FRont cover of Lady from Tel Aviv
Paul Starkey
reviews

The Lady from Tel Aviv

by Raba’i al-Madhoun

translated by Elliot Colla

Published by Telegram, London, 2013. ISBN 978-1846590917, pbk, 288pp, £7.99

Fresh sea breezes and open sewers

 

Born in Majdal in 1945, the Palestinian writer Raba’i al-Madhoun grew up in the Gaza Strip and studied in Egypt. He has worked as a journalist since 1974, and moved to London in the 1980s, where he is currently employed by the Arabic daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat. His novel The Lady from Tel Aviv [Al-Sayyida min Tall Abib], published in Arabic in 2009 and shortlisted for the 2010 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, is already a controversial bestseller in the Arab world, and is his first major work to be translated into English.

The narrative, which clearly intertwines with al-Madhoun’s own life story, centres on the return of the Palestinian writer Walid Dahman to Gaza after nearly four decades in exile. On the plane to Tel Aviv, he sits next to Dana Ahova, an Israeli actress returning home to sort out her personal life, and exchanges confidences with her. In Gaza, Walid reconnects with his mother and with family and friends, but the Gaza to which he has returned has been torn apart not only by the conflict with Israel but also by developments within Palestinian society itself: “Our family now kills and is killed. What kind of family is this that I’ve come back for?” the narrator asks himself, before finally concluding that Gaza “has gone backwards fifty years in time. It is senseless opening up old files” (p.222). The final section of the book sees Walid return to London, where, having received an e-mail from Dana, he arranges to meet her, but in an enigmatic ending, the narrator is apparently swallowed up in the Underground, and the meeting never takes place.

Such a bald synopsis can give only the haziest idea of the richness of this complex novel, which is not only an investigation of what it means to be Palestinian, but also raises questions – through the character of Adel El-Bashiti and his quest for his beloved Leila – about the nature of fiction itself. Crucial to the structure of the narrative, as indeed to daily life in Palestine, are the checkpoints and crossing-points that the narrator must negotiate in order to enter Israel, to cross to Gaza, or indeed to move within Gaza itself. Significant, too, perhaps, is that Walid’s extended discussion with Dana should take place on board an aircraft – neutral territory to which neither can lay claim at the expense of the other.

The flow of this complex tale, both in Arabic and in English, is greatly helped by al-Madhoun’s use of language, which as well as demonstrating a sharp sense of humour, can at times rise to quite poetic heights. Observing a prayer gathering (in which he refuses to actively participate), for example, the narrator sums up the Gaza to which he has returned as: “Fresh sea breezes wrapped in the stench of open sewers. The wide sea hidden from behind view behind settlements. Women veiled in black, proclaiming to the world that they are forever in mourning . . . Currencies wrapped in shekels. A religion wrapped up in the notions of countless sheikhs. And a sun that struggles to rise from behind all these wrappings and veils . . .” Such passages demonstrate an enviable ability to convey a complex set of images and moods in just a few words.

Comparing the Arabic and English versions, it is slightly disturbing to find substantial differences between the Arabic and English texts, with passages of the original rearranged or omitted in translation: the second section of the Arabic text, for example, consists of six chapters headed alternately huwa (‘he’) and hiya (‘she’), but in the English version (labelled ‘Return’) only the ‘he’ chapters appear. No text is, of course, immutable, and there is no reason in principle why an author should not rewrite his work in the course of a translation, but a brief explanation, perhaps in the form of a Translator’s Afterword, would have been welcome. None of this is likely to bother the average English reader, however, and it is greatly to the credit of the translator that he has managed to convey not only the sense but also the spirit of al-Madhoun’s work into English so effectively. Elliott Colla’s elegant and highly readable translation deserves to be widely read.

 

Published in Banipal 48 – Narrating Marrakech

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