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Haifa Fragments, by Khulud Khamis.

March 5, 2015

Haifa Fragments, by Khulud Khamis.  Melbourne, Australia: Spinfex, 2015.

 Favorite — 5 stars

An impressive novel about a Palestinian woman living in contemporary Israel, loving her roots, but seeking independence amidst the personal and political forces that bind her.

Maisoon is a young Palestinian woman living in Haifa. Designing jewelry has given her a means of self-expression and an income that allows her to live alone. Her lover is a Muslim man, an architect unable to find work in the Jewish city. Her Christian father adamantly objects to him because of his religion.   As the novel progresses, we follow Maisoon as she moves among her friends and family. We see her hemmed in by the physical realities and dangers of her life as a non-Jew in Israel and by the troubled history of the Palestinian people. At the same time she seeks independence from all who would control her, she seeks to understand her roots. This isn’t a “coming of age” story, but a narrative of an adult woman finding ways to bring together the fragments of her identity.

Rather than being driven by plot, the novel reveals the stories of its various characters. In addition to Maisoon, there are the young women of the refugee camp, the older Jewish woman who sells Maisoon’s jewelry, and Maisoon’s lover. A cluster of old letters that her father had written as a young man reveal him to have once been a different person than the submissive man she has known.   In conversations with these other characters, Maisoon gradually articulates her own beliefs.  She refuses to be defined by traditional definitions of a woman’s honor.  “The Honour of my family isn’t between my legs. It lies in leading a dignified honest life.”  Visiting the refugee camps in the Occupied Territory, she observes the costs of the resilience, or sumud, on its residents, particularly the women and children.  She also comes to realize that over fifty years of living in lands divided by the Israelis has created differences between Arabs in Israel and those in the Palestinian camps.  Humiliated at a border crossing, she learns not to “take in” the hatred of the Jewish guards.  She comes to resent and deny that Jews and Arabs are engaged in “a great war of religion.”  As her father explains, “This is a struggle over home. Religion has nothing to do with it. ”  In the end she realizes that she belongs in Haifa and loves her life there:

There is a reality here. Two people, sharing the same spaces, bound by history.  So much was ruined, so much pain caused.  But she knew she didn’t have to compromise her art—she could continue making designs with Palestinian history, become a partner with [Jewish] Amalia, and yet stay true to herself.

Khulud Khamis lives in Haifa, the daughter of a Slovak mother and a Palestinian father.  Growing up between cultures, she is sensitive to issues of language and identity, belonging and space.

I am. I am a woman who dreams in an unknown language. Who counts “one-two-three” in one language, and “four-five-six” in another. My thoughts come in fragments of four languages.

My language of love is the poetic song of this ancient land – Arabic. My language of politics is a language I have no connection with – Hebrew. My language of creative writing is yet a third language – language foreign to me and my land – English. And my language of family – well, that’s the simple language of my early childhood – Slovak.

A self-defined feminist, Khamis displays the best of feminist writing.  Gender matters, but so do other issues. Both her female and male characters are well-developed and compelling, their lives affected by both the personal and the political. Women love each other as well as loving men. Khamis has a M.A. degree, having written her thesis on women’s negotiation of space of their own in literature. In addition, she is an activist, working at a feminist organization and registering her protests on a range of social issues. The accounts on her blog about her treatment as an Arab in Haifa are chilling. She also hosts a website called “A Safe Spaces for Writing” for women telling about their stories of sexual abuse.  Learn more about her at her blog.

Khamis writes so well that we feel the constant dangers of her character’s lives.  I held my breathe whenever they crossed into the Occupied Territory. The book is less about the original Israeli take-over and more about how that history continues to shape lives today.  Khamis is able to tell a narrative combining continuing anger over the past and present treatment of Arabs by Israelis with a story of Jew and Arab friendship.

I strongly recommend Haifa Fragments.  I am glad to learn about Kamis and the work she is doing.  I look forward to her future books.

Thanks to Spinifex for publishing this fine book, and for sending me a review copy of it.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 6, 2015 5:57 am

    This sounds like a fabulous read! Thanks for reviewing – I have added it to my TBR.

  2. March 8, 2015 11:47 am

    thank you Marilyn for this wonderful review of my novel. I was moved by your words, and even more by the fact that it seems I have succeeded in conveying the messages that I wanted to convey to readers. again, thank you.

    • March 9, 2015 9:13 am

      Thank you for writing such a great book and for all your work. I am glad you liked the review.

  3. April 2, 2015 1:07 pm

    This sounds like a an intricate yet wonderful read. Would love to read a copy. .Great review, Marilyn.


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