Haifa Fragments by Khulud Khamis Spinifex Press 2015
Haifa Fragments is a novel written by Khulud Khamis, a Haifa native, and so has an authentic Haifa ‘feel’. The book evokes the social uniqueness and geography of the city that is situated on the slopes of Mount Carmel, and interestingly, the Arab quarter which is the less affluent area near the bottom of the mountain near the coast and the port. The more affluent areas, mostly Jewish, are closer to the top of the mountain. Khamis has been able to do this, without lengthy descriptive passages, through the actions of characters living their everyday lives. The apartment, where the main character, Maisoon, lives and works as a jeweller, becomes a kind of focal point in the novel, a comfy and productive space that the character constantly returns to and where most of her personal relationships are enacted. Its sunlit balcony looks over the local market that is inhabited by the same small traders every day. The flat she lives in is family property and her own parents live nearby. This situation, of a single woman artisan working and living alone, marks out the equivocal position that Maisoon occupies in relation to the city, her family and the state of Israel. Her family are Christian Palestinians and while they suffer a certain amount of institutional racism from Jewish Israelis, they own property and have a stable life in Haifa where Jews and Arabs have been living more or less harmoniously for a long time. One of the plot threads however, explores the cost of this harmony to the Palestinian population.
Maisoon’s family are not exactly religious and mostly support her independence as a woman. However, they have a problem with her Muslim boyfriend, Ziyad, and whilst not totally rejecting him, feel uneasy about the relationship. On the other hand, Ziyad, also not religious, cannot take Maisoon to meet his family unless it’s to declare that they will marry. A woman’s reluctance to marry has a different significance in Israel/Palestine than in Australia because marriage laws are determined by religious law.
The book traces some of the relationships between ethnic groups in today’s Israel and Palestine but limits itself to secular people from Haifa, including Christian and Muslim Palestinians, a Jewish jewellery retailer and a Muslim family from the West Bank. It is odd to describe the characters like that however, because it is not their religion that defines them, certainly not in this novel. But it introduces a Western reader (the novel is written in English, not translated to English) to some of the complexities of contemporary Israel/Palestine where diverse cultures intersect and differences might be as much cultural and linguistic as religious.
One of the main threads in the book is the story of a young Palestinian woman from the West Bank who lives in a refugee camp but manages to regularly slip into Haifa to stay with Maisoon. Whilst the narrative doesn’t shy away from a discussion of the misery of the condition of Palestinians living in poverty on the West Bank, it approaches the lives of the characters in a positive way and enables them to achieve positive outcomes in their work and personal lives.
As a visitor to Israel, the prevalence of people carrying guns everywhere is rather alarming and there is a character in the book who has that experience. On my first visit to Israel, I felt that the military visibility in the country was all about the Arab/Israeli conflict, but another impression that can form is that the country is obviously dominated by the macho of military involvement. Although women do compulsory military service in Israel, there is a very male feel about military things, as there is in Australia. Women in the Israeli state don’t enjoy quite the same equality with men that we have in Australia in the eyes of the law when it comes to marriage and divorce that is controlled by religious courts that favour males.
This book is as much about a woman seeking self-determination and agency as it is about trying to reconcile and overcome the cultural and political differences in the country. Although Maisoon judges her father harshly for his lack of pro-Palestinian activism, she finds that, like her father, her economic future is bound up with Israeli Jews. She enters a business partnership with a Jewish retailer and this is constructed as a positive thing in the book.
One of the features of the book is that it includes quite a lot of expressions in Arabic, written in English alphabet. There is a glossary at the back of the book but most of the meanings can be guessed. However, if the reader is an Israeli or Palestinian, they find that most of the expressions are common loan words in vernacular Hebrew. The inclusion of these expressions as is, rather than translated, also gives the reader a taste of the country and the hybrid nature of the spoken language. She smatters the English with Arabic words as the locals do with Hebrew. Although this doesn’t occur in the novel, Yiddish words are also common in spoken Hebrew, as they are in New York English.
Overall, Haifa Fragments is a compelling read because it’s from a context that we rarely hear about at ground level or in the voice of a Palestinian. Apart from that there are several narrative threads that develop and keep the reader engaged, a mystery about Maisoon’s father, the worry about the plight of the young Palestinian woman and the uncertainty of Maisoon’s relationship with Ziyad. She’s writing about a fraught situation but somehow keeps it light.
– Anna Couani
Anna Couani is a Sydney writer and school teacher. Her most recent book is a collection of poetry, Small Wonders from Flying Islands Books 2012, with Chinese translations. http://seacruise.ath.cx/annacouani/.. She is Rochford Street Review’s featured wirter for Issue 14 https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2015/04/15/anna-couani-rochford-street-review-featured-writer-issue-14/
Haifa Fragments is available from http://www.spinifexpress.com.au/Bookstore/book/id=272/