In Arabia Jonathan Raban suggested that if the Arabs were to acquire a genuine contemporary literature, it would be written by women ‘because women were the only people living under the kind of strain which produces serious poetry and fiction.’ Arab men, he said, had it too easy. He also predicted that when the lattice harem screens were cast down and that first manuscript was published, Arabia would be considerably shaken by the consequences.
Now, ten years later, an Arab woman author has written a very clever, sophisticated and observant novel. But it is also a bitter and angry one and it gets increasingly bitter and angry as it goes on. With good reason. Soraya Antonius is a Palestinian; her novel was written in Beirut during the camp massacres of the Israeli invasion. The book, which is partly autobiographical, is about the eviction of her, her family and her people from their homes and country, and the gradual shattering of their way of life during the bloody events which led up to the creation of Israel. It is a deeply partisan book, more a passionate cri de coeur than a restrained, balanced historical novel: the Zionist terrorists, for example, are caricatured just as crudely as any of Conrad’s anarchists. Indeed by the end, it has become above all a scream for justice, so that the storyline sinks into the background and only the scream remains. It is difficult to see this book topping the bestseller lists in Israel, but it is powerful stuff, and it is a long time since I have put down a novel more moved or more horrified.
The genius of the book lies in the first hundred pages, when Antonius creates a sharp and witty picture of middle class Jerusalem in 1948, during the last days of the British mandate. It is a Jerusalem where the ‘hats are delicious but the jewellers aren’t up to much’, an instantly familiar world of dinner parties and poetry readings, political chat and Ladies Unions. There is some brilliant dialogue, and the reader is lulled into simply enjoying a fine piece of social observation. It is this that makes what follows so shocking, when a kind of Levantine Dance to the Music of Time changes into Apocalypse Now.
At the beginning the politician al-Ghal is suddenly deported by the British, leaving his wife Mahila to try and keep up appearances, and her friend Violet to redesign the ruined seating plan of her dinner party. The two women form the axis of the plot. Mahila has to learn to cope with her husband’s absence, taking on the education of her children, living in reduced circumstances, while Violet, a silly woman, frivolous and ‘Westernised’, dreams of holidays in Europe, entertains lavishly and has affairs with Englishmen. Her unfortunate husband is a simple Arab businessman who knows only one, much-repeated joke (‘I married a telephone’) and hates his wife’s parties as much as he hates the English.
Despite the shock of Ghal’s deportation life continues normally. Violet has an affair with an ‘lngliz’ named Raymond. Some friends start a literary magazine called The Camel’s Hump, find themselves cornered by every party bore in Jerusalem, and, shades of Beak Street, beseiged by piles of unwanted poetry. Mimi Manfaluti, President of the Ladies’ Union, sets up an orphanage and quarrels with Lucy Snape, wife of the English archdeacon. At this stage the only ominous tone in the book is accidental, when Antonius’s idiom occasionally reminds us that the perfect prose is not being written in Bayswater but Beirut. Thus a pregnant lull in the conversation is described as ‘one of those awful seconds of silence, like the one after the bomb explodes and before the birds start chattering at each other…’
Only gradually docs the tone change. The Jews, who at the beginning of the book win the sympathy of main characters (‘poor souls, they’re refugees’) turn to terrorism under the Irgun (the later Likud party) led by Mcnachem Begin. Mahila’s children nearly get blown up when a children’s matinee is bombed. Another device goes off outside Violet’s house, and the eldest son is sent to the safety of an English boarding school in Cairo. Mahila’s house is requisitioned by the British.
Still everyone tries to ignore what is happening, and to continue to live as normally as possible. ‘Fahmi bey. Please,’ says Violet to an Arab prince at one of her luncheon parties. ‘Do let’s enjoy ourselves without these eternal politics.’ But the gloom thickens. The Camel’s Hump folds up. Jewish refugees shoot a neighbour’s child through an open window while the boy is doing his homework, and everyone is forced to brick-up their street-side windows.
Mahila’s eldest son is killed on his way to a fancy dress party, when Zionists roll barrels of explosives from a lorry in to the milling crowds around the Damascus gate. Violet’s English lover Raymond leaves her for an Irgun terrorist, who persuades him to help her dynamite the British Secretariat, then housed in the King David Hotel. As the British prepare to pull out and leave the Palestinians to the mercy of the Jews they introduced to the country, news arrives in Jerusalem of the Deir Yassin massacre, and the forcible expulsion of the inhabitants of Ramleh and Lydda (carried out, on his own written admission, by the present Israeli defence minister, Mr Rabin). The book closes with Violet wandering bewildered through the rubble and fallen masonry of her old home, past her precious Cubist paintings, over the smashed glass of the ‘Bohemian bowls which once contained crystallised plums and pears and apricots’, her husband dead and her life in ruins. Around her the streets are empty, as the population of Palestine flees to a future of exile, the new refugees, the new Jews.
As a story of the chaotic, unheroic, bloody end of the British Empire, Where the Jinn Consult could be compared to Paul Scott’s Division of the Spoils. Both books, for instance, deal with the moral dilemma of the British who fought the Second World War for the cause of Liberty, yet refused the same to those under their heel. But in many ways, Antonius’s novel is the finer. I certainly found it more moving and it asks more important, far ranging questions. What morality allowed the Jews to commit such atrocities, simply because those atrocities were committed on them, by Hitler, in Europe? What can be the response of the Palestinians to the Americans who allowed the Irgun to collect funds in America tax-free, yet condemn the PLO as a terrorist organisation? What right had the United Nations to bow to American pressure and sordid American bribes and partition Palestine, expelling its original inhabitants?
‘The sufferings of the Jews have now been elevated to some untouchable height to whose pinnacle of woe no other sorrow can attain, sufferings which permit endless and repeated grief to be inflicted on others again and again…’
Soraya Antonius has written a brilliant novel, an elegy for a lost nation. And now, as Gaza burns, harvesting the seeds which were sown in 1948, the questions she raises still cry out, ev r louder, for an answer.