What does the future look like if you fear you won’t exist? With the launch of Palestine + 100 – a new collection of short stories by Comma Press which invites ten Palestinian authors to look ahead to 2048, 100 years after the Nakba – at Liverpool Arab Arts Festival in July, Laura Brown asks if we see the privilege in our ability to think it will always be better tomorrow.
From the outside, at the end of the drive, my grandmother’s house looked like any of the other 1930s semi-detached homes in Yorkshire. Yet, cross its doorway, and you were transported through space and time.
At the other end of the hall was the kitchen, so first you would smell whatever was bubbling on the hob. When we visited, she would often be making our favourite: stuffed cabbage with rice and lamb, served with lemon. She would stand for hours, patiently rolling each cigar-shaped cabbage leaf. The pictures on the wall showed a family from another land. A single hand shielding the eyes as they squinted into the sun, low-level, white buildings behind them. Decorative plates, in vibrant colours and Arabic calligraphy, dotted around the walls. When the conversation turned to something we children shouldn’t hear, it slipped from English to French. If she was on the phone to her siblings and a word better described what she wanted to say, Arabic and Italian would also enter the lexicon. Eavesdropping was a challenge.
My grandmother had grown up in Palestine. From the time she still held me in her arms, I would hear stories of her mother’s ‘pension’ (a hotel or guest house); of the fruit trees; the market. In her rich Arabic accent, elongating the first vowels of my name, she would talk of her home. They had fled, when my father was just seven, his sister 11, carrying a suitcase each. First to Cairo, and then to England, with its black and sooty air.
The stories were interwoven with the daily violence they lived with in that period. Bombings, stabbings, shootings. One of my father’s earliest memories was of being scooped up into someone’s arms when shots were fired on a beach.
Yet however horrific the story, my grandmother still hoped, one day, to return. Her life in Palestine, the place of her birth and her siblings, was not a closed chapter in her mind. God willing, she would say, one day, I will show you where we lived. She ached for it, in a way.
She was happy here, but it was not home. She – we – were not English. Our story, our history, was wrapped up in this other land, far away. The future brought with it, always, the possibility she would return.
The Palestine diaspora is filled with stories like this. Grandparents, parents, uncles, siblings, keeping stories of the country alive, as though that will keep its candle burning.
Basma Ghalayini is the translator and editor of a new collection of short stories by Comma Press. PALESTINE + 100 looks ahead to 2048, a century after the Nakba. The Nakba describes the expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians from their homes in 1948. The word ‘Nakba’ means ‘catastrophe’ or ‘disaster’.
“When I was a child,” Basma writes in an essay on the 71st anniversary of the Nakba, “my grandfather would tell us about his shop in Yaffa, a business he owned with his brother in 1948, before being expelled to Egypt, where my father was born and grew up. He told us that, on their departure, they only packed a few days’ worth of clothes for him, his wife and children, as they were told they would be back as soon as it was safe. They left their sheets on the lines, chickpeas in soaking water and toys in the yard. He locked the door, put his key in his pocket and headed to safety as instructed. They never returned, and his key stayed in his pocket until he died in Cairo 60 years later.”
There is a privilege when we look to the future. The final line of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, as Scarlett O’Hara promises “After all, tomorrow is another day” always provoked a guffaw from deep within my bones. What rot, I have said more than once. What idiocy to assume you can go back home after war, that tomorrow will be well? But we do, with our (Western) power, privilege and agency, assume that even if we just have our wits, we will make tomorrow better than today. That is, we believe, our right.
And yet, even though I know it is probably impossible, I dream that tomorrow I will go back to my family home in Palestine; a building or dwelling that probably does not exist. As Basma says, “This child has never been to any of those places, but they know that if they keep them alive in their heart, then once they go back, it will be as if they never left; they can pick up where their great grandfather left off. Indeed, wherever Palestinian refugees are in the world, one thing unites them: their undoubted belief in their right to return.”
Futurism, especially Arab futurism, is about seeking the future as a place of hope and potential. Following Comma Press’ Iraq + 100, which asked Iraqi writers what the country will look like a century after the 2003 invasion, Palestine + 100 is part of a genre that feels relatively new in literature. The stories blend time-travelling angels, technophobic dictators, talking statues, macabre museum-worlds, even hovering tiger-droids – using science fiction to bring hope into the darkness. There is Basma Abdel Aziz’ The Queue, Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad. In artist Larissa Sansour’s A Space Exodus (2009), she plants a flag in the moon sand: “One small step for a Palestinian, a giant leap for mankind.” It is both hopeful and profoundly depressing. Hopeful because it suggests a country with either the individual power of statehood to afford and coordinate a space programme, or a powerful proponent enabling it to do that. It is depressing that this lone voice of Palestinian development seems only to find its place in the vast emptiness of space.
Arab futurism is different from the arguably better known Afrofuturism, which came from jazz artist Sun-Ra, with the phrase coined by Mark Dery in the 1990s. It reflected on the scarcity of black representation in science fiction, a buoyant genre in 80s and 90s popular culture. From Sun-Ra to Black Panther, Afrofuturism imagines a stronger black identity across its diaspora. Autonomy, authority, independence – Afrofuturism often imagines a future in which there is much hope.
Arab futurism is slightly different, especially when we think about Palestine. Anwar Hamed, the Palestinian-Hungarian author of Jaffa Prepares Morning Coffee (longlisted for the 2013 Arabic Booker Prize) features in the Palestine + 100 anthology.
“Palestinians are living in a harsh reality that would kill their appetite for life, so for them to survive they need to believe in the future, not to lose hope,” he says. “The present reality does not hold much hope for them, yet they cherish a mysterious hope that things will change one day. Here comes the role of ‘futurist writing’: to scan the present in search of seeds of hope for the future, to give readers some kind of motivation and appetite for life.”
Basma Ghalayani says storytelling allows us to imagine a future and, notably, the elements of the future we would like to avoid. The power of the dystopia is that it allows us to articulate our deepest fears of what might come to pass.
“Often what we don’t want to happen ‘here’ is informed by things we’ve seen happen, tragically, elsewhere. So in the West, dystopias and science fiction provide countries that have never experienced certain types of societal nightmares with a vocabulary for talking about them: modern Britain, for instance, has never quite experienced totalitarianism, so a book like Orwell’s 1984 is really important for you to feel what it might be like. America has never been occupied by a foreign military power, so American audiences go crazy for extended space-dramas about rebels fighting imperial occupiers with lightsabers. And when these Western writers come to do their world-building, they only have other people’s recent pasts to go on. So they steal it and, if they can, elaborate on it too. Orwell stole from Russia under Stalin and reset it in a British future. Lucas stole the whole Third Reich thing and re-dressed it for a galaxy far, far away.”
To assume the future offers a renewed strength suggests you are in a secure present, or are confident you have the means to shift your present into a more solid future. Palestinians do not have this luxury. Arabs are used to sharing stories; it is a vital part of their culture and heritage. The stories written in Palestine + 100 are all by (and about) Palestinians. Yet many of its authors exist within the diaspora, much like Palestine itself, which largely exists within the people who hold its culture and heritage on foreign shores.
“It’s difficult,” says Basma, “to begin with, the Palestinian diaspora is a special case – because, for many of us, ‘home’ doesn’t even exist anymore. It got deleted. And yet, our link to what’s left of home is all the stronger for it. Any Palestinian living abroad effectively lives in two places at once. We’re over here in body, but we feel every bomb that drops in Gaza, every bullet that’s fired at a checkpoint in the West Bank. We live a strange double-life.”
Anwar adds: “Literature and storytelling is built on imagination, trying to use your imagination to tell a story that never happened about people who don’t exist. Whether a writer writes about the present, the past, or the future, what they do is try to use an existing model to weave a new one, and furnish it with events, characters and thoughts. So the future, though the fruit of imagination, is based on the author’s knowledge of the past and present. An understanding of the past and present is needed to nourish the imagination in its quest for the future model.”
We are all refugees, one way or another, says Basma, because our identity is so tied to this place that is so fragile. Those with Palestinian heritage are so tied to Palestine’s preservation and future that, when we imagine what it might be one day, we aim to frighten and scare. Science fiction is an incredibly powerful medium to achieve this. Yet, we are also a cautionary tale. And perhaps it is this edge which infuses Arab futurism with something of difference; that the future may harbour something far worse, more unstable, more chilling. Palestine is proof that anyone’s land and nation might not exist in their future, and that they will have a duty to preserve it through imagination and storytelling.
Palestine + 100 launches at Liverpool Arab Arts Festival on Tuesday 9th July. Book your tickets online here.