What spark ignites an activist? khulud khamis's Haifa Fragments
Review by Amanda Hickey
Is it an event, a family grievance, a brush stroke of history? Or an undeniable truth that breaks open the frozen core of one’s heart?
Thanks to our nightly news we are familiar with those seemingly endless stories about Palestinians struggling to live in the disputed territories of Gaza and the West Bank. But what of the Palestinians who stayed behind and integrated with a newly established state of Israel. Where are their stories?
The heroine of Haifa Fragments, Maisoon, is a Palestinian Israeli. She is a Christian, independent-minded activist and the world she lives in is conflicted, messy, uncertain and paradoxical. In the context of ongoing narratives we’ve heard from the Middle-East conflict, Maisoon’s feminist landscape is not one that we easily recognise. Yet in this powerful debut, this is the setting that author khulud khamis confidently writes about.
Page one: ‘it was 1948, Haifa’s last battle’ – and immediately we know this is a story of history, memory and loss; yet also of survival, adaptation and hope. The women of this city are the driving characters in this book and it is through them that we explore the lingering effects of war on individuals, couples and families.
With razor sharp imagery – ‘on that one night she wanted to stop the bare barrels with her bare body …’ – khamis demands that her readers not just engage with her story, but know what it feels like to be a silent witness to the senseless killing that comes with war.
Yet it is not through horror, but through the seductive charms of our senses that we are lulled into this schizophrenic world. The souk with its ‘strong bitter smell of kahula with cardomom’ entices us and coexists alongside the tension that is part and parcel of Maisoon’s daily life: ‘Weapons always make her edgy, especially when slung over the shoulders of boys.’
We follow Maisoon as she makes her first visit – thief-like – to the partitioned territory: ‘I’m not welcome in this part of the world. I’m not one of them. I’m a citizen of the state that occupies their land. I have a blue ID in my wallet. I’m a traitor’.
She’s in love with a young Muslim, Ziyad, who seems oblivious to the suffering of his own people. It drives Maisoon crazy that he does not seem to feel the way she does or recognise the suffering of an injured eleven year-old victim, ‘Fragments of a missile intended for someone else shattering her body in half’.
She goads and prods him until he snaps: ‘You revel in the misery – it’s what keeps you alive. It fills you up and drugs you to the bone. It’s what gets you through the day. Not me. I want to live my life …’
This is the first time she has heard him voice his true feelings. Yet he still can’t reveal that he is the survivor of a suicide bomber who now haunts him. When the spectre of the bomber appears before him ‘Ziyad tries to ask him why … but the words turn into ash inside his mouth.’
It is life’s juxtapositions that fascinate khamis as she explores the contrast between Palestinians living comfortably in Israel against those struggling to get by in the West Bank, and she has her heroine walk a tightrope between those two very different worlds.
Maisoon is mentored, financially and creatively, by her Haifa employer – a compassionate Jewish woman who fuels the creative freedom that she desperately needs. Her passion spills over into her volunteer crisis work helping Palestinians in the struggle zone – people like Abu Sufian, a father who needs a five-hour permit to help his son get medical care in Israel. He is disempowered by the restrictions he lives with, yet also grateful to the Israelis for providing a lifeline: ‘I don’t understand these Yahud. With one hand they kill us, and with the other hand they offer us life. I really don’t understand them.’
There seems to be much to do in this troubled world with its hierarchy of suffering. Maisoon cannot understand her parents’ passivity until she finds a cache of her father’s old love letters. Reading his forgotten poems, she suddenly realises he too was once like her – a talented, creative, rebellious force – before being weighted down by his own tragedies, including the loss of his first love. More importantly, ‘when he saw that the struggle over home was turning into a religious war’, he lost all hope and faith forever.
Writing emotional content is extremely hard, even harder when one’s characters are fiercely intelligent. Emotional intensity can strip down language, often to its basest level, so that dramatic moments can end up reading like scripts from an episode of reality television. Thankfully khamis is adept enough to avoid this and delivers well-drawn characters that are smart, dramatic and deeply philosophical.
In spite of Maisoon’s activist proclivities, Haifa Fragments is not really an activist novel. Not at all. It’s a series of beautifully sketched love stories – of Maisoon’s, her parents’ and her good friend Shahd, who lives in the West Bank and is in love with a doctor. And it is an exploration of different kinds of love: of unexpected sensual lust, the joyful companionship of true friends, love borne of profound grief and the grounding love that comes from a deep, almost spiritual appreciation of one’s heritage and land. But etched through these love stories are also arguments around politics, nationalism and injustice. And despite the tragic narratives that are woven through it, Haifa Fragments’ focus on love makes it a tale that is ultimately uplifting, and a satisfying read.
By khulud khamis
Spinifex Books, 2015
173 pp; $26.95 (print) $16.95 (eBook)
Amanda Hickey is a Sydney-based journalist, formerly with SBS, blogger and filmmaker with a passion for the arts, peace and social justice. She is the Australian producer of We Are Many, an international documentary feature by Amir Amirani, about the global peace protest of 2003 to stop the invasion of Iraq. It has its Australian premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival next week, a Queensland premiere at the BEMAC on November 2 and a final premiere at Canberra International Film Festival on November 7. It will be released next year.
khulud khamis is a Palestinian writer and activist, born to a Slovak mother and a Palestinian father. She holds a Master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Haifa and works in the field of social change. She is a member of the feminist organisation Isha L’Isha – Haifa Feminist Center. She lives in Haifa with her daughter. This is her first novel. khulud publishes some of her writings on her blog at HaifaFieldnotes.blogspot.com