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The City and the Writer: In Gaza City with Atef Abu Saif

By Nathalie Handal

Special Series/The Palestinians 2015

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

                   —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Gaza as you feel/see it?

Gaza is a city as old as history itself. It is an old lady that never had a youth. Most Gazans were born during a war and probably will die during a war. Since 1948, when it became a destination for thousands of refugees and the center of conflict in the region, war became the permanent feature of the city. It seeks life. Life that goes unnoticed by the media, which perceives Gaza as a bakery of delicious pastries of bad news: killing, bombardment, poverty. The other Gaza is absent from their scenery.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

When the Israelis attacked the Italian complex during the last war, in the summer 2014. For more than one hour, the F-16 was trying to knock it down. War steals the beauty of the city. The Italian complex was one of the most beautiful places in the city—a commercial space full of shops and a café. I used to sit there in the evenings.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

The different Gazas. Gaza, like other cities in the world, has its dreams, its successes and failures. A city where people are not just numbers in the news, where people love and hate, are heroes and victims, are weak and strong. A student of mine told me she could win the Miss Universe competition. Of course, she will not be given the chance. Nor will a boy who wants to play soccer in European clubs be given that chance. This is the spirit of Gaza that fascinates me, that goes unnoticed.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

From the old generation, great national poets like Muin Bseiso and Harun Hashim Rasheed; and of younger poets, I like Salim al-Nafar, Khaled Juma, and Othman Hussain. And of course, the work of the late Zaki al-Ela, one of the pioneers of the short story.

Is there a place here you return to often?

The Karawan Café in a quarter of the city called Remal. I organized literary events in the café for nearly ten years. It is my morning place. It is my favorite place.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Our ruins.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

The refugee camp I lived in. In elementary school, the teacher told us that people live in three places: cities, villages, and the desert. So I asked him, how about in camps? It’s not a city. It is not a village. It is not a desert. Where do I live then? He never answered.

The camp, meant to be a temporary place, is is getting bigger and more crowded. However, it’s there that I first knew life and struggled for it.

Where does passion live here?

Passion is always there. People fight to capture it. Sometimes, they do not have time to enjoy it. But it is down the road.

What is the title of one of your works about Gaza and what inspired it exactly?

My second collection of short stories Still Life: Stories from Gaza Time, and my last novel Suspended Life, which tries to capture life in Gaza in the last thirty years—the political, social, economic, and cultural transformation of the place and the characters in the novel. Inspired by the constant changes to the city due to wars, I tried to grasp the sense of uncertainty and discontinuity that the city lives through.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Gaza does an outside exist?”

Most Gazans are outsiders. In one of my novels, one of the characters says, “All my friends dream of the moment when their wings will cross the sea of Gaza.” The percentage of youth who wish to leave the place is high. Very annoying. But understandable. Most of my university students, when they discover I studied in Europe, ask me why I returned to Gaza. A question that reveals their suffering and search for a better life, which they deserve.



Atef Abu Saif was born in Jabalia refugee camp in the Gaza Strip in 1973. He holds a BA from Birzeit University, an MA from the University of Bradford, and a PhD in political and social science from the European University Institute in Florence. He is the author of five novels: Suspended Life (2014) shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction; Shadows in the Memory (2007); The Tale of the Salty Grape of Paradise (2003, 2006); Snowball (2000); and Harvest Night (1999). He also published two collections of short stories: Still Life: Stories from Gaza Time (2013) and Everything is Normal (2004). He is a regular contributor to several Palestinian and Arabic newspapers and journals, and edits Seyast magazine, published by the Institute of Public Policy in Ramallah. In 2014 he edited the anthology The Book of Gaza: A City in Short Fiction, which featured ten short stories by ten different authors from the strip.

Published May 5, 2015   Copyright 2015 Nathalie Handal

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