Ibtisam Azem on the ‘Power of the Silenced Story’

Ibtisam Azem’s The Book of Disappearance was published last month in Sinan Antoon’s English translation. At the heart of the novel is the sudden and unexplained disappearance of the Palestinians living within Israeli territory. As the disappeared stay missing and no explanation surfaces, each character must make decisions about how to move into or around this sudden “absence”:

Although the mass disappearance is at the heart of the book, The Book of Disappearance begins not with the big event, but with a middle-aged Palestinian man, Alaa, and with his smaller, family disappearance: that of his grandmother. Why here?

Ibtisam Azem: Yes, while the major theme and event of the novel is the collective disappearance of the Palestinians for an unknown reason, it does start with the death of the grandmother. She carries the memories of the Nakba and her being and voice is the link to another history and a Palestine/Jaffa that was disappeared. The personal loss is, of course, linked to the collective loss. But Alaa’s red book is the ongoing conversation he has with her even after her disappearance. It continues to speak to us even after Alaa disappears.

There are at least a few “mass vanishing” novels (Tom Perrota’s The Leftovers and, in a different way, Mohamed al-Bisatie’s Drumbeat) where those left behind must grapple with a significantly changed world. But in most mass-vanishing novels, it seems, the disappeared are silent. In The Book of Disappearance, the disappeared Palestinians continue to speak, mostly through the artifact of Alaa’s red notebook, which is nominally in Ariel’s control. Does the red notebook have a power that puts it beyond Ariel’s control?

IA: So, the red notebook, which has fragments from the oral history and memory of a Palestinian woman, and her grandson, will be beyond Ariel’s control. It is the power of the silenced or unheard story, that will never disappear.

There are other moments when the disappeared speak, even if it’s through the distorted/distorting lens of Ariel’s point of view. We hear Badriyya, for instance, through her social media posts. Much as in the real world, an utterly innocuous post “We will not be silent any more” is re-framed as a threat. Did you, as the author, ever struggle with Ariel, to keep him from consuming the Palestinians’ stories?  As the reader, I think we have to struggle with him.

IA: I didn’t have that fear, because I created a frame for Palestinian voices to go beyond Ariel’s control, as I mentioned above. What I had to pay attention to in regards to Ariel was another issue. I wanted to make sure that his character is nuanced and has depth. I didn’t want his politics, which I obviously disagree with, to negatively affect how I render him. It’s important for characters to be three-dimensional and convincing. I knew a lot about liberal Zionists since I lived in Palestine until my early twenties and interacted with Israelis in school and college and related contexts.

Ariel did feel real to me, particularly as the novel immerses us slowly in his consumption of Palestinians such that, even if the reader disagrees with his actions and his politics, we are living in his skin. First he takes Alaa’s personal notebook and begins reading it…then he moves into Alaa’s apartment…then he’s going to take Alaa’s story and fold it into his own. Each appropriation seems almost reasonable in its moment (after all, Ariel is environmentally friendly!), until the very last chapter. In a way, it felt as though this narrative is directed at a reader from a settler-colonial state. Did you imagine a reader at any phase in the writing?

IA: I don’t imagine a specific reader when I write. That would limit me. I need to be free and not to worry about this or that reader’s reaction. Having said that, when I was writing my first  novel, I was living in Germany. I didn’t tell my family that I was writing a novel. I didn’t want that to cause me to impose any self-censorship on my work as I was writing it. Even though it was not autobiographical, people often tend to read works that way. But I wanted to free myself as much as possible. Creative writing became the space where I could be free to do what I want and to transcend the boundaries placed on me as an individual in a society, as a woman and a Palestinian.

My main concern when I write and edit is neither the reader nor the critic. I just want the text to reach its full potential and where I can’t add more to it. It can go and inhabit the world.

Do you think that’s any part of why you wrote these male narrators? To avoid readers looking for autobiographical detail in the novel? Or to free yourself from the characters (and to free them from you)?

IA: I don’t think so. Writing the main narrators as male characters felt natural and the right way to do it for both my first and second novel. The novel I am working on now is narrated by three women. I don’t think about the market or readers, etc., when I write fiction. The artistic aspect of the work is what I worry and think about. Fiction is one of the few places where I can feel free and breathe… It is what keeps my sanity intact. 

What other texts, literary or otherwise, is the book in conversation with? What texts are floating beneath the surface, just beyond our view?

IA: That’s a great question, but not so easy to answer. Writing is a complex process and there are, of course, influences one is not always aware of. Not only literary, but from the fields of visual arts, film, and music. Some major influences are Habiby, Darwish, and Hussein Barghouthy, particularly his book The Blue Light, which was the subject of my MA thesis. His works, creative and critical, influenced me a great deal.

I was fascinated by tales when I was a child and was surrounded by great storytellers who fed and freed my imagination: my father, grandmother, and aunts. Our house was, and still is, an open diwan for neighbors, relatives, and friends, where fascinating stories are told and retold. In hindsight, it was a great opportunity to observe amazing characters and internalize narratives. Palestinian folktales are an important source. But also, my personal experience and living and interacting with Palestinians from different backgrounds.

I should say that my studies in Germany and readings of German literature enriched my world view. One of my favorite German writers is Wolfgang Borchert. I also studied African American writers, like Amiri Baraka and James Baldwin among others. But at the end of the day, my roots are in Arabic culture. I admire Hoda Barakat and Sadallah Wannous and I’m sure they have their marks somewhere.

The novel is particularly gifted at creating sympathetic characters out of those with whom we least want to sympathize (because we don’t want to see ourselves in them, I suppose), particularly Dayan. Why Dayan?

IA: Rape is a weapon used in wars. Palestine was no exception. Zionists raped Palestinian women, that’s a fact that Israeli historians admitted.  I wanted to write about the dynamic between victim and victimizer, but in a nuanced way. To delve into the psyche of the victimizer and his feelings of guilt. How collective violence is contagious and how men are turned into beasts by ideology and other factors. And to interrogate the collective silence of those who witnessed, or participated, in perpetrating violence. Remaining silent as violence is perpetrated is participation and the lines are blurred or disappear.

Have you been at all surprised by the book’s reception, by any of the ways in which Palestinians or non-Palestinians have read it?

IA: The book was praised by several writers, such as Hoda Barakat, whose works I admire greatly, and by Abbas Beydoun and Hassan Daoud, among others. That, of course, was very rewarding. But the most rewarding reaction is what Palestinian readers told me when I read at local Book Clubs in Galilee, the Triangle (al-Muthallath), and Ramallah. They said that they felt this novel spoke for and represented them. One woman told me that she went from Ramallah to Jaffa (without a permit) to search for the places I wrote about. Such responses, coming from the heart of Palestine and Palestinians, mean more to me than an article or a study. They touch my core and remind me why I write.

Did you work with Sinan Antoon on the translation?

IA: No. He knew the novel very well and was its first reader. He asked me a few questions about Hebrew expressions and some contextual matters. Beyond that, Sinan’s translations are highly respected. I read the manuscript of the translation and loved it.

 What is it like to see the book rebuilt in a different language?

IA: I am very happy to see the novel appear in English. It is like sending your child to a foreign country. I hope it’s treated well. Fingers crossed!


  1. Excellent novel. I find that discussions about it so far do not do justice to the easy touch of challenging matters shown in the lives of diverse people. Credit to both author and translator. Any primarily English speaking book club that would seek entree into some hard, seemingly intractable matters: read this book together.

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