Reimagining Palestine in the future: an interview with Saleem Haddad

Recently, Comma Press published 'Palestine + 100 Stories from a Century after the Nakba'. This anthology consists of stories published in English, and some translated for the first time from Arabic. Its editor Basma Ghalayini, who is a scholar and translator from Gaza, writes in the introduction that: “The cruel present (and the traumatic past) have too firm a grip on Palestinian writers’ imaginations for fanciful ventures into possible futures.”

Twelve writers, including Saleem Haddad, whose first novel 'Guapa' found critical acclaim, were asked how they would imagine Palestine in 2048. We talked via email about the origins, development and inspirations of his short story and what it meant for him writing it.

The anthology opens with Haddad’s short story’ 'Song of the Birds', which imagines a reality within a reality. The story centers around the relationship between a teenager, Aya, and her dead brother who tries to convince her that the reality she is living is not the real one and that the struggle for Palestine is not yet over. The only way to enter the world her brother is living in is by committing suicide. The story is inspired and dedicated to Mohanned Younis (1994-2017) who killed himself. Mohanned was himself a writer, and published short stories on his facebook page.

In an article published in The Guardian about his suicide, the author, Sara Helm, explains that: “By the end of 2016, suicides were happening so often that the phenomenon had started to become public knowledge. Figures quoted by local journalists suggested the number of suicides in 2016 was at least three times the number in 2015. But according to Gaza’s health professionals, while figures cited in the media do indicate a substantial rise, they vastly underestimate the true rate. Suicides are ‘disguised’ as falls or other accidents, and misreporting and censorship are common because of the stigma against suicide.”

This incident was one of the events that sparked Saleem Hadded to write this short story. He says that “I wanted to honour him in some way, to keep his memory alive. And because suicide is such a taboo in the Middle East, and because I had spent much of 2017 thinking about suicide, I wanted the story to subvert the shame of suicide in some way. But there are echoes of other young victims of the Israeli occupation in ‘Song of the Birds’.”

By the time 'Guapa' was published, Saleem Haddad was already an acclaimed writer and his novel was published in several languages. Instead of publishing novels, Comma Press is concerned with publishing short stories because as they write on their page: “Comma's Mission is to put the short story at the heart of contemporary narrative culture. Through innovative commissions, collaborations and digital initiatives, we will explore the power of the short story to transcend cultural and disciplinary boundaries, and to enable greater understanding across these boundaries.” In the four aims they are formulating, they emphasize the diversity of the scene they are operating in, the opportunities for emerging and established authors, and to find new and diverse audiences for literary short fiction.

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They previously successfully published a similar concept ' Iraq + 100' including authors such as Hassan Blasim. Haddad explains how it made him want to write for 'Palestine +100' after reading the previous anthology. “I had read the 'Iraq +100' anthology when it came out a few years ago, which I enjoyed. The concept stuck with me; I found it imaginative and subversive and also quite empowering. So when Comma Press asked me to submit to their next anthology on Palestine, I jumped at the opportunity. Palestine is a rich canvas for science fiction: it is the frontier where tools of subjugation, occupation and resistance are experimented and used, there are powerful themes of past and present, memories and alternative realities, questions of homeland and belonging, of resistance and the limits of solidarity. It’s a rich tapestry for science fiction, not as a form of escape from the current struggle for liberation, but as a new method of re-claiming our narrative and thinking through our struggle.“

While this present anthology and its stories are not really connected with one another except for the common theme and the drive of imagining a future for Palestine, the authors write in a fashion that does not work in longer reads such as novels. The nature of writing short stories helps the reader get a close look at the writing style of their authors, and it is sometimes more playful and experimental. The characters in Haddad’s short story are very strong, and different, but that is a feature of his work in general. Haddad’s characters are always strong and able to reflect and know about their surroundings.

Fiction or otherwise, these characters are an accumulation of the people in Saleem Haddad’s life as he explains: “I take characters from so many different places.Sometimes I take a certain mood or vibe from someone I met, or I steal a name or a face or a line of dialogue that I overhear, and begin to put the pieces together. At other times, I just steal a person from my life—or preferably my past—and then warp them over time until they are no longer recognizable. But then in some ways, I think the characters in 'Guapa' are all different elements of my own psyche: 'Guapa' was the battleground for all these parts of myself to battle with themselves on the page: Maj, Taymour, Rasa, even Teta. Many were of course inspired by real life people I know, but they were also a part of me. As for ‘Song of the Birds’, the character of Ziad was actually inspired by ‘Zed Josef’, one of the actors who starred in ‘Marco’, the short film I wrote and directed. I joke that Zed is my muse, and he certainly was my muse for Ziad.”

While “Song of the Birds” is one of the few short stories published by Haddad, he is fond of this genre. “I love writing both, though I found short stories trickier to write. I’m working on a novel now, and I am close to finishing a first draft of it. But I am very keen to write a collection of dark short stories, building on ‘Song of the Birds’ and a few other stories that I’m still tinkering with. I’m excited to get the novel done so I can move on to those. While writing my first draft, I find it very difficult to read novels, and so I’ve been reading a lot of short stories over the last two years, which has only made me more excited to devote more time to the form in the future.”

His ideas for this story were sparked by reading the work of British-Isreali writer Eyal Weizman, “who has done a lot of work around technologies of war in Gaza and has described the Gaza Strip as a site of experimentation in how to pacify an unruly population”, as he explains. Furthermore, the work of Tareq Baconi was another inspiration. “A friend of mine, the Palestinian writer Tareq Baconi, sent me an essay he had written, which should be published soon. The essay was a heart-wrenching account of the occupation of Gaza, and Tareq painted this incredibly dystopian picture of Israeli technologies of control and subjugation, describing Gaza as a ‘tightly controlled laboratory, perfectly engineered to study the science of domination’.”

Even though this anthology is grounded in the genre of science-fiction, these short stories are inspired by many formats and genres, such as dystopian futures and the noir genre. There has been a rising interest in this genre and few Arabic writers have recently delved into the genre of science fiction, and many of them are more dystopian, set in the future, with a tone that compares to the present which are published in English as well such as Muhammad Rabie’s Otared and Ahmed Naji’s Using Life .This anthology is very experimental and includes many stories that would not have seen the light elsewhere. While there are notions of 'Songs of the Bird' taken from many different films and novels, Haddad’s main interest in science-fiction came from the horror genre.

“I don’t read science fiction. I am a big fan of horror, and grew up watching horror films and reading horror books: one of the most visceral memories I have is of staying up all night aged fourteen reading Stephen King’s 'The Shining' under the covers, being absolutely terrified but also feeling so alive. For an anxious person like myself, there’s nothing more satisfying than allowing yourself to be safely scared, to explore the dark side of humanity from the comfort of your bed. I am a big fan of psychological horror, and I think 'Song of the Birds' is saturated with an airiness and dread that I gleaned from decades of horror consumption. More than science fiction, I found myself gravitating towards surrealism while I was writing. I was thinking a lot about dreams last year, because I felt so much trapped by reality that dreams became my way of escape through my psyche. And so I wanted to explore this in the context of political liberation as well: how the personal world of dreams might be a gateway to a liberation that is both political and personal. It fits broadly within my interests to explore that link between the personal psyche and broader politics, which has echoes with 'Guapa' too, of course”.

In the short story, Aya’s brother, Ziad, says while trying to convince her to come to his reality: “My body is crippled but my mind is free. And I’m going to keep fighting until I’m completely free: body, mind and soul.” Haddad’s short story sets the tone for the whole anthology which imagines a future that may be somewhat fictional but is attached to the present and reflects the visions of the twelve writers who present their stories in this book.

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