In Ibtisam Azem’s ‘The Book of Disappearance,’ Israelis wake up one day to a country without any Palestinians. Azem speaks to +972 about how, with this sudden vanishing of ‘the enemy,’ she confronts some of the darkest chapters of Israel’s history.
What would Israelis do if every Palestinian between the river and the sea disappeared at once?
That is the premise of a newly-translated novel, “The Book of Disappearance,” by Palestinian writer Ibtisam Azem (translated by Iraqi novelist and translator, Sinan Antoon, and published by Syracuse University Press). Originally released in Arabic in 2014, Azem’s story is primarily narrated by two individuals: Alaa, a young Palestinian who is grieving the recent death of his grandmother and haunted by the memories of the Nakba and its aftermath she shared with him; and his friend Ariel, an Israeli journalist who struggles to reconcile his belief that the occupation is wrong with his unexamined conviction that the circumstances surrounding the founding of the state were just.
Azem’s novel is a work of magical realism: she uses the impossible scenario of millions of Palestinians vanishing in the blink of an eye in order to pull at the loose threads of Zionist mythology about Israel’s establishment. Accordingly, several eerie scenes in the novel have a ring of familiarity to them for anyone who has read about the Nakba: homes with plates of food uneaten on the table; televisions still switched on; house keys still hanging by the front door — empty rooms that are innately disturbing for how undisturbed they looked, as if the residents had been suddenly spirited away in silence.
Such silence also abounded around the “disappearance” of nearly a million Palestinians in 1948, and Azem acknowledges that this colonial form of magical thinking — used to explain away the emptying from a land of its native people — partly informed her book. Yet her story is about more than that, too.
“The main idea was to show what is really happening [in Palestine],” she tells +972. “I also wanted to think about what would happen if Israel — or any nation — suddenly doesn’t have an enemy anymore.”
That sudden lack of an enemy provokes a diverse set of reactions among the Israelis left behind in the novel. Initially, there is confusion and anger at the inconvenience — commuters are left stranded when their buses don’t arrive; newspapers go undelivered and garbage uncollected; teachers and doctors and cafe owners don’t show up for work. Here, Azem seems to be making a point about how crucial Palestinians are to the country functioning properly.
As the scale of what’s happened becomes clear, however, many are convinced that a mass conspiracy is underway and they retreat into existential paranoia. Others believe that the disappearance is an act of God. And still others, like Ariel, aren’t sure what to think — but allow themselves to gradually make use of, and then take over, the newly-empty homes, despite their uncertainty about where their neighbors have gone.
The government, meanwhile, declares a state of emergency and cordons off Palestinian areas of the country. Nonetheless, armed religious settlers from the West Bank begin flooding into those very same barred locales —including Jaffa, where they tussle with Israeli police officers and declare their intent to take over the deserted land and property. This step finally vanquishes the myth of the Green Line, and caps one of the fundamental messages of Azem’s novel: that there is little moral distinction to be made between the Nakba of 1948 and the occupation of 1967.
Azem, who was born in Taybeh, lives and works in New York as a reporter for Al-Araby Al-Jadeed (The New Arab). I spoke to Azem about why she wrote the book, the inspiration for the story, the Palestinian past, among other things.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Your book speculates about a unique contemporary scenario, but there is also a sense of the uncanny surrounding the disappearance of every Palestinian from all territory under Israeli control — it recalls a history that is somewhat familiar, but also strenuously repressed. What gave you the idea for the story?
“I was in New York in 2011 when I first had the idea. I heard an interview with the [former] mayor of Jerusalem [Nir Barkat] in which he was saying that Palestinians in Jerusalem are equal, that they’re citizens and get [municipal] services, all the propaganda we know. It was nothing new for me, but I was angry at how unchallenged he was.
“I thought about writing an article, and started brainstorming. Two things came to me: one was when [Yitzhak] Rabin said [in 1992], as defense minister, that he wished that the sea would swallow Gaza. And the second was a 2004 interview with the Israeli historian Benny Morris in Haaretz, about the second edition of his book about the Nakba [“The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited”]. In the interview, he talks about the fact that they should have ‘finished the work’ [of ethnic cleansing in 1948].
“Thinking about these two things gave me an idea: what would Israelis do if all Palestinians disappeared?”
Your book is having a second life now, having been published in English five years after its debut in Arabic. Can you talk a bit about the first life of the book, and the impact it had in 2014?
“‘The Book of Disappearance’ was published at the time that the Arab Spring was still going on, but had started to become a disappointment, so there was a lot of attention to issues other than Palestine. But because the book talks about Jaffa and Tel Aviv, there was still interest in it — particularly, and more interestingly for me, from people who had read the book in Beirut, or Baghdad, or from Palestinians all over the world, who told me that the book spoke to them.
“When I did some readings in Palestine — Ramallah, Nazareth, and small towns and villages in the Triangle area [in central Israel] and the Galilee — people said the story was speaking about their lives. One person said she suddenly saw Jaffa in a new light, which was touching for me. I wanted to write something that speaks about what it’s like to grow up as a Palestinian citizen of Israel, how it’s painful and how there’s sometimes so much pain that you don’t see the micro-aggressions in daily life.
“And even in the Arab world, although the Palestinian question is very much talked about in the news, a lot of details aren’t there — including the fact that Palestinians have different political statuses under various political systems, which influence their daily life in different ways. For me it’s important not to separate these realities and to see that they are connected, as well as to understand that they have one main source.”
Palestinian collective memory is a constant presence in the book, through the diary of Alaa that Ariel reads after his friend has disappeared. What were you trying to say about the Palestinian past with your novel, and how it relates to the present?
“I wanted to bring an independent Palestinian voice that could talk about the past, to show what really happened, and to talk about the absences and memories of those who survived [the Nakba].
“As Palestinian citizens of Israel, we study the history of Palestine from the Zionist perspective, even if we study at Arab schools. I never saw our story reflected in our schools — I knew about it from my grandparents. My maternal grandmother was originally from Jaffa — she was internally displaced from al-Manshiyyah [a large neighborhood of Jaffa that was depopulated and occupied by the Haganah in 1948, and gradually demolished] and came to Taybeh.
“Going to Jaffa with her as a child and hearing her talk about her neighbors made me see a totally different history. You see all these Zionist names in the street, which means that you never see yourself in your everyday environment — it’s all been erased, and when it exists it’s either as a problem, or a memory, or the past. So I also wanted to redefine our relationship to the place.”
The issue of naming arises frequently in the novel. Like in any settler colonial situation, the battle over names is emblematic of a much larger fight over identity, control and connection to the land; accordingly, the skirmishes over place names in “The Book of Disappearance” encapsulate the book’s larger themes. In one scene, Ariel recalls seeing street signs Alaa had collected in his apartment, on which he’d erased the new Hebrew names and restored the original Arabic ones. Later on in the book, the Israeli government begins erasing Arabic place-names altogether, leaving just Hebrew and English. In a post-Jewish Nation-State Law reality, this aspect of the novel is particularly striking.
Although Azem wrote the book several years before the nation-state bill became law, another scene takes on added weight in light of its passage: an interview with an IDF soldier who proclaims her shock at the disappearance of her Druze colleague, and her disbelief that the Druze could be “in on it” with the Palestinians. The Jewish Nation-State Law exposed, once again, the hollowness of Israel’s supposed equal treatment of its Druze citizens — part of a divide-and-conquer strategy that Azem says she wanted to highlight with this scene.
“Other Palestinians I talk to, especially in the West Bank and Gaza, say how painful it is for them to see Druze soldiers in the Israeli army and the occupying power,” she says. “The Druze question is a very hard one, and I wanted to tackle a very sensitive subject — if you aspire to freedom, equality and social justice, you also have to deal with your own issues, especially in a struggle that has been going on for a long time.
“When you hear Israelis talk about the Druze, it’s astonishing — if you go to Druze villages, their situation, despite their joining the army, is not better than those of Palestinian citizens of Israel. They still face discrimination.”
While we’re on the subject of myths in Israeli society, I also wanted to talk about the character of Ariel. He’s a very stereotypical, self-identified left-wing Israeli who believes the settlements are wrong, but who also repeatedly insists to himself that the circumstances of Israel’s establishment were just. He drifts into the role of an occupier very explicitly in the book, by gradually moving into Alaa’s empty apartment. You seem to be making the point that even Israelis who are anti-occupation are compartmentalizing what is happening over the Green Line, and are unable — or unwilling — to ask the same questions about the ground underneath their feet. Can you say more about this 1948 versus 1967 assessment of left-wing Israeli attitudes?
“This was based on my experience — I was active for years in groups that organized meetings between Palestinian citizens of Israel and Israeli Jews, and one of the things that struck me in our discussions is how much they don’t want to talk about what happened in ‘48. But the whole issue is ‘48 and even before that, with the founding of the Zionist movement.
“We have to talk about it. It was also astonishing to me how much Israelis want to be European and Western, and they don’t accept that they are part of the Middle East. There is a lot of denial — because once you start asking yourself these questions, you also have to start asking yourself about what it means to be in Palestine. But these are the kinds of questions you need to ask if you want to live in real peace.”
You mentioned your grandmother earlier. How did your memories of her inform your novel?
“The character of Alaa’s grandmother is based on my grandmother, although there were some other people I interviewed from Jaffa who also went into her story. It was important to me that the character narrating the Palestinian past is a woman, and that she is a member of a generation that lost everything [as a result of the Nakba], even if they stayed.”
Why was it important to you that the main narrator of the past is a woman?
“My two main characters are men, but the female characters are strong women who take crucial decisions. If you look at Palestinian history throughout, before and after the Nakba, and during the first and second intifadas, the role women played — even in a patriarchal society — was always important in the struggle and in daily life. The women in my personal life — aunts and grandmothers — were very strong. That’s not to say they didn’t suffer from patriarchal issues, but they still lived their struggles on a political and social level. I wanted to bring these characters to life, to show that they exist and there are many of them.”
Female characters will be even more central to Azem’s next book, a novel about Jaffa whose three main protagonists are women.
“It’s about the history of a Jaffa family that lives there and still has part of their land, but all the men of the family from the Nakba generation have been killed under different circumstances,” Azem explains. “The women are telling the story from their perspective, talking about issues of politics and drugs, and the kinds of problems that you get in Jaffa, Jerusalem, Lod, Ramle, and other cities where Palestinians live.”
Azem plans to finish the book next year. In the meantime, she hopes that “The Book of Disappearance” inspires both political and cultural discussion.
“The book is asking a lot of questions people don’t want to hear,” she says. “But I hope that readers will be open to listening to what occupation and colonialism mean in daily life, and how people go about their lives in that situation.
“I hope people will approach it as a work of fiction, because despite the politics, at the end of the day it’s a novel that tries to deal with social and political questions that are absent from the news. And hopefully, too, it will help open up greater interest in Palestinian culture and other Palestinian writers.”