Gaza Weddings: Martyrdom and tragedy hang over twinned fates
As violence intensifies in Gaza, with increased Israeli offensive, there has never been a better time to amplify varied Gazan experiences to the broader world population.
In this vein, The New Arab reviews the 2017-published novella Gaza Weddings by Jordanian-Palestinian poet and novelist Ibrahim Nasrallah (translated by Nancy Roberts).
This book tells the story of inseparable identical twin sisters, Randa and Lamis, growing up in Gaza, under siege and Israeli occupation.
Amna – a supervisor at the child rehabilitation centre in al-Shifa hospital – is a neighbour who is so beloved to Randa that she describes the former as a ‘breeze’ that resembles famous Egyptian actress Athar al-Hakim.
The narration alternates between Randa and Amna’s perspectives as they navigate their experiences living in Gaza. At the same time, the latter plans a wedding between her son, Saleh, and Randa’s sister, Lamis.
"The characters in Gaza Weddings hold firmly to the hope of their liberation while amplifying the need to celebrate Palestinian joy in the now"
Gaza Weddings is a compelling book because while the story opens with a proposed marriage, the central motif is the authentic Gazan experience.
Nasrallah covers these experiences and how the Israeli occupation reaches every inch in its attempts to erase the Palestinian identity (in contrast to its claims of fighting terrorism).
A quote from the twin’s mother put this into perspective; when her other two sons bickered about the organisations they belong to, she says, “Look: Israel’s out to kill you whether you’re with Hamas, Jihad, the PLO, the PFLP, or the DFLP, whether you support the resistance or not, and whether you’re for or against Abu Ammar. If you open the window to see what’s going on outside, you might die from sniper fire, and whether you’re walking down the street or at home in bed, a rocket might fall on your head.”
The accuracy of this statement rings even more valid with the amplified collective punishment that Gazans have suffered in recent times, as well as comments from Israeli officials suggesting that every inch of Gaza is – or supports – Hamas.
Very early on in the book, readers also see how Gazans hold everyday conversations with the backdrop of their occupiers’ violence. Randa does not seem to like how small her head is compared to her sister’s, but she concedes because ‘with a small head, snipers will be sure to miss it’. And even in this concession, Randa plants a seed of doubt in the readers on the factuality of this claim, saying, “Time would tell, though, how wrong I’d been about that” (i.e. in suggesting that a small head will save one from the Israeli snipers).
Another early demonstration of this all-around terrorisation is when Randa shares that a lot of people brag about recognising the exact weapon – whether shells, missiles, tanks, helicopters, or fighter planes – whose noise they can hear. Hence, something as essential to optimal human function as sleep is a privilege in Gaza because of the constant noise pollution.
Randa is a brilliant character. Readers don’t get a precise number for her age. Still, her words, thoughts and actions portray a child who has been forced to grow up too early amidst constant deaths and debilitating oppression.
She wants to be a journalist, and her aspirations are reinforced every time she interacts with another character in the book. Randa collects pictures of martyred children; she begins attending wakes to document the lives, dreams and words of the martyred; and on more than one occasion, Randa asks characters she interacts with if she can write down their quotes, so much so that I now associate the phrases “can I write that down?” and “would you mind if I wrote down what you just said?” to her character.
Randa’s passion for documenting her peoples’ words highlights the importance of Palestinian stories, and not just in Gaza, but the stories of every varied Palestinian experience (from the diaspora that has not been able to return to the West Bank and East Jerusalem and Palestinians living with Israeli citizenship).
Stories we don’t write down become the enemy’s property. Through her love for Ghassan Kanafani and his works, Randa recognises this even outside her innate aspirations. When an Apache helicopter or an F-16 flies over her yard, Randa will come out lifting Kanafani’s books into the sky while shouting, “You can do anything you want, but you’ll never be able to kill these! He beat you, and all of these are ours.”
As the menfolk in Gaza Weddings primarily exist as martyrs, it is the female characters, including the twins, their mother, grandmother and Amna, that show tremendous resistance by preserving the Palestinian Al-Hakawati (storytelling) culture, reminding me of the women in The Stone House by Yara Hawari. Real-life versions of these characters are one of the many reasons readers continue to see staunch Palestinian resistance via literature.
Readers also witness some elements of the Palestinian marriage culture in Gaza through Amna’s recollection of her marriage procedures to her husband, Jamal, and her preparation for her son, Saleh’s wedding to Lamis. An example is the practice of seeking the bride’s hand in marriage either by reaching out to the bride’s father (in the case of Amna and Jamal) or speaking to a female family member (in the case of Saleh and Lamis).
The book’s title is wedding-themed, so this marriage culture is to be expected. However, readers also get to see how the Israeli occupation and siege of Gaza impact and hinder a typical human experience like marriage/wedding – for example, the difficulty of marrying spouses from different places in the region due to checkpoints crossing.
Amna’s wedding with Jamal happens in a hospital because a soldier stabbed him with a bayonet as he tried to meet his bride across a checkpoint (disguised in a coffin).
There is also something quite sinister about the fact that ‘moral’ soldiers are comfortable desecrating supposed dead bodies inside coffins in the bid to ensure stringent restrictions at checkpoints.
Amna describes this best when she responds to an Israeli soldier’s comment on her wearing a wedding dress while at a checkpoint, “So what is allowed, then? You even forbid funerals when you get the chance! You don’t want to let us have processions anywhere, whether in our weddings or in our funerals”.
Building on the parallel Amna draws to funerals, Nasrallah’s characters also give insights into how Palestinians do not escape oppression, even in death.
The bombings will typically disfigure bodies by reducing them to scattered piles of flesh or through complete charring, leaving no recognisable indicators as to the martyr’s identity.
The implication of this is that because many Palestinians are arrested or detained for extensive periods, many people turn up to claim such dead bodies – like the twenty women in Gaza Weddings, including Amna, who turn up at al-Shifa hospital to claim a dead body.
This is a unique state of grief to be in because every single woman is convinced the deceased is their loved one while secretly hoping that their beloved will show up. Even cemeteries are not spared; as Amna notes in Gaza Weddings, the Matyr’s cemetery is routinely bombed, creating the need to dig extra deep graves so that rockets will not reach the buried.
Still, the characters in Gaza Weddings hold firmly to the hope of their liberation while amplifying the need to celebrate Palestinian joy in the now. They interweave the arrival of the occupier’s departure and their little sources of happiness into their daily conversations, even more so than the occupier’s violence.
Perhaps the most impactful of the several instances of this in Gaza Weddings is when a character, Aziz – who is a grave digger at the Martyr’s cemetery – declares to Amna that “once the occupation is over, I’m never gonna touch a shovel again, not even to plant flowers!”; and Amna responded, saying, “Don’t say things like that! That’s just what the occupiers would want! They want us to stop being beautiful and loving beautiful things. Don’t give them the satisfaction”.
Aisha Yusuff is a book reviewer with a focus on African and Muslim literature. Her work can be found on @thatothernigeriangirl as well as in digital magazines like Rewrite London
Follow her on Twitter: @allthingsaeesha