Women’s Literature Festival-Women’s Writing Today-Selma Dabbagh

In the build up to the Women’s Literature Festival in Bristol on the 16-17 March, BookElf will be reviewing the work of the writers on the Womens Writing Today panel. The event will look at the issues facing women writers today, and their inspirations for their work.

This book, the debut novel by British Palestinian writer Selma Dabbagh, who has previously published short stories in several Anthologies and along with Festival Chair Bidisha has appeared at PalFest, the Palestine Literature Festival, described in her book Beyond the Wall .

Out Of It describes the longings of Palestinian academic Rashid, who sits on the roof of his home, the only brick building left in the middle of a field of tents, getting high and dreaming of his British girlfriend and ultimate do-gooder Lisa. As he watches bombs fall on Gaza, Rashid is secure knowing soon he will be gone, to study in London and be away from the horror of the bombings and the pressure from his family and friends who run a humanitarian centre.

Rashid’s sister Iman, meanwhile, feels torn between wanting to do “something”, not quite knowing what that would be or involve, and also flee the chaos of Gaza, and the various intrigues of the different factions and groups, both secular and religious, that compete for the hearts and minds of the people.

This book is extremely complex, and assumes an awful lot of pre-existing knowledge of the history of Palestine, the social mores of the country and how all the different leaderships and UN declarations relate to each other. Despite learning a little more about the situation in Palestine since since Beyond the Wall I started reading this and almost instantly completely lost where I was or what was going on, Wikipedia’d it, and still didn’t really know what was going on, to be honest if I was coming at this book knowing nothing of Palestine I would have got very lost very quickly, and there isn’t the gripping plot behind the themes and characters to have kept me interested.

More than anything whilst reading this book, which follows Rashid and Iman from Gaza to London and the Gulf and back again, I thought ‘wouldn’t this make a great play?’. I would love to have seen this on stage, rather than in prose, as what Dabbagh is describing and saying would make much more of an impact I think that in its current form. Rashid and Iman’s struggle to discover the truth behind their parents, who were actively involved in the Outside Leadership, who I think were the PLO but am not absolutely sure, and to figure out their place in the world was interesting but, and this is going to sound really harsh, they are my age, have lived all over the world including a war zone and still to me eyes seemed incredibly immature. I didn’t like them, and found it hard to sympathise with them.

This book is very well written, she has an excellent voice and it is an important one to hear. How exhausting it must be to live in the conditions described, and the difference between a Gaza and London or the Gulf is striking, and wonderfully done-if you ever wanted to feel real guilt about being able to get a bikini wax or walk alone when only a few hundred miles away there are people cowering in fear this book’ll do it. There were also some excellent moments of comedy-Lisa the aid worker who organises petitions and protests, but has no actual human emotions past self-interest, on stage with an elderly pipe smoking politician, would 150 years ago have probably been saving fallen women in Whitechapel, inviting prostitutes to tea in order to look even more caring about her projects. I’ve met quite a lot of Lisa’s in my time and Dabbagh gets her spot on.

I couldn’t get on with this book, but if you’re not as ignorant as me or enjoy writing that makes your head tense then you’d enjoy this. I am however really looking forward to seeing her speak, as judging from her material here she has a lot to say.


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