For our series on exile with the British Museum and Edmund de Waal, Selma Dabbagh writes on Palestine, desire, place and the future.

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Across June, PEN Transmissions, in collaboration with the British Museum and Edmund de Waal, is publishing a series of essays on the theme of exile. This series speaks to Edmund de Waal’s library of exile, currently housed at the Museum. English PEN’s event series for the exhibition has been postponed due to COVID-19, and these essays – from writers in the events programme, or with books in the library – touch on issues that will be discussed at the rescheduled events.


I grew up between places, many of which were non-places – construction sites in deserts, flyovers made from twisted wire and concrete blocks, pot-holed tracks and wide highways strewn with crushed American cars, some erected on plinths as a warning. There were five-star hotels, and malls with gilt fountains, abayas and mink stoles. Freshly made states where interactions between strangers were purely commercial in nature. I wobbled down the aisles of planes as a toddler, lived out of a suitcase for many years, boarded at six form colleges as a teenager, visited grandparents in an English town on the south coast dedicated to retirees. I’ve regularly visited a house bought in 1975 by my parents in a Chiltern valley, where I know no one except them to this day.

I’ve never believed that exile has much to do with me. Being in a state of exile seemed a noble status reserved for philosophical men who wore hats – Dante banished to Ravenna being the prime example. To my mind, exiles grew up in places where their cousins lived on the same street; where they were on first-name terms with the local stall keepers and petty criminals; savoured the seasonal fruits and vegetables; and were savvy with the vernacular. A rupture then came about when these (predominantly) Easterners fled West to sour bedsits to spend their days yearning for the flaky almond pastries found in the wood-panelled cafés of their capitals, the tang of its morning pollution and the innuendo of a compatriot’s joke.

My mother studied natural science at Newnham College, Cambridge. She had a scholarship and developed a particular interest in fungi. Her mother also was a scholarship student, at University College London, where she studied French and German. She lived with a Jewish family in Berlin for a time in 1933 My English grandfather was an officer in the Royal Marines, and my mother’s upbringing was one of multiple moves and boarding schools where everything was prohibited – more oppressively than any Arab regime was capable of at the time. The legacy of puritanism and the military prevailed on the English side. My great grandmother believed mirrors were wicked. At my grandparents’ house, lunch was served always at 1 pm, even if it was ready at five to, and a lie-in for teenagers was until 8 am. Baths were shallow and not particularly warm. My memories of staying with my English grandparents remain sacrosanct, despite the listlessness felt at the time. It was a caring environment devoid of vocalised emotions.

My father is from the Ajami district of Jaffa, a city whose population went down from 100,000 to 4,000 within days in 1948 and became, according to Ibtisam Azem’s narrator in The Book of Disappearance, unrecognisable after ‘that year’. My father is more fitted to the category of the exile than I am, for his is a refugee tale. One May morning, when he was a boy of 10, a grenade was thrown at him and the children with whom he was playing. We knew this story as children, but memory can revive like a lamp bulb swinging more vigorously in a crypt. Details come through with age: the French doctor who sewed the wounds badly with shaking hands; the penicillin injections with a needle as thick as a pencil; the hospital windows rattling with the bombing; the family’s failed attempt to get on a boat with the stretcher; the departure on a truck, his dog chasing them for as long as it could.

The family went on to Nablus, then Damascus, Kuwait, Jordan. From Kuwait, my father insisted on moving to London to study. There he saw a picture of my mother smiling on the top of Ben Nevis in a mutual friend’s photograph album. My parents have been together for nearly 60 years, and my teenage daughter views their relationship as the happiest one she knows (albeit she does not know as much about it as I do). The notion in my psyche that I must bridge distance and difference to create a harmonious romantic form evidently has its roots here.

Would my life choices have been the same were it not for the story of the boy, the grenade, the truck, the stretcher, the dog? I worked with human rights organisations, went on demonstrations, signed petitions, agitated. I wrote short stories where there were characters who betrayed the revolution or felt the revolution had betrayed them. This led to a novel, Out of It, where the characters were poised between political engagement and opting out, between being geographically in Palestine and far from it, between being off their heads and stone-cold sober.

As an adult, I was drawn to cities with older identities: the Quartier Arabe of an Alpine city in France; the colonial districts of Cairo; a domed house on the Nablus road in Jerusalem, since taken over by Israeli settlers. In London, I’ve moved from West, to North, to East. I’m now in the North West, in a flat that a friend remarked combines all aspects of my life: the Palestinian, the English, and the gated community living of the Gulf. My books and diaries have moved with me and, in each place, I grow plants, decorate walls, and buy lamps. I have come to know that objects can vanish – through invasion (Kuwait, 1990), being denied re-entry (Palestine, 1992) and upon marital separation (Bahrain, 2009). I try to be Zen about property ownership, but my attachment to my flat is paranoid, obsessive.

From time to time, I hanker for the next place, the next life. The destination to come is a cushion I embroider around my daily consciousness that will explode into feathers if it were ever to become a reality, only then to be substituted by another ‘elsewhere’ where an imagined life is.

Attachment theory, developed by the psychiatrist John Bowlby, divides human relationships into categories: the secure, anxious or avoidant. These are determined by upbringing – primarily the consistency of care by a parent or carer – and are said to influence relationship patterns for life. I wonder if Bowlby’s theories can be transferred onto a connection to place? Does a process of repeated disorientation lead to permanent distrust of being settled? Bowlby’s mid-twentieth century ideas are finding new life in self-help books for romantic relationships. And, on that front, flicking through the piles of diaries starting in the 80s , I see another pattern of desire being connected to distance: boys and men in Czechoslovakia, Sweden and Canada, when I was in Kuwait, France or Egypt, at times when airline flights were as out of my budget as private space flight is now, when email connections weren’t invented (or barely existed), when letters got lost and I’d have to spend an hour teaching English in a penthouse by the Nile to cover the cost of a fifteen minute call to Montreal from a Tahrir Square call box.

There could, however, be no connection at all between my nomadic upbringing and the association of travel with desire. It could be that I just find cultural difference, romantic obstacles, and travel sexy in and of themselves. Catherine Millet, in The Sexual Life of Catherine M, writes that her ‘sexual experiences were intimately linked with the need to escape’, an impulse that occurs again and again in erotica, often in Orientalist depictions of interactions with the ‘other’ (Anaïs Nin being a case-in-point). The idea of movement to new terrains, freeing up inhibitions and enabling the recreation of self, recurs frequently in erotic writing. An impulse to upturn the status quo and create a new world based on an imagined one has propelled me throughout my life, although my personal background and experiences could not be more different from Millet’s.

I have often placed myself in personal and physical situations that I have thought would make me braver and stronger. Yet I still view myself as cowardly. It could be a sense of masochism – the hard chairs of my puritanical forebearers – or due to the years spent in British prisons by my Palestinian grandfather for acting in line with his conscience. ‘Whatever our personal weaknesses may be, the nobility of our craft will always be rooted in two commitments, difficult to maintain’, Albert Camus said in his Nobel speech: ‘the refusal to lie about what one knows and the resistance to oppression’. He was more of a writer than I am, more of an exile (he even had the hat), but with time I’ve found it possible to pull the microphone towards myself, a female voice from the middle ground between East and West – the mezzaterra,as Ahdaf Soueif calls it – and describe what I know is possible from my own globalised perspective, where the vernacular is absent.

Last year, I was asked to write a short story for the first collection of Palestinian science fiction – with the exception of the Old Testament, as a friend pointed out. I couldn’t bring myself to articulate what a historian had once advised me to say when asked about the prospects for Palestine, ‘tell them we have no future, only a past’, for what future can we have if not even artists can imagine one? Yet Camus’s demand not to lie about what one knows made it hard to lift writing from a responsibility towards the unconscionable present: the forced expulsions and house demolitions, the walls, land grabs, the siege, bombings, shootings, child detentions, mass incarceration, torture. The imagined future provided a space where anything could be possible. I had an Israeli scientist fall in love with a Palestinian professor in a secular scientific enclave towering out of Gaza in 2048. It wasn’t all utopian, but it cast a light on some of the absurdities of religious nationalisms, in a way that only fiction can.

I was struck while editing an anthology of writing on love and lust by Arab women, from the pre-Islamic era to the present day, by the forthright way some of the early poets asserted a desire for sexual satisfaction. It could make 21st century readers blush. I also found an academic article that explained how, despite the numerous words to describe various specific sexualities, there was no medieval Arabic word for bisexuality that was considered the ‘as the unmarked, most common form of sexual practice, for heterosexuality, or even for sexuality’. I believe we can imagine futures by looking into unexpected details of the past and develop to our fullest by escaping into what is not familiar to us at all.

Selma Dabbagh is a British Palestinian writer of fiction who lives in London. Born in Scotland, she has lived in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, France, Egypt and the West Bank. Her first novel, Out of It, (Bloomsbury, 2011) set between London, Gaza and the Gulf, was listed as a Guardian Book of the Year and won the Premio Opera prize in Spoleto,  Italy, 2019. Her radio plays have been produced for BBC Radio 4 and WDR in Germany. Her short stories have won or been nominated for various awards and been published by Granta, Comma Press and International PEN. She has also written for film and stage. Her non-fiction has appeared in the Guardian, London Review of Books, GQ and other publications. She is currently editing an anthology ‘We Wrote In Symbols; Love and Lust by Arab Women Writers (Saqi Books, forthcoming, 2021).

Photo credit: Francesca Leonardi

Created as a ‘space to sit and read and be’, library of exile is an installation at the British Museum by British artist and writer, Edmund de Waal, housing more than 2,000 books in translation, written by exiled authors.

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