Photo: Duarte Amaral Netto

Review: Palestine+100 – Stories from a Century after the Nakba (2019)

Review by Farah AlYaqout

“Dystopian writing is diasporic writing,” writes Basma Ghalayini in her introduction to Palestine+100 (2019). That statement is accurate and prescient, especially when it comes to a Palestinian short story collection. The inability to cross their country’s borders or reunite with family members from different countries is a real and pressing issue in Palestine. The mere fact that diasporic writing exists—that the world has been so torn by war and conflict that we have invented a genre for authors who are unable to return to their native land country—is in its very essence dystopian. The fact that Palestinians live within a diaspora of their own country, unable to visit different parts of Palestine without special license, fact which is exaggerated in the Ahmad Massoud’s story “Application 39”, is proof that writing from within a diaspora means writing about a lived dystopian reality.

Palestine+100: Stories from a Century after the Nakba is touted as the first-ever collection of Palestinian science fiction, as well as the winner of the 2018 PEN Translates Award. The short story collection speculates on what Palestine will look like in the future, a hundred years after the 1948 Nakba (meaning “catastrophe”, in Arabic). It is the second in CommaPress’ publications that delves into speculative fiction of the Arab world which is set around a seminal date that changed the country’s history. Already in 2016, CommaPress published Iraq+100, with ten short stories set in 2103, exploring Iraq’s future a hundred years after the invasion by the United States, in 2003.

Most of the stories in Palestine+100 take place in the not-too-distant future of 2048, using Palestinians’ contemporary reality to inform their predications of the future. Most of its authors reside in the diaspora although all the stories are set in Palestine. The authors who contributed to Palestine+100 write across different languages, from different countries, and across different ages, bringing forth a varied and eclectic collection of predictions concerning Palestine’s future. Rarely are the author’s predications optimistic, but they are never outright hopeless.

Ghalayani writes that Palestinians literature is, “in part, a search for their lost inheritance, as well as an attempt to keep the memory of that loss from fading”. The twelve stories in Palestine+100 share many of these common themes. In the introduction, Ghalayini guides the reader to ideas that are recurrent in Palestinian literature: Palestinians’ belief in their “right to return”, as symbolized by the drawing of a key on the collection’s cover; the suffocating or empowering effect of memory on the collective Palestinian memory; the use of technology to control the Palestinian population; as well as a general sense of absence and isolation from themselves and the rest of the world.

That feeling of isolation is especially visible in what may be considered the strongest story in the anthology. Saleem Haddad’s “Song of the Birds” is the first story in the collection, and it has also been included in SagaPress’ The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Vol. 1 (2020). In “Song of the Birds” a young Aya receives her first menstrual blood, and her crossing the liminal border into womanhood, triggers a realization in her that the world they live in is a false, virtual reality. This realization is aided by her dead brother Ziad who claims to have exited this false reality and is pushing Aya to join him in the ‘real world’.

In almost all the stories in this collection, virtual reality exists, in one form or another, to trick the Palestinians into accepting their reality. Ghalayani writes, “In all cases, the future’s technology, though designed to ease conflict or ameliorate trauma, manages only to exacerbate it”. In Haddad’s story, the author incorporates the use of sleep as a numbing agent, an escape from the limitations of the imposed virtual reality. It is only when one crosses a liminal border of their own that they begin to see the ‘song of the birds’ for what it truly is.

Many of the stories revolve around a lack of trust in technology and the authority figures who wield them. “Song of the Birds” is not the only story in the collection which uses the concept of video games and virtual reality to emphasize a fear that Palestinians’ lived “reality” is not true. There is a thread of anxiety running through all of the short stories that feature a resolution to the Palestinian conflict: an anxiety and fear that this peace is not true, that it is a dream they are being placated with. Ghalayani writes that “this ‘ongoing Nakba’ is continually evolving” and the short stories of Palestine+100 have evolved the methods in which they may be controlled.

Palestine+100 shows the reality of living in a country that has been constantly plagued by war and bombings: for example, many stories mention or explicitly deal with the question of prosthetics and disabilities. While war and technology have evolved, so, too, has medicine and medical advancements. Tasnim Abutabikh’s “Vengeance” revolves around two Palestinians with perceived slights against each other, going back to the Nakba in 1948. The centuries’ long hatred finally results in the loss of one of the best creators of artificial limbs and life-saving masks in Palestine, depriving the neighborhood of a valuable asset. Selma Dabbagh’s “Sleep It Off, Dr. Schott” also includes the character of Professor Kamal, whose life mission is the creation of 3D printing limbs. The characters in both stories are cut down by the ambition and selfish actions of an outside observer—such loss of Palestinian intelligence, kindness, and humanity at the hands of other Palestinians exists time and time again in Palestine+100, denying their progress and the resolution to their problems from within.

Majd Kayyal’s “N” features a producer of virtual realities who works in Israel, and can cross between Palestine and Israel, while his father cannot. The father calls virtual reality the “complete abandonment of memory” and returns to that idea again—how virtual reality can be an escape, but it also causes them to “[live] in a trauma they can’t overcome”. In Emad El-Din Aysha’s “Digital Nation”, a Palestinian world is created and leaked to the world, inviting them to explore Palestine, its language, music, as well as its cultural figures and heroes. In “Digital Nation”, Palestinians infiltrate an Israeli security network and force their way onto the world, digitally, introduce the world to their language, their culture and their food, as the only way of ensuring the longevity of their culture. Abdalmuti Maqboul’s “Personal Hero” is about exploring and introducing the world to its Palestinian cultural figures and heroes – in this case, Abd Al-Qadir al-Husayni – in the form of virtual landscapes. In Maqboul’s short story, the “Personal Hero” is the main character’s grandfather, a martyr who she never got to meet, and who she wishes to introduce to the world. The incentive for Palestinians’ technological progress and inventions is to combat their death, the destruction of their land, and being forgotten by the rest of the world.

In another story, for instance, the existence of parallel universes is explored. In “N”, Majd Kayyal writes about how travel is now weaponized: Palestinian children are born with the ability to travel between two worlds, while their parents cannot join them in Israel, where better educational and job opportunities lie. “N” shows how borders mean more than just where one lives: they signify where one has opportunity, where a future is possible, as well as showing that there are many who are denied these opportunities. In Talal Abu Shawish’s “Final Warning”, aliens fly down to Palestine and Israel, issuing a final warning to the residents of the two countries and redrawing the borders to what they believe is the “correct” order. Topics like alien invasions and parallel worlds feature more “typical” themes in science fiction in order to make a statement about the dystopia of borders and restriction of travel between members of different countries. Ghalayani writes that “the act of reframing the present in the form of allegories (and not just future-set ones) may become more of a necessity than a luxury”. Not only is it a way of bypassing any censorship which still exists in the Arab world, but also as a way of avoiding any criticism of Israel being perceived as anti-Semitism. 

In a Gothic horror short story that adopts a veiled symbol, Anwar Hamed’s “The Key” metaphorizes the anxiety felt by Israelis about Palestinians’ belief in their right to return to their homes. As Ghalayini relays in her introduction, Palestinian stories and family histories are filled with the haunting memories of keys carried by exiled parents and grandparents, thousands of keys that open the doors of houses that no longer belong to them. Hamed’s story is the first which shows us the perspective of Israeli characters and how they have psychologically deal with that knowledge. In Hamed’s telling, the Israelis are haunted by their subconscious, in a visceral way that affects the youngest Israelis first, until everyone in the country is terrified of the sounds of keys trying open locked doors.Palestine+100: Stories from a Century after the Nakba is a strong, well-written collection of Palestinian science fiction—the first of its kind. It places the imagining of a Palestinian future in the hands of its citizens and the results are varied. The short stories feature pessimism, disappointment, and very cautious hope in what the future might hold.