In this second PEN Atlas despatch from British Palestinian writer Selma Dabbagh, we are taken deeper into Gaza; into the streets, into darkness. 

The combined effect of the bombing of the Gaza power plant in June 2006 by Israel and the land, air and sea blockade imposed on Gaza means that there is not enough electricity or fuel in Gaza. Eight hours of electricity a day from the grid is the norm. Those who can afford to do so, back up their supply with generators, which in turn need fuel to run, and almost all the petrol stations we see are roped off waiting for fuel. It only takes one person to generate a rumour that they might have a delivery on the way, for the petrol stations to become blocked up with queues of cars, tractors, motorbikes and pedestrians that stretch for miles and can last all day. ‘From the time I came to the Festival, until I left at night, they were there waiting; a long, long line,’ said one student volunteer from Deir El Balah refugee camp. ‘I could not even see my town as I approached it since everything was so dark. Only when the car’s headlights shone on it, did I realize we were at my house.’

Light now also comes in the form of enemy surveillance. Ominous floodlights, spaced apart in the sea, shine inland enforcing the unilaterally imposed Israeli three-mile limit for fishermen at sea. At night, in Gaza city, men smoke shishas in cafes lit by candles stuck on tiled surfaces; small stacks of coals glow upon inhalation.

Generators on pavements spread fumes into areas where people used to stroll in the evenings. Occasionally, these generators blow up. Badly made, ineptly used, in a country of chain smokers, they are hazardous. Because of the dangers, the mother of one Al Aqsa student refuses to have one in their apartment, ‘When the electricity is on, I use the internet, but I read books by candlelight,’ she says. Donkeys, camels, bicycles and horses are on the rise. Gaza, as the character Khalil says in Out of It, is being bombed back into the Middle Ages.

On the first night in my hotel room, where a ghoul, in the guise of urine-saturated bedding, crouches shapeless in the cupboard (I lock him in), the power cuts out. Complete blackness: I can’t even see the edge of the bath. I think I hear the roar of a fighter plane above me.  Possibly it is a jet breaking the sound barrier, but that type of blackout distorts noise. My imagination, ever prone to swell uncontrollably with visions of possibilities, imagines a bombing. I remember the line from the Gaza Youth Manifesto for Change, ‘We are sick of being caught in this political struggle; sick of coal-dark nights with airplanes circling above our homes,’ and I, quite simply, don’t want to be there. I have the vulgar luxury of options and I feel self-conscious of this wealth in Gaza. It is rare to find someone there who has anything close to alternatives.

‘We are in a big prison. You know, sijun, prison. We. Are. In. A. Big. Prison.’ Everyone says this: students, boys at the Rafah crossing trying to get to Turkey for a couple of days, a short-story writer with a teething baby. ‘You don’t know how unusual that music concert at the Shawwa Centre was,’ they say, ‘Boys sitting next to girls on the floor, standing, dancing. That never happens. What does it feel like to be free?’ ask the students. ‘What’s it like?’

One of the most talented (and modest) writers on the PalFest delegation, Tarik Hamdan, (‘He looks like the young Jean Genet,’ the novelist Youssef Rakha observes to me) reads poetry to a University class by the light of his mobile phone. At night, the city without electricity is a ghost town. During the day, its underutilized spaces – hotel lobbies, restaurants, cafes, shops – are populated by solitary men who appear to have been abandoned. There is a sense of unanticipated loss in these attendant figures, as though they have all been jilted and still reel internally with their heartache.

People have taken to cheering as the lights go out, as if it’s a big joke, ‘Ha ha! It’s done it again!’      This happens on Thursday night when we pile upstairs into the fifth floor of our hotel after plain-clothes security from Hamas close down our closing ceremony. This is denied by Hamas Government officials later and multiple apologies are given both that night and the next morning. ‘Bullshit’, says a Palestinian writer, ‘That’s bullshit’. Whoever was behind the decision, someone obviously wanted a shot fired across our bow.

We continue the curtailed event on the top floor of the hotel. ‘Let’s be constructive,’ says one young woman from Diwan Ghazza who obviously finds life too short to watch dust settle. ‘How do you recommend we set up this competition for bloggers?’ She asks this as we all still trying to find out what happened to the tiny girl whose phone was snatched, abruptly, vindictively, from her by ‘security’ as she sat in the audience while another girl read a poem of thanks to us from the stage. We had been gathered below ground level in the partially restored El Basha house, an attractive, rectangular pit of sandstone with arches and stairs that led down to it on the right hand-side of the stage. At the top of the stairs, armed men gathered, suited or shirted, legs apart with their phones held at arm’s length, scanning and photographing the protesting crowd with their phones. ‘You do this for Palestine?’ shouts Hamdan in a voice somehow bigger than him and the cage of my chest feels cleaved apart. Don’t tell me we’ve come to this. Is this what happens when authorities are empowered to crack down and disempowered from providing?

From the moment of the rabid, random phone grab and the armed men shouting how it is forbidden to film security, the questions begin: ‘Where has she gone? Did they take her? Did she get her phone back? Why her? Was she filming the stage? Why did they say she was filming security? See how they spread fear? You see? It’s good that you saw this. This is what we live with every day. It is good you are here. If you weren’t, they would beat us all and destroy the building. I am sorry you saw this, we are not like this. The girl, a porcelain miniature figurine in skinny jeans and a pink headscarf, is finally tracked down, distraught, at home and persuaded to come back to the hotel for the poetry readings of Haddad and Hamdan, and the oud playing of Eskanderella. ‘It’s like a dream having you here,’ says a short-story writer, whose five-year old draws a picture for my five-year old in London, ‘and you’ll leave and we’ll be left to a nightmare, a horrible nightmare’.

‘We used to have one authority when the Israelis were here, one authority and one enemy, now with Fatah and Hamas, we have three authorities and this makes our lives hell.’

And in the darkness, light.

‘I don’t want to talk to you anymore about these tunnels,’ says one of the many students who has been in the tunnel industry, working the pulleys at the top of the well like openings for $50 per day ($100 if you go down, but you could get gassed or otherwise killed down there, as a friend of his was), ‘or about drugs’. (I am trying to find out more about the craze for a highly addictive upper, Trimadol, that has taken off since the relative ‘opening’ of the border with Egypt.) ‘I want to talk to you about literature,’ he says, ‘She walks in beauty like the night. Who wrote this?’ ‘Byron,’ someone says. ‘Ah yes, Lord Byron. I love this,’ he says with the most amazing smile, as though he wrote the lines himself.

About the Author

Selma Dabbagh is a British Palestinian writer based in London. She is the author of the novel, Out of It, (Bloomsbury, 2011). Her short stories are mainly set in the contemporary Middle East. Recurring themes in her work are idealism (however futile), political engagement (or lack thereof) and the impact of social conformity on individuals.

In 2004 and 2005 she was selected as a Finalist for the Fish International Short Story Prize and was English PEN’s nominee for International PEN’s David TK Wong Prize in 2005. Fish also nominated her for the Pushcart Prize in 2007.

Her work has appeared in International PEN’s Context: The Middle East magazine, Qissat: Short Stories by Palestinian Women and NW15: An Anthology of New Writing. Her work has been praised by reviewers in The Independent, The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement, Al Ahram Weekly, the Times and The Sunday Times.

Some of her short stories, reviews of her work and interviews about her are available on her website.

Selma is currently working on a second novel and a fiction feature film with the director Azza el Hassan.

Additional Information

Tarik Hamdan is a Palestinian poet and musician, born in 1982.  His first poetry book Once When I was a Sperm was published in 2010. His poems have been translated into English, Spanish and Korean. He is the Editor in Chief of Filstin Ashabab – a monthly arts and literature magazine for young artists and writers. He is active in diverse media and art projects in Palestine, and the Arab world.

Amin Haddad is an Egyptian poet. He has published several collections of poetry. He is the founder of El-Share3 (the street) – a group of poets and musicians – which he both manages and participates in.

Youssef Rakha was born in Cairo in 1976.  Reporter, copy editor and cultural editor at Al-Ahram Weekly, the Cairo-based English-language newspaper.  He has published seven books in Arabic and the eighth, his second novel, is forthcoming with Dar al Saqi in October, 2012

You can read more about this year’s PalFest here.