In Ibtisam Azem’s ‘The Book of Disappearance,’ Israelis wake up one day to a country without any Palestinians. Azem speaks to +972 about how, with this sudden vanishing of ‘the enemy,’ she confronts some of the darkest chapters of Israel’s history.
What would Israelis do if every Palestinian between the river and the sea disappeared at once?
That is the premise of a newly-translated novel, “The Book of Disappearance,” by Palestinian writer Ibtisam Azem (translated by Iraqi novelist and translator, Sinan Antoon, and published by Syracuse University Press). Originally released in Arabic in 2014, Azem’s story is primarily narrated by two individuals: Alaa, a young Palestinian who is grieving the recent death of his grandmother and haunted by the memories of the Nakba and its aftermath she shared with him; and his friend Ariel, an Israeli journalist who struggles to reconcile his belief that the occupation is wrong with his unexamined conviction that the circumstances surrounding the founding of the state were just.
Azem’s novel is a work of magical realism: she uses the impossible scenario of millions of Palestinians vanishing in the blink of an eye in order to pull at the loose threads of Zionist mythology about Israel’s establishment. Accordingly, several eerie scenes in the novel have a ring of familiarity to them for anyone who has read about the Nakba: homes with plates of food uneaten on the table; televisions still switched on; house keys still hanging by the front door — empty rooms that are innately disturbing for how undisturbed they looked, as if the residents had been suddenly spirited away in silence.
Such silence also abounded around the “disappearance” of nearly a million Palestinians in 1948, and Azem acknowledges that this colonial form of magical thinking — used to explain away the emptying from a land of its native people — partly informed her book. Yet her story is about more than that, too.
“The main idea was to show what is really happening [in Palestine],” she tells +972. “I also wanted to think about what would happen if Israel — or any nation — suddenly doesn’t have an enemy anymore.”
That sudden lack of an enemy provokes a diverse set of reactions among the Israelis left behind in the novel. Initially, there is confusion and anger at the inconvenience — commuters are left stranded when their buses don’t arrive; newspapers go undelivered and garbage uncollected; teachers and doctors and...Read More