It is a mass-disappearance novel, in the style of Tom Perrota’s The Leftovers or Mohamed al-Bisatie’s Drumbeat (tr. Peter Daniel), although in both those cases, we know, sooner or later, what happened to the vanished.
What would happen if all Palestinians living inside Israel suddenly and inexplicably vanished, at the stroke of midnight, as if taken by aliens or shape-shifted by Cinderella’s fairy godmother? What would happen to the stories they left behind?
This is the question that animates Ibtisam Azem’s The Book of Disappearance, which was published in English this summer, as translated by award-winning novelist Sinan Antoon. Mass disappearance is a theme that often permeates Palestinian narratives, but Azem’s novel brings a new, speculative-fiction twist – after this mass disappearance, nobody who’s left seems to know how or why it happened.
The book opens with a much smaller and more prosaic disappearance: that of a main character’s grandmother. Alaa soon finds his missing grandmother, who passed away while sitting on a wooden bench, looking out at the Jaffa shore.
Most of the book takes place in Jaffa, a city many Palestinians fled during the violence of 1948. But Alaa’s sharp-tongued grandmother steadfastly refused to go. “I never liked Beirut. I don’t know why people like it so much. Nothing worth seeing.” Alaa’s grandfather left for Beirut without his wife, apparently intending to return when things calmed down. But he never did come back.
What happened in Jaffa was also a mass disappearance, the novel reminds us. In 1948, Jaffa’s Palestinian population dropped from around 100,000 to a tiny group of around 4,000.
Yet these disappearances can be explained. As Alaa’s grandmother once told him, “The bullets were everywhere. They used to shoot at us whenever we went outside our houses.”
Mysteries do remain – such as why Alaa’s grandfather would have left his pregnant wife behind – and these echo the book’s bigger unknown: why have the Palestinians disappeared once again?