Missing picture | AL ATAWNA Asma


Sura Mafquda
Dar al saqi, Beirut, Lebanon, 2019, 160 pages



Told in the first person, Asma Al Atawna’s debut novel captures with beautiful and surprising honesty the life of an eponym young woman. The novel, is in two parts. The first part, entitled “Go away” starts with the tale of her escaping the open air prison that Gaza in Palestine has become. The second part, “Come back”, goes over her childhood and late teens, until she decides to escape.

In the first part of the novel, Asma describes the way in which she was able to leave, with the help of her boyfriend Jose, a Spanish archeologist. The young couple lives in Madrid with Jose’s parents, until he decides to become an Imam, and to marry her. Feeling trapped, and thinking that she did not leave one prison for another, Asma seeks help from her French friend Jean-Jacques, a correspondent she had helped back in Gaza.

Eventually, Asma finds her way into French society. But whoever she is with, Asma seems to represent the Palestinian cause: Some feeling obliged to express their sympathy, others feeling the need to tell her that Israelis are also entitled to a life, and that the only solution to the conflict is the two-state solution. Though of course she is a supporter of her people’s cause, Asma is not a hero who fled home to speak for her people or to find a solution to the conflict. A rebel since her childhood, Asma wanted to escape her father, his public beating and humiliations, her prying neighbors, and her older sister’s fate. She wanted to live her life the way she wanted, in a small space she could say was hers.

The second part of the novel brings us back to the mid 1980’s, where we meet Asma as a 9 or 10 years old child. A tomboy, Asma is part of a boy’s gang. They meet in a nearby orchard in secret. There, she rides on Rami’s motorbike, as she proudly tells the girls at school, and climbs on trees. She usually succeeds in concealing her whereabout, and cunningly escapes her mother’s surveillance, but not always. In these cases, the beating gets severe…

Both enlightened by her ultimate successful escape, childhood dreams and sweet friendships, and saddened by poverty, despair and the violence of the Israeli occupation that reverberates all the way into intimate human relations, Al Atawna’s novel is a surprising read: honest, lucid and perspicuous. The author captures details of daily life that flesh out the people and the life in Gaza extremely vividly. As if always slightly offbeat, Asma provides us with a precious insight. Through Asma the adult, the reader gets a grasp of the humanity and individuality of emigrants. Through Asma the 10 year old, the reader gets to experience the great injustice inflicted upon children and especially girls, in the most mundane details of life in some parts of the world. An unusual bitter-sweet coming-of-age novel.

Translation sample

Translation sample

Translated by Robin Moger

The bell rang and it was back to class. Mona would rush to her place in the front row, making sure her desk was pushed up to touch the teacher’s. Then our class teacher, Miss Zeinab, came in and we sprung to our feet to return her greeting, chanting in unison, with such enthusiasm that the floor’s loose tiles trembled:

“Good morning, class.”

“Good morning!”

She ordered us to sit, and we sat. It was now so quiet that Miss Zeinab could have heard a fly land.

I was frightened of Miss Zeinab.

We called her Zeinab the Christian because she was. She was fat, wore skirts that barely covered her knees, and kept her hair short. Her thick glasses made her eyes look tiny. And she was tough. Tough as a nun in an orphanage. She always wore black. Her husband had been martyred in the Intifada and she took it out on us.

Dictation lessons were always terrifying:

“Ok! Everybody write, ‘The rose is the image of elegance.’”

She approached Mona Al Astal and run her finger along the sentence she was writing and call out some mistake. Then down the lines of desks and up the rows to keep an eye on the little cheats and, if she caught them, would make them stand in her favoured place of shame: by the window in the corner closest to her desk.

Then the bell rang for the end of the lesson and she ordered us to lift our pencils from the page. Immediately, no additional strokes. Mona would be tasked with collecting up the exercise books and putting them on her desk in a pile to be marked. Mona eagerly did as she was told then returned to her desk and opened her geography book.

Geography now began. Locate Palestine on a map of the world.

As usual, Mona stuck her hand up first and began shaking it furiously. This annoyed me, and so I waved mine about, too, to annoy her. Feeling pain blossom in my futile waggling finger I turned to my neighbour Rihana and whispered,

“You’ll see. I swear she’s going to ask Mona to answer and act as if she hasn’t seen me.”

I supported my raised arm with my other hand and waved with renewed vigour. Miss Zeinab pointed to Mona:

“As usual, Mona’s the only one who’s come prepared.”

I was absolutely furious. If I’d had a grenade to hand I would have killed everyone in the room, with Miss Zeinab and Mona the first to go.

Nor was this the first time Mona had been singled out for praise. The majority of the teachers at these refugee schools reserved particular attention for the daughters of other instructors and school officials, while we, the girls from the camps, the daughters of labourers, were treated like vermin: hustled into lines each morning to receive the injections that would prevent disease spreading among us and on to the civilian population of the city. The discrimination we faced was a constant reminder that we were less than the city girls. We might be freedom fighters, but we had fewer rights.

[Longer translation excerpt available upon request]



RAYA represents Dar al saqi for the world rights of this title.

Sonia Draga (to appear, Poland)
Tohum Yanicilik (to appear, Turkey)
Interlink (to appear, USA)
Lenos (to appear, Germany)

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