The ongoing unrest in Gaza, the state of divide between Israelis and Palestinians, is often reduced by those of us outside to ill-informed political debates at best, and total confusion and oblivious guessing games at worst. Those of us who sympathise with the plight of Palestinians discuss money changing hands, political agendas in the right-wing papers, and the vilifying of one versus cries of compassion for the other.
But even in showing our political sympathies, do we truly understand life on the ground for Palestinians? How ignorant is our caterwauling? What we often need as much as hard political facts and details is true connections to those innocents who suffer the most. We debate these topics while forgetting that they are people – not chess pieces.
Through The Sea Cloak – a collection of eleven biting and honest short stories – Nayrouz Qarmout offers that connection. She allows us to replace these pawns with people. She opens the door between us and Palestine, stretches out her hand and says, “Here, come see our lives for yourself.”
Qarmout herself, a feminist journalist and women’s rights campaigner based in Gaza, grew up in a Syrian refugee camp. She has experienced life for Palestinians in almost every way that it can be experienced. As authorities on family, women’s rights, and childhoods in Gaza go, she is arguably the foremost. And here, in The Sea Cloak, she channels her knowledge, her emotional experiences, and her insights into a collection of human stories that are, while undeniably political, more concerned with family life and childhood. Though of course, these being the lives of Palestinians, family life and childhood are inextricably tied up in politics.
The book’s opening story, the titular The Sea Cloak, is a rhapsodic exploration of ordinary life in Gaza, heavily spiced by feminist concerns and offered to us through a lens of lyrical surrealism. Surrealism here being not off-kilter strangeness but rather an eerily close observation of life in motion. Opening on an innocent memory of childhood in which our protagonist runs free through the alleyways, chasing down a boy who has playfully stolen her hair clip, the scene turns cold as her brother snatches her away, chastising her and calling her a ‘hussy’.
She is reprimanded and punished by her parents before the scene shoots forward several years to a day at the beach, and our protagonist, still furiously butting heads with her family, takes stock of the tapestry of life going on around her. This is a most valuable of scene-settings for the entire collection, as it brings home the fact that life in Gaza is complex and not so singularly defined. It has generational divides, political disagreements, feminist struggles, family feuds, and romantic scuffles, just as life in every other corner of the world has. This panoramic view of the people of Gaza is cracked as our protagonist is swallowed up by a cloak of the sea.
“An old man recounted tales of the country’s history and wars, and of friends long gone. Behind him, two high-spirited youths were roaring up the path on a motorcycle, carried forward by blaring music and vying with the wind.”
From here we have ten more stories, each distinct from the others in tone, situation, and theme. My own favourite story, Pen and Notebook, tells the story of a group of three brothers: small, medium, and large. The eldest brother drives the other two, in their school uniforms, across town in a donkey cart. Pedestrians, drivers, and even police chastise them for their unsafe mode of transport before they arrive at a landscape of rubble. They spend the morning piling rocks from the rubble into the donkey cart, a different sized pile for each boy.
Their labour is described in detail: rhythmic and logical, but also playful and impassioned. Finally, after a full day has passed, they take their collected stones to a merchant and exchange their work for payment. At home, their father is sick, and their mother greets them all with a warm hug. The eldest boy gives her most of the money they made, and hands the remaining coins to his younger brothers, commanding them to use it to by a notebook and pen so they might learn to write.
This story is engrossing, passing the reader through a carwash of emotions with force and sharp pace. So much so that, as you can see, I couldn’t resist recounting the entire thing here.
“The children threw down their bags and disembarked into what might have looked like a warren of sand dunes rising and falling ahead of them, had it not been made of fractured concrete and twisted metal.”
I could continue recounting all of the stories of The Sea Cloak in this same way, from the woman who recounts her furious feminist childhood rows with her misogynistic maths teacher in The Long Braid, to A Samarland Moon: the story of a dangerous road trip taken by a young couple who were once innocent in love but have since grown apart in their politics and their morals. These tales are rich in debate. They reveal to us the complex nature of belief and tradition in Islam that is often overlooked by those of us outside of the faith.
This humbling and enlightening lesson, told most plainly and clearly in the aforementioned The Long Braid, will serve as valuable insight into Islam for anyone who believes the faith to be uniform and rigid. Beyond that, it shines an important light on the complexities – and the dangers – of exploring and fighting for women’s rights within Islam and in the Middle East as a whole.
“The Al Aqsa’s call to prayer mingles with the Christian bells and the organ music of the other churches in an existential harmony that soon has everyone out of bed and preparing for the day ahead.”
We are not often granted a gift such as The Sea Cloak, and we would do well to treasure it and learn from it now that we have it. Speaking as a UK citizen following the author’s own long struggles with simply obtaining a travel visa, it is invaluable, to say the least, to have access to stories which give us pause to consider our own place in the political world. These are stories of the very real daily battles for women’s rights, the demands for accountability, and the search for honesty and visibility.
The Sea Cloak might be stories, but they are stories that bring us far closer to the real lives of Palestinians than ever a news report or a collection of data could. Beyond that, they are a full exploration of the emotional spectrum, with the ability to draw tears and laughs from us; the two actions being separated perhaps by a single page. Qarmout has a raw gift for empathy and translator Perween Richards is able to capture every nuance and detail of Qarmout’s themes, ensuring that nothing is lost, and everything is gained.