Radwa Ashour’s Tantoura: Palestinian nakba and resisting fait accompli

Palestine has been ever-present in the works of Radwa Ashour, but despite this she has never written a novel directly based on events there. Having just passed her sixtieth birthday, she finally decided to remedy this with "Al-Tantoureyya" (The Woman from Tantoura, Dar al-Shorouk, 2010). The book chronicles the Palestinian nakba by following the story of a woman from the village of al-Tantoura, one of the villages of the Palestinian coast which was destroyed in 1948.

Al-Masry Al-Youm: In your novels, Palestine has always been present, in symbolic form at times or explicitly at others. Why did you choose to address the subject directly this time, in your latest novel, "Al-Tantoureyya"?

Radwa Ashour: Palestine and the Arab-Israeli conflict are strongly present in our modern history, and in the experience of my generation, as well as in my personal experience, and this is what explains their presence in my writing. Years before "Al-Tantoureyya" I wrote "Atyaf" (Spectres, Interlink Books 1999) and "Qataat min Europa" (2003) which partially address the subject. But I believe that this presence extends to other texts that do not deal with this subject, and it remains like a ghost outside the text which confers it some of its meanings, and which might explain its form and its course.

In "Al-Tantoureyya" I chose to write the story of a fictional woman from the village of al-Tantoura, which is a Palestinian coastal village south of Haifa. Since the occupation the village has not existed, due to the expulsion of its people and the destruction of its homes. The novel follows the story of Raqia and her family through half a century from the nakba in 1948 up until the year 2000, and moves with her from her village to southern Lebanon, then to Beirut and other Arab cities.

 Al-Masry: Why "al-Tantoureyya" now?

Ashour: Probably because I have wanted to write about the nakba for years, and now that I am past 60, I want to achieve what I want before I depart this life. The direct motivation remains unclear. Probably it is a novelistic response to the official position that pushes us to condone the fact that the Palestinian coast (I mean Acre, Haifa, Jaffa, Lod) has become Israel, and that it is our duty to accept this reality as a fait accompli.

Al-Masry: Would it be correct to say that your novel gives us a history parallel to the official history, and presents events and realities in Palestinian without falsification?

Ashour: It’s a novel; any artistic work relies on the narration and the emotions of the reader, an experience which enriches their mind and their conscience. And it is also an excavation of some kind, it extracts some of what is buried in memory, in order to bring it back to life for people, to remind them and teach them about it, by means of art which transforms ideas and reality into an experience that they live. It’s an exaggeration to talk about parallel history; the novel follows a thread in this history, and this is a thread suspended among thousands or hundreds of thousands of threads in the fabric of history. I worked hard to weave it through story and characters and language and rhythms to make this fabric a visible, felt experience that readers are conscious of and that affects them.

Al-Masry: There are many scenes in the novel which mix horrific events with poetic feelings. How did you feel about these scenes, and how did you achieve this mix?

Ashour: I believe that this mix is natural, that writing novels demands it. I believe that it comes automatically because history is like a tank that crushes human flesh and bones that stand in its way. The cruelty of this falls on individuals like you or me, who are frail and clinging to life, who contain the ability to love, desire, and sometimes the ability to resist and carry on despite everything.

Al-Masry: Raqia is the main narrator in the text, but sometimes another narrator appears, specifically when she talks about herself in the third person. Does this signify her feelings of estrangement from herself, or that there is a disconnect between her and you as the narrator?

Ashour: Raqia uses the first person but she sometimes refers to herself in the third person, as though she were speaking about someone else, but this does not mean that the speech moves to a different narrator, rather it’s a way of showing that she is talking about herself and reflecting on the girl that she was, and when she is recalling past phases of her life or considering herself. Raqia is the one who narrates from the beginning of the novel to the end, but her story includes some of what she has heard from the narratives of others. I am committed as an author to Raqia’s perspective which drives her story with her own words. As for the novel as a whole, naturally it comes from my imagination, and so to a certain extent it is my own viewpoint, but not in the sense that I dictate for the character what she says–this comes through building a novel and its language, and the beginning and end points, and other artistic elements that the work depends on as a whole. Like any novel, it forms a speech for its creator which interposes itself into history and culture.

Al-Masry: To what extent do you identify with her?

Ashour: Raqia didn’t write the novel "Al-Tantoureyya," rather I wrote a novel whose main character is a fictional woman who tries to tell her story sometimes by recording, sometimes by narration, and sometimes by recollection, examination or evocation. Her story is a mixture of fiction and known historical facts. Raqia, her mother, her father, her sisters, her husband and her children are fictional characters, but the massacre, the cruel expulsion, the flight to Lebanon, the refugee camp and the occupation of Lebanon are all documented facts. Here, the personal history of the characters I created from my imagination overlaps with the shared history of Palestinians, in an attempt to form a picture that embodies the general in the specific.

Within this framework, I sometimes make a fictional character like Raqia or one of her family members participate in a scene with a real personality like Maruf Saad (the Lebanese leader who was martyred in 1957) or Dr. Bayan Nubhad (the Lebanese historian), or Dr. Anise Sayegh,  founder of the Palestinian Research Center, and so on. It’s an artistic game that a reader may or may not notice and it evokes additional meanings. So I entwine the fictional with the factual, but the imagination in this novel as in other novels, for me and other writers, strives to achieve an equation not without some irony: the imagination gathers and gives wings but stays drawn to the reality in which it is suspended.

Al-Masry: And which one of you led the other during writing?

Ashour: That’s a worthy question, and a difficult one at the moment. It seems that she was leading me while I imagined I was leading her, when probably it was the opposite. I think that a part of writing which should not be overlooked is formed in an unconscious space which is vague and ambiguous, and it is the writer’s job just to open the path in front of it and let it out, or else how do you explain that I would finish writing a chapter and leave the computer and with no idea where it will take me, or what will happen next, and the next day while I’m sitting down to write Raqia arrives with news that was previously hidden from me and people she knows that I didn’t have the slightest idea were waiting to come out in the form of letters and words? I believe that artistic writing is an extremely complex endeavor, including in its formation the conscious and unconscious from the writer’s culture and knowledge and experience and language and the uncountable elements that make up her intellect and emotions.

Al-Masry: In your novels you repeatedly explore the migration of women. Why are you drawn to this, and to what extent does it reach maturity in "Al-Tantoureyya"?

Ashour: This type of person is completely different than the man or woman who is rooted in one place. This type of wandering character probably attracted your attention because it is very common in all aspects of our society. Even Edward Said devoted part of his writings to this (specifically in his book "Suwar al-Mathaqaf" ("Representations of the Intellectual," Pantheon Books, 1993)). In any case, I believe that most of my characters suffer from estrangement. As for the degree of maturity I’ve reached in this novel, I leave that to the readers.

Al-Masry: You have said before that you are against “writing from outside.” What is the extent of your involvement in the events of this novel, and your personal experience with them?

Ashour: Writing is knowledge. And I don’t mean by that factual knowledge, but knowledge of human experience, fully understanding and being immersed in the subject, a total depth of knowledge. This is not to deny that information-based facts sometimes strengthen this knowledge. Either I get to know this directly by living it, and this is what I call experience, or I learn about it by extensive reading.

Take for example, "Gharnata" ("Granada," Syracuse University press, 2003). I haven’t lived in the 16th century, but I know the experience of defeat and of oppression and the attempt to liberate oneself by confrontation and resistance, and these elements are the core of the novel and its subject; Granada is a metaphor. But in order to write about Granada in a novel that does not depart from the framework of reality, I had to get to know the city and its people, its story, the way they lived their daily life, their customs, their food,  etc. In short, I had to get to know the place and its people. Research provided this for me, whereas the imagination is responsible for the scenes and plot and characters, and the language, by the nature of these things.  

Whereas with regards to the subject of Palestine, many Palestinians have experienced it, some of them in my own family, given that my husband is Palestinian. Because of this I was able to bridge the distance from the experience I wrote. As for al-Tantoura, this is one of the villages that were occupied in 1948 and, consequently, it’s a long way outside from the experience of Mourid Barghouti, my husband, one of the sons of the West Bank, which was occupied in 1967. So I had to get to know al-Tantoura, its geography, the reality of its people and the pain they experienced facing attacks on their village, and their fates after leaving the village. Sometimes a work requires the writer to read and research and fill in the gaps in their knowledge, and that is what I did.

Translated from the Arabic Edition.

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