Growing up as a Palestinian in Taybeh, near Jaffa, says Ibtisam Azem, 42, came with as many traumas as pleasures.
“It felt like we were invisible,” she remembers. “You would have Yitzhak Rabin saying Gaza should sink into the sea, the supposed leftist historian Benny Morris declare that Zionists should have finished the job and displaced the rest of the Palestinians back in 1948, the mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat saying the city was open and equal to everyone when it obviously wasn’t …”
Azem tails off, no doubt aware her story is not unique. But she was able to relieve what she calls a suffocating situation – first by going to Germany to study and work in her early twenties, and then by moving to New York, where she's lived since 2012.
“For me, it all became too much – politically and socially. I had to leave. But when I started writing, I took that feeling of being invisible quite literally. I couldn’t get this thought – of what would happen if Palestinians in Israel actually did disappear – out of my mind.”
Azem's second novel, The Book of Disappearance, was borne out of this intriguing and devastatingly simple premise – one day, Israelis wake up to find the Palestinians driving their buses, working in their hospitals, living in their apartment blocks have all vanished. They are, by turns, annoyed, fearful, relieved and opportunistic. "If you call it a fantasy, I guess that's a place where I could have a lot of freedom to talk about how things are, as well as how they could be," she explains. "The opportunities were limitless."
Such freedom came with some responsibility, however. The Book of Disappearance – which was first published in Arabic in 2014 and now has an English translation by Sinan Antoon – opens with Alaa, a young Palestinian man, recounting the death of his grandmother in Jaffa. Her stories, as a woman who survived the Nakba of 1948 but was displaced from Jaffa, are colourful, poignant, fierce – and partly based on Azem's own grandmother.
“It felt like a personal book, and I had to be careful with that,” she admits. “It’s interesting being close to people who have survived a war. My grandfather would not say a word about it. But my grandmother and the people who remained in historic Palestine lost their families, they lost everything. As a child I would hear her stories, and wonder how they could be true. But things become clearer as you get older. I tried, with this novel, to tell the stories you don’t hear or see.”
It’s a novel full of nuance, too. Alaa calls the Nakba survivors lonely, but Maryam tells her Palestinian co-workers on a flower farm that there is “no time for sadness or pain”. Azem says that she comes across plenty of Palestinians with this hardened exterior, who would rather concentrate on the here and now than the painful experiences of the past. But her commitment to multiple perspectives is impressive; particularly in the relationship between Alaa and his Jewish neighbour Ariel, who is undoubtedly liberal in his outlook and critical of the military occupation of the West Bank – yet still a Zionist at heart.
“When I speak to liberal people there, I find it astonishing how ready they are to talk about the war in 1967, but not the war in 1948. So Ariel is important because he shows how liberal Zionists live and think. When Alaa and Ariel come into contact, there is a power relationship whether they like it or not. There is one person from the dominant society in power, and one from the society that has been controlled and colonised.”
Rereading the novel in the English translation, Azem says it struck her how The Book of Disappearance is both of its time and still, sadly, all too relevant. Palestine is regularly in the news of course, but the arguments are so well rehearsed that Azem worries people tire of hearing about them in the English-speaking world. Which, hopefully, is where a novel can come in, to offer deeper, more personal reflections on the situation.
“Living in New York, I’ve read a lot of African-American fiction, and I do think it’s important and helpful to see suffering, struggle – and hope – in novels,” she says. “To think beyond the political and aim towards the emotional. I hope my novel can open up windows; not just in terms of understanding my characters but pointing people towards other Palestinian novels, too.”
And maybe, another of her own. Azem admits that juggling being senior correspondent for the Arabic daily Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, completing an MA in social work and novel writing is tricky. Still, all three components feed off each other and Azem says covering Donald Trump's America while doing placements in poverty-stricken areas of New York is both "crazy and fascinating". A bit like her next novel, which is again set in Jaffa, this time focusing on a true-life killing in 1989 and how it ripples out into the history of a family. "It's complicated, and I have to approach it very carefully."
This brings us back to the complex lives of Palestinians in Israel that Azem explores so adeptly in The Book of Disappearance. "Do you know what it means to spend your life waiting?" rails bus driver Yusif – in Hebrew, to his friend David – in one of the most powerful moments in the novel. It's a neat summing up of the whole Palestinian experience since 1948, the withholding of "justice and recognition", as Antoon puts it in the afterword. But it also contains a kernel of hope, a smidgen of belief that one day, the wait will be over.
“You have it right,” agrees Azem. “It’s true, you can’t give in to hopelessness. I believe in a one state solution where all citizens are equal, refugees can return and compensation can be given.
“That’s a long way off, I know that. But hope, for people who are discriminated against, isn’t a privilege. It’s a necessity.”