Nayrouz Qarmout’s appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival was nothing short of a miracle.
The Palestinian writer was subject to two visa refusals from the authorities of United Kingdom, and was only successful at the third attempt, after public outcry and political intervention. While a dozen other Middle Eastern and African authors faced similar problems, Nayrouz had the added hurdle of trying to leave Gaza, dubbed by locals as “the world’s largest open-air prison”. There are only two exits out of the occupied territory, the Israeli-controlled Erez exit and the Egyptian-controlled Rafah exit, which was only open for 36 days last year. Gazans trying to leave through the Erez Crossing need a strong “justification” such as medical treatment. Visiting artists have always faced difficulties.
Struggle is a hallmark of life in Gaza
It is the first time that Nayrouz has been able to leave Gaza since she arrived there from the Yarmouk Refugee Camp in Damascus, Syria, in 1994 under the Oslo Accords. This is in spite of two previous invitations to attend festivals in the UK, and one in the West Bank, as well as offers of scholarships and residencies abroad.
Despite the "humiliating" visa process and arduous 48-hour journey to get to Scotland, Nayrouz is in good spirits on the day that we meet. Struggle is a hallmark of life in Gaza and she believes it "defines people" and "can give you the stamina and motivation to break something bigger, or eliminate you, or give you nothing."
Nayrouz, 34, whose debut collection of short stories will be published this month, tells me she did not set out to be a writer. She has a background in business and economics and was working for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Gaza when Hamas took over in 2007. The following year she felt compelled to write journalistic articles to re-identify the Palestinian struggle as a humanitarian and cultural one, rather than an ideological one.
Her journalism was noticed by Palestinian novelist Atef Abu Saif, who was shortlisted for the 2015 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, known as the “Arabic Booker Prize”. He noticed a certain literary quality to her work and asked her to submit a short story for consideration for an anthology of writing from Gaza he was putting together.
She was initially hesitant because “the nature of literature is, you have to address very fragile emotions people go through which you normally cover with a mask”, she says. “Unveiling this mask is difficult and leaves you vulnerable. When you write about politics, you touch things on the surface, which I prefer.”
She produced The Sea Cloak, a coming-of-age short story about a Palestinian girl who explores the way society expects girls to become adults overnight once their bodies develop even though they are mentally and emotionally still children. It was selected to be a part of The Book of Gaza: A City in Short Fiction, published in 2014, which Abu Saif edited.
Depicting the everyday life of Gazans
Nayrouz has continued to write, but it has been a challenging journey. Just as she found her voice as a short story writer, the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict began leaving her traumatised and unable to put pen to paper. Her home was damaged in the 50-day assault of Gaza, and needed to be repaired, which also hampered her work. She is only now re-finding her feet.
“A fourteen-floor building in front of me was bombed to the ground and I thought of that building as a metaphor for my writing and wellbeing. Every time they’d finish a floor, I’d think I’m going to finish a story. It’s now been four years since that war and people have only now started to move into those houses and I’ve just started regaining my old self. I’d equate the physical strength it took the men to build those buildings with the mental ability of my brain to refunction again.”
She tells me that the aim of her literary work is to depict the everyday life of Gazans and humanise them. “Palestinian people need to be addressed as people and humans, not as victims,” she says.
Her work on women's issues is reflected in many of her stories. For example, in Breastfeeding, a teenager's dream of going to university in Cairo in the 1970s is cut short by an aunt who wants her to marry her uneducated son. When this teenager, Sara, becomes a mother, she allows her daughter Yara to follow her own path and marry a man of her own choice in Paris. Yara's husband treats her like a domestic servant and her dreams of freedom in Paris turn to dust. She returns to Gaza after having a child and getting divorced. Sara avows that she will work until Yara can get a scholarship to go to university in Cairo.
The challenges women in Gaza face
For Nayrouz, the story shows how women are complicit in upholding patriarchy. Moreover, it shows that Yara’s oppression occurs in a place that is meant to be free, and you don’t need to be in a specific geographical place to experience oppression.
She attributes some of the challenges women in Gaza face as rooted in occupation. “Being an occupied society means that societal development is suppressed on some levels. This affects women. In the 1980s when the Intifada was happening, women played a major role in society. They were fighting with the men, and were complementary to them. When the First Intifada didn’t fulfil its purpose, everything changed. Now, even though women are educated, they are given roles as a formality by men. They don’t create their own roles. I won’t believe that women have reached their potential until they are equally active makers in all aspects of society.”
However, she believes the winds of change are blowing. “Women go through dips. At the moment, they are going through a weak phase in Palestine. There is a saying that a woman keeps accumulating her strength and experiences until she can change society. There is a slow revolution – I watch it. There are girls in schools and universities who are breaking the norms. They are inspired by people they see on social media, especially Instagram.”
Nayrouz believes that dealing with internal and external oppression, whatever that may be, is the first step to breaking occupation. “We are all occupied by our own demons,” she says. “The land will never be free until we are free in ourselves.
“If the youth can’t break tradition or religious oppression – or whatever form oppression is coming in – how are they expected to break occupation?”
Nayrouz Qarmout’s The Sea Cloak and Other Stories, published by Comma Press, is out this month