The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion
Akram Musallam’s The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion is a fascinating multi-layered novel. It was first published in 2008 by Dar Al Adab, and its terrific English translation by Sawad Hussain is being published this year by Seagull Books.
Set in Palestine between the two Intifadas, The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion is a multi-dimensional novel that is difficult to summarize. It attests to its writer Akram Musallam’s narrative style characterized by being brief but dense and shows his skilful play with language by richly using repetition, irony, and dark humour.
Its main premise is simple, it follows the narrator and main character’s attempt at writing a novel all while telling his own life story, and other Palestinians life stories under the Israeli occupation.
"The variety of stories in The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion provides the author a welcome foundation to comment on some key political and historical incidents in Palestine, and to interrogate writing’s place and importance under occupation"
The novel opens with what seems to be an ordinary scene. The narrator, still a teenager, and working on the Israeli side of the border in a hotel, is approached at night by a French girl who shows him her freshly tattooed blue scorpion just below her spine. However, the image of the scorpion goes on to haunt him after the girl leaves the next day to Paris with no way to contact her. And it prompts him to eventually rent an unoccupied spot in a parking lot to write a book. Her departure comes as an addition to his life which is ironically already filled with emptiness. The reader quickly finds out that this emptiness is a feeling he knows all too well after the childhood trauma of his father losing a leg, after stepping on a nail. This led to his parents’ not being able to have more children.
This emptiness is also present in all the other Palestinians’ lives around him. Something he states when their stories flow from his own. From the parking lot’s supervisor, the “prisoner” who was imprisoned for many years to its owner the “playboy” who loses his so much sought after building and from the young man in Baghdad whose leg is cut off to the guide there “M” who wants help to return to Palestine.
Akram Musallam uses repetition in the novel to convey this state of emptiness he associates with words like “horrible”, “terrible” and “burden” to signal, not only the painful state the narrator and the people around him live in under occupation, but also the shrinking space left for them as their homes and lands continue to be taken away.
He also uses repetition to express the difficulty but not the impossibility of getting out of this state. He reiterates the act of trying to do something only to keep failing, sweating and falling on the back, then being overcome with fatigue with energy left to move only the head and limbs with many characters. An act the narrator sees the scorpion keep on doing in his dream at the beginning of the novel to symbolise the distress under which Palestinians live as well as their ongoing resistance to be free and have normal lives.
"If you were searching for the occupation, it’s in the background, and I can bring it to the foreground in everything, everything"
Similarly, the writer plays with language in other ways to show the burden of living under the Israeli occupation by combining irony with dark humour. One of the instances is when the narrator’s father asks him to scratch under his amputated left leg. Or when the former states that not every event in his life and the lives of his family members and other Palestinians has to do with the Israeli occupation:
"I could politicize the matter by saying a landmine left behind by the occupying army blew off his leg, or that he was injured in combat with the same army in an intifada. But it isn’t like that; there are naturally painful things that happen under occupation, just as without it, a leg can be cut off because of nails, or for other reasons."
But ironically his statement of denial asserts the opposite. A fact he, later on, acknowledges when he states: “If you were searching for the occupation, it’s in the background, and I can bring it to the foreground in everything, everything. I try to catch my breath a bit away from the occupation.”
The variety of stories in The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion provides the author with a welcome foundation to comment on some key political and historical incidents in Palestine, and to interrogate writing’s place and importance in a setting under occupation. However, he keeps the commentaries brief but skilfully loaded with meaning. He leaves the interrogations about writing like its ability to fill the emptiness unanswered but calling for more reflection. With this novel, translated brilliantly by Sawad Hussain, Akram Musallam shows his equal command of both language and subject.
Saliha Haddad is an Algerian journalist, writer, teacher, and literary agent.
Follow her on Twitter: @sallyhad3