Today is Publication Day for Nayrouz Qarmout’s The Sea Cloak and Other Stories, tr. Perween Richards:
The 14 stories in The Sea Cloak — one of which also appeared in The Book of Gaza, ed. Atef Abu Saif — are set around life in a Syrian refugee camp and in Gaza. Qarmout talked with journalist Orsola Casagrande about her writing and the context in which it stands.
Orsola Casagrande: When did you begin writing? Can you tell us the first memory you have of you writing?
Nayrouz Qarmout: I always wrote things. i remember writing a book of poetry when I was a child, but I lost it, as we were moving from house to house, after returning to Gaza. I remember well that, despite the fact that I favored math and science, I always got good marks in writing and literature. I very much enjoyed creating images, elaborating plots using a perfect and meaningful lexicon. When I was studying pharmacy, many times I took refuge in writing poems of a perfect and rhymed style, or a prose text, or phrases with philosophical content. In my work, I have written much about social issues, and I have monitored complaints related to gender violence, in the Ministry of Women’s Issues. I contributed to the elaboration of a work vision for this ministry after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. I created this vision and implemented its ideas, despite being a very young woman at that time.
OC: The political situation in the Gaza Strip was complex…
NQ: Indeed, and there was a ‘military coup’ against the Palestinian National Authority. Politically, some call it coup, while others consider it a solution to the situation. But I call it, in my later writings, neither a solution to the situation nor a coup, but rather a division in the full sense of the word.
True, there were legislative elections at that time, in 2006. The Islamist movement triumphed. However, this does not justify the use of force by Hamas, and even less the way it used it.
I felt that the Palestinian dream for freedom and independence was being torn apart by us, by the very Palestinians. I cried. I felt shaken by a powerful strength. But I managed to put myself together. At the same time, I was having different personal experiences. My uncle was struck by an Israeli missile after he’d joined a Palestinian jihadist organization. My uncle had gone from the far left to the far right for a single idea, free Palestine, all Palestine. We always had our differences, but I loved him very much, and his loss left a indelible mark. I have lost many friends. Some older ones have died. Others emigrated after the second intifada, the “al-Aqsa intifada”. They were the living memory of motherland.
The talks I had with them gave me much energy and hope. At that time, the plan was that I would move to Cisgiordania to live, marry and continue my studies. However this didn’t happen, as the political and geographical rupture increased. I wasn’t able to travel. I remember I turned to sport then, and when I got back home, there were convoys of cars with huge speakers insulting the previous slogans and fabricating new ones. I didn’t like them. I then begAn writing articles and essays of a more political, analytical, philosophical, literary, and social character.
I was writing what was going on all around me. So I began by rejecting dogmatism, intellectual and religious extremism, and the groups representing them. I was rejecting them from A to Z.
OC: That was in 2009.
NQ: Yes. I began sending my articles to national websites. It is possible that they publish everything they receive. On one occasion, the chief editor of the Amad website, Mr Hassan Asfour, read my articles on my Facebook page and told me: “Why don’t you send us your articles? You have a good pen. Good language. It doesn’t happen often that a young Palestinian writes such a good analysis. You’ll have freedom to express your opinion. I’ll publish everything you sent. It seems you lean left.”
OC: Were you a reader in your youth? What was your relationship with books when you were a child? Were books available?
NQ: Yes. Since I was a child, I’ve had a great love for reading. I remember we had a very large library in our house in Syria. There were brown and beige sofas that could be lifted to reveal drawer-like spaces full of books and music cassettes, both of western and eastern music. It was like stepping into a world very different from mine. How much I loved to open the sofa! It was Like Alice in Wonderland.
I would pick up any book and start reading it without stopping, even though it was not for my age. I wouldn’t end by reading the book; instead i would draw images of the phrases I read. No matter how difficult the meaning of what i was reading, I tried hard to recreate that image, drawing on what little I knew. I tried to simplify the difficult terms and convert them into simple and easy expressions. I didn’t stop listening to music, and I danced whenever I had the chance. When we got back to our motherland, we couldn’t bring our library with us. Our journey was not easy. Here in Gaza, I have suffered from the lack of books. My family worked hard to remake their life in Gaza. From scratch.
My parents had large families here. However, we decided to live alone, as we were used to in Syria, where my maternal grandmother, aunts, and uncles were living. I came from one diaspora to fall into a new one.
I had one certainty: every sheet of paper, even a torn one, thrown on the ground, could contain something written of great utility. I never stopped reading papers and listening to the news with great curiosity and assiduity.
OC: Tell us a bit about your literary influences…
NQ: I have always admired and loved the work of Mahmoud Darwish. I feel it very close to me. Before continuing, I have to say something that often I don’t remember the names of writers nor the titles of books. I don’t remember the names of the actors and titles of their movies. But I never stop recording, in my mind, the melody of the stories they tell or characters they represent. I haven’t studied literature, so my writing came out of an older creativity. I don’t consider my childhood reading as deep reading. I follow and observe very carefully all that surrounds me. All that occurs at a local, regional, and international level.
After I began writing my own stories, not yet published, I preferred buying hundreds of books and novels. I read a lot. Let me tell you something before I forget it: in the famous sofa of my childhood, I discovered a poetry book by our Palestinian poet, Samih al-Qasim. It had a red cover. I was very attracted to it. A thick book. I remember his words, “ahead, ahead.” My hands then were very small to hold it. I knelt down to read it.
OC: What about music?
NQ: When I’m writing, I listen to music, generally. I feel like I am singing my text as you would sing a song by a musician. I like Eastern music, but also Latin and Western music. All music. I like the whisper of the tree’s leaf. The singing of a bird. The sound of the waves. And i like the sound of silence. Indeed, I also ended up enjoying the roar of the planes before bombing, killing, and destroying.
OC: And cinema?
NQ: Talking about cinema in an environment as small as Gaza…films helped me only to keep in touch with the outside world.
OC: How do you write? Does a story come to you, or a character comes first? What are the themes, issues, concerns you address in your books?
NQ: How do I write: I listen to the voice of life. Its tone. The melody of the story is what comes first. Then it goes around the characters until they melt together. And I row, I row with such a strength in order to get out of there. Out of my worry. What worries me and what I write about.
I write about the human being–this human being who I love passionately. The human being unknown to me. The person I cannot identify by name, title, and place. But who is there. I write about freedom. About the beauty of nature. About the land, the mountain, and the sea. I write about injustice. The injustice we are carrying out against ourselves and the others. How do we live? What for? Despite all the contradictions inherent to the human being, and what surrounds us. I write about the tragedy of existence.
OC: How important is language for you?
i feel that my language develops and gets better together with the very development of meaning and the sense of the text. My language is apologizing for itself. I love the arabic language. No, it’s more than that: I respect it.
The noble Quran, the icon of the Arabic language, influenced me very much. It helps very much to improve your language and gives you a great space for contemplation. In my childhood, I watched cartoons translated in other languages and dubbed in Arabic. I spoke Classical Arabic. A friend once made me laugh: she’d come back to Gaza, Palestine, like me. She phoned me and told me that she was speaking about me with her family. Remember, she said, when my older sister slapped you and you went running to your mom to tell her what happened in Classical Arabic, and we all burst out laughing?
OC: Do you feel you are part of a generation?
NQ: When I write, I feel I belong to all generations. But yes, I am part of this generation that grew up between war and peace. I lived the diaspora, the peace agreement, two intifadas, and three wars. This generation of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
OC: How would you consider the Palestinian literary scene at the moment?
NQ: Many palestinian writers and poets have been able to offer their human and literary experience, so this added and clarified many new things.
Literature has varied, from that previous to the nakba, of resistance, refuge, exile, prison. The influence of political and social conditions surrounding the Palestinian writer prevailed over his literary tendencies. It is difficult to get rid of these influences because they interfere directly in the everyday life. What changed with the years is the writer’s view towards the surrounding environment. It means taking things from another point of view, focusing on the literary side.
We must move away from the “bravado” of complex wording, free ourselves from the guilt trip, especially in the wake of the nakba of 1967, and the loss of an independent entity that represents us.
OC: do you feel there is a policy of supporting culture? I mean, for example, at local level, in gaza, is there any institutional support for culture, literature, libraries…?
NQ: There are very timid contexts to support culture in Palestinian society, in Gaza: non-profit institutions or governmental contexts of limited reach and activity. Speaking of myself, I never belonged to a cultural context. No context or institution had anything to do with polishing my talent. No one came to look for me except a very few, who are neither founders nor officials of a policy or a strategy to support creators, writers, and intellectuals. I do not like politicized frames, or let me say “intellectually limited.”
There are not enough institutions to promote culture. There are no publishers. The bookstores are few, and you do not find in them the works you are is interested in or looking for. If one wants to publish personally, assuming the costs, which are quite high, the publication will only reach local spaces. In this way, your literary project, your product does not reach the Arab countries and the countries of the world. We need bigger and deeper incubation institutions that are dedicated to sculpting and raising the nascent generation and opening their minds to the experiences of the world, to the experiences of knowledge, of science, and of literature. We must create a more educated and better prepared Palestinian society.
OC: Are you optimistic?
NQ: I’m not optimistic, no. I do not see a Palestinian entity in the short term. We are dissolving into the principalities of the patriotic and Islamic illusion. Everyone believes in the importance of the economic solution that improves living conditions of people, as the prelude to accept future solutions. In other words, re-form minds. We are talking about ideas. Meanwhile, the land is reduced day after day by the geophagy of the colonization projects and the building of endless walls of isolation.
OC: What is the situation for women in Gaza?
NQ: I am a woman, and I love being one. Fear kills women in our society, even when they presume to take on their full energy and strength. The family marginalizes women. Traditions and idiosyncrasies immobilize her with their bonds. The erroneous conception of religion inhibits her development. The occupation destroys her freedom. But despite all this pain and pressure, women’s creativity is a reason for survival. Creativity is revolution, and to solve the Palestinian question we need a creativity revolution that is a women’s revolution. Only the awakening of women will allow stability in Arab societies and also in Palestinian society.