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Sumaiyya Naseem

Passage to the Plaza: Palestinian women tell the story of revolution

Sahar Khalifeh's novel examines the intersecting oppressions that Palestinian women face. [Seagull Books]

Date of publication: 17 July, 2020

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Book Club: Sahar Khalifeh's novel is a groundbreaking exploration of freedom, identity and nationhood, told through the experiences of Palestinian women.

"She was in a world where it was impossible to have a rest, keep quiet or distract herself. She had to be patient, to better understand things and accept the bitterness of life before arriving at love and faith." 

Passage to the Plaza by Sahar Khalifeh is the latest work by the renowned Palestinian writer to be translated into English. It was originally published as Bab Al-Saha in 1990.

The story is set in 1987, and yet the characters and the world they inhabit are still relevant today. The novel charts an intimate perspective of life under Israeli military occupation, as experienced by women. 

A curfew forms the volatile backdrop for most of the novel - the characters find their worlds shrinking and are forced into close quarters with each other, creating the perfect circumstances for the exchange of thoughts and ideas.  

Their conversations and interpersonal dynamics reveal their complex experiences of life under occupation. The narrative is theatrical, brimming with claustrophobia and tension.

Passage to the Plaza is grounded in the rhetoric of the nation and gendered experiences of war and revolution. The narrative examines Palestinian identity, love and freedom and their intersections with women's experiences. 

Passage to the Plaza charts an intimate perspective of life under Israeli military occupation, as experienced by women

Set during the First Intifada, a curfew is imposed on the residents of Bab Al-Saha, a neighbourhood in the city of Nablus. In this district sits a house that belonged to a prostitute, now occupied by her daughter, Nuzha, a young woman who, haunted by her mother's past, has followed in her mother's footsteps and been similarly been ostracised by the local community.  

When the curfew is imposed, a series of incidents bring together a motley crew who, ironically, find sanctuary at Nuzha's house, the same house that people dared not enter to avoid the shame of being associated with a prostitute.

Read more from TNA's Book Club: Minor Detail: A haunting
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The individuals are Hussam, an injured resistance fighter, Samar, a university student who is studying the impact of the conflict on women's lives, and Sitt Zakia, an elderly midwife who is known for her piety. 

For most of the story, Hussam lays in a room, recuperating and recovering from his injuries, able to overhear most of the conversations between the women, but unable to participate in the events that unfold during the curfew. 

The women in the story - Sitt Zakia, Samar and Nuzha - are contradictions of each other. Each of them is struggling against the gendered confines of patriarchal society, and rather than unite, their struggles further alienate them from each other. Sitt Zakia leads a lonely existence in which her faith and religion have become a crutch. 

While her religious commitment is commendable, she is unwilling to upset the patriarchal social order, even if it means refusing to provide shelter to an abused and neglected female member of her own family. 

The scene that unfolds in this situation is jarring to read, as it reveals the callousness and hostility of even the most harmless individuals. Meanwhile, Samar is an ambitious young woman who wants to study and research how the ongoing conflict has impacted women's lives in Palestine.

The novel is grounded in the rhetoric of the nation and gendered experiences of war and revolution

She is an optimist who belongs to a newer, more educated generation of women who believe that social reform can be achieved with progressive education and by spreading awareness.

As opposed to Sitt Zakia and Samar, Nuzha is neither a woman of faith, nor was given the opportunity to pursue an education that would help her build a more respectable life. She is sharp-tongued, offering many of the novel's best retorts, and does not entertain any fantasies of a life that can get better.  

She has experienced loss and abuse of every kind, and instead of finding support in her community, she finds herself faced with rejection which makes her react with hatred and contempt.

Read more from The New Arab's Book Club: The Invisible
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Nuzha, a prostitute by profession, is the most complex character in the story, whose journey reveals the inhospitable confines of patriarchal society, especially for women who have found failure in following the rules and guidelines set for them.

The three female characters' gendered experiences of the revolution reveal the two-fold oppression of women in Palestine; women are attacked not just by Israeli forces, but also face violence in the domestic sphere. Ironically, despite the harsh conditions that women are subjected to by men, the nation and the country are symbolised as a female that men, traditionally, are willingly to fight and die for.

Passage to the Plaza does not yield to traditional narratives of nation and rebellion which show freedom fighters in all their glory, wielding weapons and roaring their way into combat. Instead, Sahar Khalifeh's novel is set in the realm of women, showcasing not just their experiences of oppression, but also how they take part, fight, rebel and hold down the fort. 

"The Intifada shook the dust off of them, shook the earth without warning. Brothers told their sisters, 'No demonstrations.' They were surprised when the demonstrations reached women in the depths of their houses. 'No going out or making a spectacle of yourself.' The spectacles reached their bedrooms, the women in their pyjamas, hair undone: fist-fighting, yelling, cursing, attacking the intruding soldiers. 'Other than our country, we don't have any religion.' They spontaneously went out on the streets - revolution had become their religion. Sleep was out of the question."

Sumaiyya Naseem is a Bookstagrammer and freelance writer and editor who specialises in Middle Eastern and Muslim stories. In 2019 she joined the Reading Women Podcast as a guest contributor to talk about South Asian and Middle Eastern narratives.

Follow her on Instagram: @sumaiyya.books 

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