories of how Hindus and Muslims lived together in harmony. At the same time, I started working on the Exchange for Change project, where I saw young children with hostile opinions about each other. So it was a quest for me to find out where the disconnect between these generations came from.”
— Zainab Imam