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Evil Eye: Unique portrait of Palestinian women's resistance

In a world determined to erase Palestinians, Etaf Rum’s Evil Eye is a unique portrait of Palestinian women and the act of resistance
12 min read
25 October, 2023
Book Club: Etaf Rum discusses her long-awaited novel, the plight of Palestinian authors to prevent Palestine’s erasure through storytelling, and the concept of the evil eye as a coping mechanism for Palestinians in the face of the continuing Nakba.

One month has passed since the highly-anticipated release of Etaf Rum's second novel, Evil Eye. For most authors, this would be a time of celebration, but for the Palestinian-American writer, it has been a period of indescribable anguish and sorrow.

Etaf Rum has been closely monitoring the unfolding events in Gaza, where Palestinians are enduring a harrowing ordeal, seemingly subjected to collective revenge by the Israeli government in response to a Hamas attack on October 7.

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Evil Eye now serves a profound purpose. It delves into the life of Yara, a young Palestinian-American woman, an art lecturer, and a mother, and the deep traumas interwoven with her family's history, dating back to the 1948 Nakba when her grandmother's home was seized in Yaffa.

For Palestinian authors like Etaf Rum, narrating the history of the Israeli occupation of Palestine has evolved into an urgent act.

In a world that frequently turns a blind eye to the Palestinian people, neglecting their existence and human rights, authors like Etaf confront the responsibility of shedding light on the Palestinian experience.

Her two novels, A Woman Is No Man and Evil Eye, are not just works of historical fiction with fictional characters and families; they are grounded in real historical events and dates. Telling these stories is an act of resistance against erasure.

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Etaf Rum views her current book tour for Evil Eye as an opportunity to educate her audience about Palestine and to raise awareness about the ongoing situation in Gaza.

Just as Yara's grandmother, or "teta," emphasises in the book, storytelling is a means for Palestinians to safeguard their identity, fortify their heritage, and prevent the loss of their history.

This becomes particularly crucial at a time when entire multi-generational Palestinian families are being tragically erased from Gaza's civil registry due to Israeli airstrikes.

Speaking to The New Arab, Etaf says of her work, "My entire life, I've received the message that Palestine does not exist. That Palestine is somehow unreal, and by extension, so am I.

"Time and again during my childhood, when people asked about my origin and I replied 'Palestine,' their response would often be, 'Oh, you mean you're Israeli?' My role now, as a writer and speaker, is to legitimise the Palestinian experience by sharing our history, unfiltered," the author explains.

"I want to assert that we do exist and that these are our stories. Whether the world chooses to hear them or not, whether it acknowledges the trauma of the Palestinian people or not, this is our history, and we refuse to be erased. It is our duty to recount our stories to ensure that our history endures. That's my objective through both of my works and, hopefully, for the rest of my career."

In Etaf's latest work, our protagonist, Yara, hails from Brooklyn but resides in North Carolina with her husband, Fadi, and their two daughters, Mira and Jude. Yara, a graphic designer and art lecturer, works at a university, teaching an elective art module while also managing the campus's web content and serving as the campus photographer.

Her ultimate ambition is to become a full-time art lecturer, a goal repeatedly promised by her line manager but consistently unfulfilled.

Yara grapples with constant microaggressions and racist comments from her colleague. One day, in the midst of a faculty gathering, her colleague’s racist remark pushes Yara to her limit. Subsequently, she is placed on probation and is made to undergo counselling.

Through therapy, Yara confronts the deeply rooted intergenerational trauma that has haunted her since childhood, dating back to the trauma her grandparents had endured in Palestine.

Aside from recalling her grandmother's stories about the Nakba during her summer visits to Palestine as a child, Yara has long bottled up this trauma to shield her daughters and preserve her marriage. Nevertheless, the burden on her mental health becomes insurmountable.

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On the surface, Yara seems to have everything her ancestors did not: a privileged life in a beautiful country, and a home that is hers, one that would not be taken from her the way her ancestors’ homes were taken in Palestine.

Crippled with survivors’ guilt, Yara berates herself for any hint of ingratitude. However, she yearns for more and aspires to achieve more than the limits placed on her by culture and history. She was never as superstitious as her mother and grandmother, but as she loses her job and her marriage begins to unravel, Yara begins to question whether her mother's belief in a family curse, the evil eye, might hold some truth.

Superstition and curses are central themes in the book, common in the Arab world. Mothers, aunts, and grandmothers decipher fortunes in coffee dregs, recount old wives' tales, and strongly believe in the evil eye, wearing and displaying the blue eye and hamsa.

When misfortunes befall an individual, they often attribute them to the evil eye, just as Yara's mother does in the novel. However, the concept of the evil eye and curses runs deeper in this narrative.

Etaf explores the idea of Palestinians being cursed and how the belief in the evil eye and curses can serve as a coping mechanism when there seems to be no other explanation for the recurring catastrophes that Palestinians have endured for decades at the hands of the Israeli government.

Elaborating on the theme of curses, Etaf Rum says, "I was intrigued by the notion of Palestine being cursed. In some communities, it's common to attribute things we cannot control or understand, particularly situations in which we feel powerless, to superstition.

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"It's a way of coping. The evil eye has been a coping mechanism for Yara's family, seen as a form of self-protection. To Yara, the evil eye signifies a distorted perception of the world due to trauma, a distortion rooted in Palestine and Palestinians being cursed.

"Decades of occupation, apartheid, violence, and resilient families resisting over 70 years of settler colonialism and mass incarceration. This curse is not merely metaphorical; it manifests in very tangible ways in the lives of Palestinians, affecting everything from family dynamics to mental health," she says. 

"The curse of the Palestinian people becomes Yara's personal burden. From a young age, she heard stories from her grandparents about the Nakba, tales of their olive groves being set ablaze, their fields bombed, and guns pointed at their backs, forcing them to abandon their homes under the threat of death.

"She grew up with a sense of fear and powerlessness, knowing that the world often turned a blind eye to the Palestinian cause. Even today, the word 'Palestine' remains a trigger, often unspeakable. I wanted to explore the ways in which the evil eye manifests as the inability of certain communities, particularly the Palestinian community, to view the world without distortion, tainted by shame, fear and dehumanisation. It reflects our inability as Palestinians to perceive the world as a benevolent place, constantly feeling that someone is always poised to harm us. This is the essence of this ‘curse’, for Yara and for Palestinians at large."

The exhaustion and indignity of having to continually defend their humanity and right to exist weigh heavily on Palestinians worldwide, including authors and artists like Etaf Rum and her character Yara.

Throughout the novel, Yara remains acutely aware of the dehumanization of Palestinians and the fatigue that comes with having to educate people or dispel misconceptions, or even worse, disprove preconceived notions about Palestinians, such as the assumption that she is oppressed because she is Arab and Palestinian. These themes draw from Etaf Rum's own experiences growing up in post-9/11 Brooklyn.

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Sharing her experiences, Etaf tells The New Arab, "When 9/11 occurred, I was just a child. I can vividly recall as early as the 7th grade being labelled a terrorist. My family lived in fear that there would be retaliation for 9/11, given the rampant Islamophobia in New York City at the time. My father was working in Manhattan when 9/11 happened, and I witnessed firsthand how the word 'Palestine' was viewed with threat.

"Throughout my life, I've either been labelled a terrorist or witnessed attempts to erase, distort, or villainise my Palestinian identity. The trauma resulting from these experiences became a part of my novels," she explains.

"The emotions Yara struggles to articulate are deeply rooted in the effort to erase the Palestinian struggle and the dehumanisation of what it means to be Palestinian. By focusing on one character and her trauma, I wanted to humanise Palestinians by demonstrating how intergenerational trauma is transmitted within families decades after the Nakba. Even when we lead privileged lives here, in America, that trauma persists. It lives on in our body, rooted in our DNA."

Yara's life encompasses themes universal to all women: motherhood, societal expectations, mental health, the aspiration to transcend one's identity as a wife or mother, the complexities of marriage, and the quest to forge a meaningful life for oneself and one's children.

What sets this novel apart is its spotlight on the unique experiences of Palestinian American women — the dashed dreams of their mothers and grandmothers, who endured violence under Israeli occupation.

These women are far from the silent, passive figures portrayed in mainstream media. They face pressure from some quarters of the Palestinian community to challenge stereotypes and maintain a respectable image while struggling to reaffirm their identity as individuals who've spent their lives in exile, often without visiting their homeland.

Yara is an artist, and the novel follows her journey to become a practising artist. It also delves into her anxieties about failing to realise her artistic dreams and wasting her talents.

Yara reflects on what could have become of her mother, renowned in her Palestinian hometown for her singing and musical abilities. However, she was married off and moved to America, where her musical career was abruptly halted. Yara wonders whether her mother could have achieved stardom like Fairuz.

"I aimed to explore universal themes, particularly in the context of Palestinian-American women. I was particularly interested in the idea of preserving an identity that has been denied for a lifetime and safeguarding one's culture and heritage. Yara honours her Palestinian identity while also navigating the guilt tied to breaking free from the confines of her culture and family. As the daughter of immigrants, I believe this speaks to many immigrant women living in exile, regardless of their race, background, ethnicity, or religion," Etaf explains.

Etaf Rum's two novels, A Woman Is No Man and Evil Eye, are grounded
in real historical events and dates 

The novel portrays Yara's relentless effort to shield her daughters from her trauma and its repercussions on her mental health, hoping to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma.

For Yara's parents, who belong to the generation that followed the Nakba and emigrated to America, the impact of trauma is stark. Her father resorts to violence to express his powerlessness, while her mother, unable to express affection, experiences emotional numbness in dealing with Yara and her siblings.

Yara vigilantly monitors her interactions with her daughters, even her facial expressions. However, children are perceptive, and Mira and Jude, like the children of the Palestinian diaspora, recognise their parents' struggles.

No matter how diligently Palestinian parents in the diaspora try to provide a more emotionally stable life, the cycle of intergenerational trauma continues as long as the Nakba persists, and children learn about their relatives facing danger in Palestine.

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"The cycle of intergenerational trauma can only end when the world unequivocally acknowledges the discrimination, oppression, settler colonialism, and apartheid endured by the Palestinian people for nearly 75 years," says Etaf.

"Our parents bear even deeper scars than we do, so if I feel this broken and displaced, how must they feel? What about those still living in Palestine, who are far more powerless, and who face violence, oppression, racism, and dehumanisation on a daily basis?

"Awareness of the reality of living in Palestine is essential in order to heal this ongoing trauma, and this is precisely why I write these stories. But in the current state of the world, healing seems impossible. Even in our attempts to reveal our pain and spread awareness, we're saying, 'Please, please see our suffering. Acknowledge our trauma.'

"If our pain goes unrecognised and unacknowledged if our suffering is not validated, then the trauma persists, both among the Palestinian diaspora and within the younger generations growing up in exile and back home," says Etaf.

"As much as I strive to protect my children from my own trauma and offer them a better life, the curse of occupation and unimaginable violence remains in our DNA. It’s bigger than me, and it’s a curse I can’t break alone.

"The world must awaken to our trauma and assist in our healing, and that means we must all stand unwaveringly on the side of the oppressed. To stand with Palestine is to stand with humanity."

Evil Eye by Etaf Rum (£16.99), is published by HQ (HarperCollins) and is available to purchase now

Yousra Samir Imran is a British Egyptian writer and author who is based in Yorkshire. She is the author of Hijab and Red Lipstick, published by Hashtag Press

Follow her on Twitter: @UNDERYOURABAYA