Out of It by Selma Dabbagh
3rd Sep 2012
Set in contemporary Palestine, London and the Gulf, Dabbagh’s novel provides a fresh and impressive insight into what it means to be Palestinian in the 21st century.
Focusing on twins Iman and Rashid, the novel escapes the traditional rhetoric of Palestine.
Iman in particular is strong-willed and feisty, willing to subvert expectations in Gaza by removing her headscarf in public and becoming increasingly political.
For Rashid, meanwhile, his route ‘out of it’ involves cannabis and a scholarship in London.
Other family members include Sabri, the twins’ academic older brother, wheelchair-bound after losing his legs in a heartbreaking political attack; their father, living in the Gulf, determined to find a ‘Western’ lifestyle; and their mother, seemingly benign but hiding a colossal secret about her past.
Through her strong characters, Dabbagh provides an insight into what it means to be female in the Middle East and the UK.
When leaving Gaza, Iman is treated appallingly by Israeli border guards, subjected to the embarrassment of not even being allowed a tampon when her period starts unexpectedly.
Her father’s response to this is unease, swiftly followed by enlisting his girlfriend into the task of ‘feminising’ his daughter, subjecting Iman to a range of plucking, waxing and straightening she simply doesn’t want, all in order to make her into marriage material.
Iman’s own attempts to embrace her femininity once in London are completely at odds with her father’s wishes. Though her attempts are utterly workmanlike, her inexperienced attempts to seduce a man highlight a major difference in male/female relations between cultures and create a deliciously awkward humour.
Dabbagh pulls no punches when attacking London’s perceptions of Palestine once Rashid and Iman are there, notably through Rashid’s sort-of girlfriend. Though he is madly in love with her, she sees him only as an exotic pet, a project with which to annoy her parents and further her dubious political credentials.
Dabbagh’s writing is deceptively simple, making for an easy read which is nonetheless packed with rich and fulfilling descriptions. At one point Iman’s London flatmate Eva finds Rashid’s Arabic books.
Whilst Eva sees, “execution videos and a crowd of men beating their chests with their hands,” what she actually holds is, “a line of verse by an anonymous poet of the Umayyad period, which, had she been able to decipher it, would have read:
My little boy’s smell is all lavender / Is every little boy like him, or hasn’t anyone given birth before me?
As much a coming-of-age novel as a political one, Dabbagh shows us a version of Gaza that we are rarely granted access to. Amongst the politics , the violence and the endless fighting is the story of ordinary people simply trying to get on with their lives as best they can in extraordinary circumstances.
Providing a human and occasionally humorous angle to events, this debut novel sheds light on the world that lies beyond the violence in our newspapers and on our TV screens.
Recommended for: Anyone with an interest in the modern Palestinian experience; those eager to learn more about the Middle East.