Launch of ‘Lady from Tel Aviv’: Whose Story Is It?

At this year’s Shubbak Festival, Raba’i Madhoun (@rmadhoun) was on hand to launch the translation of his novel The Lady from Tel Aviv. Sarah Irving was there:

Photo courtesy Saqi Books.
Photo courtesy Saqi Books.

Amongst the many literary events that graced this year’s Shubbak Festival of Arab Arts in London was the long-awaited launch of Raba’i al-Madhoun’s The Lady from Tel Aviv in English translation. The novel was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) in 2010 and the translation — by Elliott Colla — was being trailed by Saqi as early as 2011. But finally it’s arrived!

The launch — at Foyle’s on Charing Cross Road — was fairly lively as these things go. Madhoun was certainly not slow in coming forward; chair Selma Dabbagh (author of another novel set in Gaza, Out Of It), could barely get a word in edgeways. But he does have plenty to say, and he got to say it to a capacity audience.

Madhoun’s own life story is fascinating enough, and had considerable relevance to the novel. The back of the book bears a comment from Elias Khoury, and one can see Khoury’s influence in the looping, layered narrative of The Lady from Tel Aviv. This structure, with its ambiguities over whether we are reading the story of the novel’s protagonist Walid Dahman, and his own fictional creations, or of Raba’i al-Madhoun himself, suggests a ‘light’ version of the spiralling complexities that characterise works such as Gate of the Sun  or As Though She Were Sleeping.

These ambiguities carried through into the launch event, where at times it was hard to know whether al-Madhoun was talking about his own life and thoughts on the process of writing, or those of his character Dahman — also a novelist. The parallels in their life stories are obvious: Madhoun was born in Askalan (now Israeli Ashkelon) just before the Nakba; Dahman born just along the coast in Isdud/Ashdod. Both became refugees in Gaza and – for different reasons – could not return for decades. Both travelled across the Middle East and Europe, living on their wits and their writing. Madhoun’s tale is more “political” and more dramatic, as he was thrown out of Egypt for membership in a left-wing Palestinian faction and underwent torture in Syria.

Photo courtesy Saqi Books.
Photo courtesy Saqi Books.

But, Madhoun declared at the launch, he didn’t want to write a conventional autobiography, and also wanted to incorporate characters and themes which allow him to discuss aspects of contemporary Palestinian issues, including the split between Fatah and Hamas and the corruption of the PA.

In addition, Madhoun wanted to experiment with what it might mean to put an “ordinary Palestinian and and ordinary Israeli” together “without pressure” and allow them to interact as human beings. Citing Emile Habibi’s character Said “the Pessoptimist,” he pointed out that there is no such thing as a life without politics for any Palestinian, however “ordinary.”

Madhoun’s assertion that he wants to get away from the usual discourses of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and his claim to have aroused controversy through his negative portrayal in the novel of both Fatah and Hamas took the launch discussion down an interesting route. One liberal Zionist in the audience misunderstood this as meaning Madhoun is a supporter of the kind of “encounter” groups that have long been condemned by most Palestinian activists for failing to tackle the power differential between Palestinians and Israelis.

She couldn’t have been more wrong, and attracted a sharp response, which started with “the problem is, it is my country” and a riff from Madhoun on the fact that anyone in the room that evening with Jewish origins could go to Israel and claim citizenship, whilst many of those born in historic Palestine cannot even set foot there.

This isn’t just an anecdote from the launch event; it rather demonstrates something key about Madhoun’s position. On the one hand, he — along with many other Palestinians — seems frustrated with the failures and corruption of the PA and the PLO factions. Even from the diaspora, he insists, he is “involved every single minute with the situation,” and his novels are a means to “show the ordinary Palestinian, how he lives, how he moves through the crossings.” But his questioning of the official discourses of Palestinian politics and his assertion that Israelis are human beings, however flawed, are far from a de-radicalisation of his position. Quite the reverse. Both in person and in his novel, Madhoun maintains a clear and steady claim to his identity and his right, and that of every Palestinian, to their land.

Sarah IrvingSarah Irving [] is author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine, and has been a journalist and reviewer for over a decade. She is currently a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh and is dipping a tentative toe into the waters of Arabic-English translation.

Editor’s note: You can read an excerpt from Colla’s translation of the novel on Jadaliyya.