Novel investigates fear and self-loathing in Gaza

September 20, 2015

Vanished: The Mysterious Disappearance Of Mustafa Ouda
By Ahmed Masoud
Rimal Press, 2015
US$20, 205 pages, pb

There is an act of violence in Ahmed Masoud’s Vanished: The Mysterious Disappearance Of Mustafa Ouda that reverberates throughout the novel. An act done in a perfunctory way, described in a short sentence that compels the reader to sit up, if not choke.

The sentence is as tiny as the body of the boy to whom the violence is done. The control that Masoud applies in conveying this act — a short sentence, a medical term, a commonplace adjective — is illustrative of Masoud’s skill as a writer; he instinctively knows that less is more, particularly when it comes to the depiction of violence.

The voice is cool, the disturbance that results is that which comes of depicting visions from the inner circles of hell in a deadpan, pedestrian way.

Vanished is a story of a Gazan family whose head of household has gone missing. He stepped out of the house to clean graffiti on the instructions of Israeli occupying forces and never returned.

It is a story told, mainly, as a first-person narrative by the protagonist, Omar, the son of the disappeared man. Parts are written in the form of a letter to Omar’s own son, Mustafa.

Omar fears that in trying to return to Gaza, he may disappear too.

The novel starts in the present, in London, where Omar, like the author himself, lives with his English wife and children. The letter is written during the journey home to Gaza, a trip beset with bloody-minded bureaucracy, closed borders and overcrowded, underground deportation rooms.

The protagonist is accustomed to all of this, but resents it. The way he copes, lacking in either self-pity or rage, is an account of a particular form of Palestinian sumoud, or steadfastness.

“My father was gone,” Omar's narrative begins. “I was too young to understand why, and nobody was able to explain it to me, not even my mother … she never told me, despite my desperate attempts to make her talk.

“Perhaps this is what pushed me to proclaim myself the youngest detective in the Jabaliya camp at the age of eight.”

Omar is not a traditional Palestinian hero, despite being shot by Israeli soldiers for throwing stones as a child; his keen sense of loyalty to his family and friends, his dedication to his studies; his pride in his kuffiyeh (the traditional checkered scarf), admiration of tatreez (embroidery) and his ownership of a key to the destroyed family home in historic Palestine.

He is a collaborator and a traitor to his cause.

Information he provides to the Israelis leads to arrests and assassinations of key figures in the resistance movement. He later joins the Palestinian Authority’s security forces to the disgust of his colleagues and friends — feeling free to use brutality and torture in prisons to put pressure on those from whom he wishes to obtain information for personal reasons.

It is because of the anti-heroic nature of the protagonist, rather than despite it, that Masoud's novel is fervently nationalistic.

There is a desire to explain the deliberate breakdown of Palestinian society through the use of informants and collaborators. One slip in personal behaviour, from keeping the wrong company when drinking on a beach as a teenager, to asking the wrong person for help in finding one’s father as a child, can condemn a Palestinian to generations of treachery, split loyalties, extreme fear and self-loathing.

Step by step, one can understand and empathise with Omar’s choices. Again and again, the root evil of Israeli dominance and violence is stressed.

Vanished is a novel that urges greater compassion between Palestinians. The novel explains how a Hamas fighter was once a Fatah idealist, how collaborators are made and the internal horror that they face.

There is an expression of revulsion at how brutal Palestinians have become to each other, both why Palestinians join security forces and why they leave them. There is a plea for forgiveness here, of Palestinians to each other and a call for unity against the source of the original and continuing violence.

Vanished provides an overview of Gaza’s history, predominantly since 1981 — the year of Omar’s birth — and the dynamic with the Israeli occupation forces, the elation at their removal, the hopes and criticisms of the Oslo accords, the shock of the first aerial bombardments.

Masoud creates characters that are recognisable types, from resistance fighters to father figures, from wide-eyed, ambitious children to cynical, brutal soldiers who mimic the ways of Israeli occupation forces.

The novel has breadth without lacking in depth of feeling and portrayal. It is common for Palestinian writers to be compared to Ghassan Kanafani, often erroneously, for he continues to be seen as the benchmark for nationalistic Palestinian fiction writers.

But there is a similarity with the writing of Masoud in its crispness, the careful selection of characters (including many female characters with both integrity and agency), the intrinsic sense of the need for a dramatic tale well told and sense of belief in a better future that allows for the parallel to be drawn in this instance.

Vanished is a page-turner; the story of an amateur detective. It covers harsh terrain, but not in a way that makes the reader avoid returning to its tale.

Despite Omar’s anger and frustration, as well as his bouts of aggression, the voice of the central character is terribly sweet and painfully vulnerable without being pitiable. His aspirations are no more than to be a good citizen, a good father, a dutiful son.

Omar’s decision to leave Gaza is indicative of quite how difficult, if not impossible, the assurance that even such modest goals are achievable to Palestinians living there.

It is an indictment on the sad state of the publishing industry that this novel did not find a mainstream Western publisher, for this is a writer who not only knows his subject matter backwards, but is also able to tell his story well.

Although Rimal Press is to be commended for continuing to publish works by Palestinian writers, it would be good to see this novel break out of the “particular geographical interest” category.

The novel could also have benefited from some stronger structural editing. It is rare, in my opinion, for the switch from first person to third, even when dressed up in the form of a letter, to be carried off smoothly — and a first-person narrative throughout could have made the book even more powerful.

Vanished is a recommended read and Masoud’s is a sensitive and intelligent voice. It tells a story that could play out well on the screen.

This is not a comfortable tale, but a very sad one, told with enough distance to allow readers to grieve while they understand and to be entertained throughout the process.

[Reprinted from Electronic Intifada. Selma Dabbagh is a British-Palestinian writer. Her debut novel, Out of It, is published by Bloomsbury (2012).]

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