Adania Shibli is one of the most exciting voices in Arabic literature at the moment. She currently lives in London, so I had an opportunity to talk to her how she started writing, what language and literature mean to her, and what it means (and feels like) to write from and about Palestine. Here are her considered answers:
Q: What was the first thing that you wrote?
A: I started to hate school, since the first day I entered school. The only class though I somehow liked was Composition (well, I should confess that I also liked Mathematics). I remember the first time that I had a composition class. It was in fourth grade. I was nine. The teacher gave us a piece of homework, to write a ‘composition’ but I didn’t understand this word means. So I went home and asked one of my elder sisters, who I always asked “What does this mean?”. She told me, they want you to write a story. I’d read stories and heard even more, but I did not know how to go about writing one. That sister took me through it step by step: she asked me what I liked most, and what I wanted to tell others about. I told her I liked watching my father shaving: I was so fascinated by that since I was a child, it’s so soft, the white foam, and how the shaver just in one stroke removes it all, but then, despite all these strokes there remains little tiny stripes of foam which the shaver would leave behind. And I knew that as a girl I could never shave (well, at least my face). So there my father sat down to shave, and my sister and me with a notebook sat down nearby, setting up a sort of case study around him. My sister asked me to look and describe what I could see. The shape of his jaw in fact always seemed to me like the mountain behind our house, and so the foam looked like a cloud. When I read that in class, the teacher and the kids really liked it and praised it, but I felt not so comfortable with that praise given to me, because I did not come to that on my own, it was my sister who led me through it. Until now I believe that that sister is the real writer, not me.
Q: What are your (other) influences?
A: I’m always fascinated by how people use language; when they leave a note to a friend or when they just talk in the street even, especially in Arabic. I can never resist listening to or reading what all other people say or write, whether writers or not. It is fascinating to see how this language which is out there like air, offered to everyone, becomes so personal once is used. In fact it is amazing, it just occurred to me, that there is no existence of language as such; it exists only when used by someone. And then, everyone becomes the author of their own words, even though they are not the ones who created them.
Q: What kinds of new writing are emerging from Palestine at the moment? With the sad loss of Mahmoud Darwish, and the first full-length collection from Mourid Barghouti in English, there’s been some attention to Palestinian poetry in the UK press, and there’s a strong emphasis on how their poetry is bound up with national identity – is that true of younger writers as well?
A: New poets aren’t really discussing or reflecting questions of national identity. Such questions in my view had to do with a time when it was possible for Palestinian to have more or less a common experience; such as the Nakba and then less than two decades later, the Naksa, or the 1967 War, when all of Palestine became under full Israeli occupation . Now, with 450 checkpoints, walls, cutting movement between cities and areas and not only to the outside world, everything is so fragmented, so shattered. So the poems reflect this fragmentation and shattering. I read one poem by poet Anas Al-Aili, that had been written during the long period of curfew in 2002 over Ramallah. The narrator is laying in bed, while bombs are being fired outside; and he is staring at a nude painting that is in front of his bed. As the painting tilts with each explosion, while the narrator awaits for the next bomb to shake up the walls, so the woman in the painting to fall into his bed.
Q: Both “Little Girls of Jenin” and “Out of Time” are full of the kind of observations that you describe. Through very small things, they convey how dislocating and disturbing it is for you to go back to Palestine, and hint at some of the things that you have seen.
A: It’s impossible to describe; I’m not even interested, and when I try I literaly feel pain in my body. It is how the news as well can never convey that. For the news is mainly are able to show something - torture, occupation, horror… name it whatever you like, which at its core is not destined to be shown, represented or talked about it. Rather it is designed to be inflicted on one’s body and self, but not everyone; merely the Palestinians. The Israeli system, from political to social to economic, treats Palestinians as if they were not human beings. You experience this occupation and racism constantly on your body, no matter what you say to yourself. While in Palestine, I often worked with cultural organisations, which attempt to make life less dark and helpless. But things that usually should take five minutes, they would take two weeks. I’ve seen how hard we work to resist, to make more hopeful and more bearable than it is in reality. But now we have been turned also into agents in what has been a long process of dehumanization, with the infighting between Fateh and Hamas. It’s not surprising though, when a society has been fragmented and imprisoned for years over years. I myself if I stay with the man I love most for more than two days, I start to hate him and he also, and we get into these mad and illogical fights. But me living here in London, moving around easily and freely compared to my other writer colleges in Gaza for instance, I also try to keep my eyes wide open, and not to get blind and forgetful. Them and me, it seems we only have writing to keep awake and human.
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