Notes from a Safe House in Area A

Selma Dabbagh returns to PEN Atlas, and to Ramallah, to stay at the Guest House of the Qattan Foundation. In this dispatch, she writes about the physical and bureaucratic walls that divide the territory, records the sounds of the Old City, and explores the impact of the Oslo Peace Accords on Palestinian literatureI felt a compulsion to either love or hate Ramallah intensely; to embrace it as my homeland or to reject it as an abject failure of a Palestinian political system replete with corruption and compromise. To feel ambivalent did not seem like an option for a place that is so hard to get into for people like me and so hard to get out of for its inhabitants. Diplomats, the United Nations and others can glide in and out; those who might possibly have an impact are not encouraged to experience its reality. The separation barrier or The Wall surrounding Ramallah is guarded by the multi-shedded wired-up Kalandia checkpoint. The entrance to Ramallah is a sight befitting the set of a modernist Wizard of Oz or a remake of Brazil. There is a large red sign before you reach the checkpoint: “This Road leads to Area A under the Palestinian Authority. The Entrance for Israeli Citizens is Forbidden, Dangerous to Your Lives and Against Israeli Law.” To sit in cafes in the city, with names like Pronto and Café de la Ville, consuming Caesar salads and espressos, inspires a sense of banality not compatible with the knowledge of a bigger picture of incarceration. It is, however, human nature to do ordinary things in extraordinary circumstances; to make the extraordinary ordinary, and to just get on with it.”There is no meta-message for Ramallah,” a political science lecturer friend says to me as we drive past the Ramallah Museum, which according to him leaves a lot to be desired. “We were discussing this in class and could not come up with a meta-message for this place. Not in art, or history-“”Could it be the non-violent resistant movements of the first Intifada?” I suggest helpfully.”What are you talking about?”His wife says, “Me. I am the meta-message of Ramallah.”The more I get to understand about this businesswoman, lecturer and mother of four, who from her garden can see the red lights of new settler outposts blinking on the hillside, the more I realize that she isn’t joking.The Qattan Foundation in Ramallah is a majestic early 20th
century stone house with arched windows and a terrace, where John Berger, a former Qattan Guest House Resident, debated long into the night with the Foundation staff under hanging grapes parceled up in papery plastic bags. The offices are empty for much of the time I am there; I arrive before the Eid holiday at the end of Ramadan. Fig thieves drive up one day in a car. “Is everyone away?” they ask as I work at the outside table. “Yes everyone,” I reply to their beaming faces. They set about picking figs and bagging them up before a young man comes towards me offering a small plate of fruits with a gallantry lost many years ago in the West.The Guest House, behind the Qattan offices, is structured like a CIA safe house, a bare concrete structure with a heavy metal door. Behind it a mobile mast straddles the hill. To the right a 10-storey building is being constructed by two men in T-shirts who, with an air of vagueness, occasionally hang on ropes and tap at it with picks. It is rumoured to belong to Mohammed Dahlan, the controversial Palestinian Authority figure (henchman, spy, murderer of Arafat, himself a victim of conspiracy?). Behind this maybe-one day-it’ll-be-a hotel looming concrete cavity is the locked Christian cemetery where the murdered American archaeologist Albert Glock (central character of Edward Fox’s Brilliant Palestine Twilight: The Murder of Dr. Glock and the Archaeology of the Holy Land) is buried. A lone mongrelly dog pads up to my door, keen on taking a place on the rug. I try to feed it lasagna from a doggy bag, sure that its doting behavior is driven by its stomach, but it couldn’t care less. The day before I leave, a dignified film-maker, with the dapper air of the Rive Gauche, saunters up the path with a see-through plastic bag of freshly chopped meat, and I understand the dog’s contempt for my offerings. A lizard pokes its head through the hole for the television aerials in to my room most evenings.image001doggyOne writer or artist can occupy the Guest House at a time, for a period of up to three months. Before me was a Brazilian filmmaker who was loved by the unnamed, well-fed dog. The messages in the guestbook rage and lament, and document inspiration from Ramallah. I mull over what my entry will be, am determined not to write a word until just before the end of my two-week stay, waiting for the meta-message to strike me like a holy prophecy. This turns out to be the wrong approach, as my goal of writing three scenes a day, seeing as much as I can (including stand-up comedy by a Palestinian American comedienne with cerebral palsy, Maysoon Ziadeh, who sits down), together with the chaos and agony of my friends’ lives, ends up taking over my life, and my scrawl of “Taxi’s here, must go–” ends up being the testimony I leave the Guest House with, next to the calligraphy and care of Berger et al.Mahmoud Abu Hashhash, responsible for the Literature Programme at the Qattan Foundation, is one of the few people with something good to say about the peace deals of the 1990s and the impact they have had on Palestinian society. He agrees with me that the upside of Oslo is that there seems to be a new era of iconoclastic writing. Writers feel freer to write about the faults in their society and their personal experiences, rather than being boxed in by the Palestinian national narrative. “Everything changed after Oslo,” Abu Hashhash says. “It both questioned the way that people dealt with themes and political issues as well as making writers more stylistically experimental.” This year 26 novels were submitted for the annual Qattan award, more than double the previous year.I am here to write a play commissioned by BBC Radio 4 and to record,with a Marantz recorder, which I have been trained to use by my producer in London as though I am assembling a bomb, background noises or ‘Atmos.’ I have a list of atmospheric sounds that I need to collect to fit the scenes of my play.My play follows the journey of a woman, Rasha, who comes from an old Christian Jerusalemite family, travelling back to the Old City on her one-day permit. During that journey she discovers realities about the father she adored which she would rather not know. My list of required ‘Atmos’ includes the following: (1) EXT. Quiet Jerusalem street. Close to front door. 5’00” time: 1800 (2) EXT. Communal taxi, 1 rear door closing, stationary (3) INT. Humble family home living room. 5’00” very early morning.I learn to interpret the world through sound. I jump at a horse-drawn cart jangling down the street and put on my headphones, fiddling with sound levels; I appreciate more the lyricism here of the adaan call to prayer (none of the screaming vitriol of some of the mosques I have heard in Pakistan, Egypt and the Gulf) as well as the loudest wedding music ever. At 6 am one morning, I take my character’s journey from the village of Eizariya to Jerusalem. I had lived there when I was 22, travelling into Jerusalem each day (it took 15 minutes then, it takes over an hour now) to write pithy paragraphs on shootings for the human rights organisation where I once worked. The village of Eizariya is now a town; I can’t see the bare rooms where I lived; a town divided by the Wall which is scrawled with graffiti and blotted with the marks left when someone tried to burn an absolutely non-flammable object. The Wall is a horror that disorientates as much as it divides. In East Jerusalem the shabab youth shoot toy bullets and throw silly stones at the car my UN friend drives me around in, as they think we are from the other side. An Israeli flag the size of a billboard flutters over a house bought from a Palestinian, found shot dead days later in Jericho. There are houses taken over by settlers everywhere in East Jerusalem. Fake shrines and false archaeology. It’s an efficient, aggressive and disciplined takeover; a systematic making-ugly of all that is Palestinian.I carry my Marantz recorder hesitantly as there are soldiers, and then I start asking shopkeepers if I can record here, there, on the street, in the church, by the underwear shop, in the garden, and by the end I am marching through the Old City from the Jewish quarter to Damascus Gate with the orange-headed mike swaddled like a baby in my arms, picking up the sounds of rice falling against brass dishes, Chinese toy dogs barking, soldiers’ radios, touts shouting about the Stations of Christ and souvenirs, the woeful singing of Filipino pilgrims, and the scratch and start of amplifiers calling the faithful to prayer against the bells of others.Once, I am dropped at Kalandia after going for dinner in Jerusalem. It’s late. 11 pm and for some reason they have closed the checkpoint. The Israeli soldiers have the jitters (“They are always nervous,” my aunt says later). The temperature drops at night. We should all stand here, no there. Stand, wait. They call someone out of the queue randomly. You, you, man come here, I need to check your papers. I am nervous for the man pulled out and I have no vested interest. I am glad it is not me, but I am nothing but privilege in this gathering as I have a maroon document in my bag. You, you, go back. In the cars, women dressed and made-up for parties sit impatiently, children squirm in their seats, horns start beeping. There is no reason for the closure, but everyone talks as though talking enough, asking enough, showing resilience, disdain, contempt will reduce it, make us rise above it. The wall slides open and Israeli soldiers, machismo bristling out of their necks, rev their engine as their jeep drives comfortably through the man-made gateway to the other side.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.

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