The Sea Cloak and Other Stories: Gaza as a literary prism
The Sea Cloak and Other Stories is a debut collection by Palestinian writer and Journalist, Nayrouz Qarmout, published in 2019 by the renowned not-for-profit publishing house, Comma Press. This collection contains 11 short stories set in Gaza, a city that is no stranger to bombs and oppression.
"The Sea Cloak and Other Stories, while imperfect, is unabashedly Gazan. The stories will force readers to pause and listen – beyond the distorted and biased media narratives – and they are bound to remain significant for years to come"
The titular story, The Sea Cloak, introduces readers to a girl recalling a scene from her past where children formed teams to play a game of ‘Jews and Arabs’ – a sharp reminder that Gazan children, unlike many others, have their childhood prematurely snatched from them. The narrator then passionately describes her desire to swim in the city’s “beautiful sea”; but the burden of what society expects from a good Gazan Muslim girl weighs down both her and her desire.
Eventually, our nameless character makes it to the sea, but that societal burden manages to weigh her down in the water, as she almost drowns because of her ‘cloak’. The Sea Cloak is a beautiful and unsettling story that highlights the multi-faceted struggles of being a Gazan woman. It is beautiful because the reader cannot help but admire the character’s resilience in the face of societal pressure; and unsettling because even in the “largest open prison in the world”, women still have to struggle against misogynistic expectations.
Building on the foundation laid by this titular story, Black Grapes denotes a ‘forbidden friendship’ between a Palestinian man and an Israeli settler. This story is a classic example of short stories that begin with their end; only at the end of the story do you appreciate the atmosphere the author builds in the beginning.
This writing style reminds me fondly of many vignettes in Naguib Mahfouz’s short story collection, The Quarter. In Pen and Notebook, readers are exposed to the hardship of everyday Gazan life. Three brothers, Ayham, Asaad, and Adham journey on a rickety donkey-pulled cart to collect rocks, which they will sell to make the day’s income.
Qarmout lyrically describes the environment, condition, and state of mind as the boys worked: from their tired and slow donkey to the hot, sunny weather. More hunting is how the boy’s beaming smiles manage to infect passers-by despite their rough day. In the end, Ayham surprises the reader by encouraging his younger brothers to spend their share of the day’s gain on pens and notebooks –“so you can learn to write like me”, he ends painfully.
"They [the stories] have a fantasy-like feel and the way Qarmout describes the ambience, environment, and the day-to-day activities around each Gazan setting reminds us of the ever-realistic nature of these stories"
Like Pen and Notebook, most of the stories in this collection confront readers with their simplicity and layered nature. Although not all of them, for example, The Anklet of Maioumas – which seems pregnant with meanings that only readers who enjoy abstract narratives would readily grasp. Still, different readers would find one or two stories in this collection that will especially tug at their hearts.
My favourite is White Lilies. It is set between Tel Aviv and Gaza and opens with an encounter between a young man with chestnut hair and a flower shop assistant with dark hair in 1997. Both men exchange pleasantries, and the former mentions he’s from France and wants to get lilies for Mother’s Day. The description of this encounter is pertinent to understanding the full extent of what unfolds in the story.
Later on, the plot focuses on the life of the shop assistant, in al-Shatea camp, and readers don’t get much about the French customer. 30 years later, a military operator with a thick French accent receives an order to neutralise a suspected target holding some white lilies. There are so many layers of irony, horror, and sadness that Qarmout portrays with this story, and I still remember its characters from time to time.
Even in the stories that went over my head, I could still recognise the beauty of Qarmout’s storytelling, and I get the sense that these seemingly abstract stories are a secret love letter to specific readers out there who will fully understand what she is trying to do with them.
They have a fantasy-like feel and the way Qarmout describes the ambience, environment, and day-to-day activities around each Gazan setting reminds us of the ever-realistic nature of these stories.
The Sea Cloak and Other Stories, while imperfect, is unabashedly Gazan. The stories will force readers to pause and listen – beyond the distorted and biased media narratives – and they are bound to remain significant for years to come.
Aisha Yusuff is a book reviewer with a focus on African and Muslim literature. Her work can be found on @thatothernigeriangirl as well as in digital magazines like Rewrite London.
Follow her on Twitter: @allthingsaeesha