Raba’i Madhoun is a Palestinian novelist and journalist whose PEN-supported The Lady from Tel Aviv was recently translated by Elliott Colla and published in English. Madhoun answered a few questions about his writing, and the challenges and controversies that have attended it, for AL:
AL: You published short stories in the 1970s, but then a long time passed before you came back to writing The Taste of Separation. Yet more time passed before you published The Lady from Tel Aviv. What drew you back to fiction?
RM: Actually, I started writing fiction (short stories) before I turned to journalism and became a columnist and political analyst. This type of writing has always been linked to changes in my life and my personal ups and downs. Or else it has come as a result of a major turning point that has forced me to start from scratch and rebuild my life in a different way.
Since I was detained and deported from Egypt in 1970, and failed to get a university degree as a result, I have always been looking for meaning in my life and have never surrendered to the pressures, including: forty years in exile, no homeland, no nationality, travelling with forged documents, detention in Egypt, torture in Syria, and so on. In Egypt, I was the student. In Jordan, I became a guerilla fighter during the war known as “Black September.” In Iraq, and later in Lebanon, I start writing and publishing short stories. In Cyprus, I became an academic researcher. In London, I became a novelist.
At each stage, I was faithful to what I was, and proud of what I was doing. But if I felt at any time that I had nothing to give — to the readers or to the audience — I soon quit and looked for a different style of writing. Short stories were a clear example. I stopped writing this type of literature and never returned to it. I did the same with opinion writing and news analysis; the moment I felt I had nothing to add, I stopped doing it. This might explain why I turned to memoir first and to fiction later.
AL: Why don’t you count The Taste of Separation as your first novel?
RM: In terms of style, I could say The Taste of Separation is a biographical novel with a very thin line between fact and fiction, where subjects and events are built on the real lives of three generations of Palestinians, following in the steps of me and my family. This is fiction based on fact, although contemporary literature erases the border between fiction and reality.
AL: How did The Lady from Tel Aviv evolve? You decided to bring along Adel al-Besheety when you travelled back to Gaza, and then invented Walid Dahman after you arrived in Gaza? Did you take notes on the experience as it occurred, or did you write after your return to London?
RM: When I decided to go back to Gaza, I carried with me the Idea of Adel Al-Basheety, a Palestinian in exile who failed to integrate into the community where he lived (Frankfurt, Germany) and decided to go back, repair his identity, and revive his first love. But this was just one face of the coin of exile.
On the other side of the coin, we have the Palestinians who adopted a new life in the West and became part of their societies. So here comes Walid Dahman, who turned his exile to a second “homeland.” This is a character who lived with me for a long time, but during my return to Palestine, Walid Dahman woke up. I gave him personal traits, released him, and felt relief. Suddenly, Orly Weinerman, (an Israeli TV actress and a model ) appeared and sat next to me on board my flight to Tel Aviv. The third character, a female, started knocking on the door. Just as in the character’s sudden appearance, Orly began crying. We had a little chat, which did not reveal a lot, and I wrote down her email address and carried in my mind a big question: Why Orly was crying?
Five months later, while I was writing the chapters on board the airplane, Orly knocked on my door again, but loudly this time, insisting on playing a bigger role in the drama I was writing. That’s when an Israeli newspaper uncovered a relationship between Orly Weinerman and Seif el-Eslam Al Qadhafi. (Yes, the son of the dictator.) Al-Hayat news paper wrote: Seif El Eslam has an Israeli mistress. Under the title, I saw Orly’s picture. The news became a clue to a full fictional love story between Dana and Seif. The suspended question about why she was crying now had an dramatic answer. (This story — which was full of love, fears, adventures, and disappointments, and beautifully translated — was deleted completely from the English version of The Lady from Tel Aviv during editing.)
During my trip to Gaza, I took a few notes, but I also recorded the discussion of a meeting at the Khan Younis refugee camp. I used it literally and deliberately as if a “live TV” chapter were being broadcast in a book. Fiction can watch reality and simulate it, and reality mocks and taunts fiction. On top of that, there’s a poem from Mahmoud Darwish, contradictory facts, real names, and a lot of information as well.
AL: Many reviewers have noted the pleasure of reading The Lady from Tel Aviv. Was that one of the things you were aiming for, a fun reading experience?
RM: Irony and sarcasm have been part of my writing style in general. This coloured even my cultural and political writing. Dealing with the Palestinian tragedy and the Middle East crises in fiction is complicated, and is definitely not amusing. So I used all my experiences and motivation to create an amusing and enjoyable narrative about a complex conflict: Irony, jokes, hidden surprises — all of which were narrated in a poetic language.
I became assured that those who abandoned watching the news about the Middle East would get it all by literature, where “fiction (..) can be as nuanced as real life”, as Peter Gordon put it in the latest review of The Lady from Tel Aviv.
AL: Do you continue to have email exchanges with readers who want to discuss various aspects of your novel?
RM: Honestly, four years after its publication, direct discussion to the book is reduced to a minimum. From the other side, there are always new readers who leave their comments on the Goodreads site or recommend the novel to friends. And surprisingly, book clubs continue to discuss it. The latest was when the “Palestine Writing Workshop” in Ramallah chose the book for August discussion in “Café la Vie” on the 31st.
AL: How did you feel about the editorial changes in the English? It is a different novel in English–how do you relate to the English novel?
RM: When I read the final manuscript in English, I felt as though I were watching a new look of mine in the neighbour’s mirror. It was a new shape and a new structure. I missed the character Nouredein, the son of the dictator and Dana’s Arab lover. I missed the daily life of Dana in Tel Aviv, and her connection to an Israeli female MP, and the corruption in the Israeli Knesset, which I took six months to create. I missed lots of details I loved and worked hard for them, and the translator Elliott Cola did as well. But again, do the English readers know these details or will they care for something they never heard about? Actually, I accepted the fact that we — the publisher and my self — were targeting an audience that was different from Arabs and had different abilities to taste the flavour of the book. And this, of course, required a different approach to the subject.
AL: You told an interviewer that “you can’t take fiction too far from reality.” What did you mean by that? That reality constantly re-asserts itself?
RM: I think we — the Palestinians — need a touch of fact in any fiction writing. In such a unique crisis and agony like the Palestinian one, fiction is not born only from facts and reality, but it also reforms them. I believe that the relationship between reality and fiction is similar to that between the man and his shadow. Those who read The Lady from Tel Aviv will enjoy the game between shadows and lights. This leads to what I call “fictional reality,” where the writer takes the reality to the heights of imagination and grasps fiction at the edge of reality. Those who read The Lady from Tel Aviv will feel that fiction is nothing but a game of writing on the edge of reality.
AL: What sort of reception has the book received among Israeli readers? How has it been different from the reception of Palestinian & other Arab readers?
RM: At this stage, I can’t talk about Israeli readers’ reaction, since the book hasn’t been translated into Hebrew. But an ex-Israeli who read the book in English wrote to me: “I find it very interesting to read it from the other side as an ex-Israeli. I find the book confronting and difficult at times, but that is the history of our people. It is difficult to read it as the aggressor, even as a remorseful lefty who had no direct hand in the occupation.” Other reaction came in a short review written by Deborah Rubin, published in “One Community Chronicle,” a Jewish community site: “I found the complexity of the subject matter written in an easy to read style and one which avoids the dogma of ready-made ideology. “
As for the Arab readers, the majority welcomed the book (five editions in Arabic), and find it different, new in its shape and style, interesting and enjoyable, bold, challenging, and even a turning point in the Palestinian and Arab fiction in terms of its subject. But it’s also been criticised also for using Hebrew, and accused of “naturalising” the relationship with Israelis, as it has been said, and humanising the enemy. So, there have been lots of messages like “wonderful, amazing, and stunning,” and others that did not hesitate to talk about “bad ideas.”