THE BOOK OF DISAPPEARANCE
A novel, by Ibtisam Azem
Syracuse University Press, 256 pp., $15.79 paperback.
Ibtisam Azem’s “The Book of Disappearance” is a slim, high-concept novel built around an impossibility: One fine morning, all the Palestinians have simply disappeared from the territory of Israel-Palestine without a trace. However impossible, the event does have a familiar ring, as it literally fulfills the core aspiration of political Zionism, whose most clichéd myth is that the land settled was “a land without a people, for a people without a land.”
Azem doesn’t tell readers how or why the Disappearance occurred, or what became of the disappeared Palestinians. She simply and straightforwardly recounts “the ‘cleanest’ campaign of ethnic cleansing” ever, as one character puts it. But she makes clear there’s a poison embedded in this perfect realization of the Zionists’ dream.
Azem is a Palestinian journalist, now living in New York. Her book was first published in Arabic in 2014 and was translated into English by Sinan Antoon in 2019.
The story, told in a quiet style, focuses on two friends: Alaa, a Palestinian who is a successful freelance cameraman and part-time grad student; and Ariel, a Jewish Israeli who reports and writes a column for an American newspaper.
The friends live in the same Tel Aviv apartment building on celebrated Rothschild Boulevard. They resemble each other in many ways: both are attractive, sophisticated, bilingual, single males. They hang out a lot together, cool guys enjoying Tel Aviv’s self-consciously hedonist lifestyle, able to neutralize the stickiness of their ethnic identities. They are so similar — almost like brothers — that after Alaa disappears in the Disappearance, Ariel smoothly moves into his friend’s apartment. It is unclear why he makes the move; his own apartment is just as nice. His mother, on the other hand, is seeking an upgrade– and dashes up to Haifa to nab one of the empty Arab homes with a sea view in Wadi al-Nisnas.
Before the Disappearance, Alaa had been drawn to nearby Jaffa, where he grew up, to keep his ailing grandmother, Tata, company. One day, he found the old woman sitting lifeless on a bench overlooking the sea, with “a light smile perched on her lips.” It was then that he began to keep a journal in a brand new, red notebook.
Alaa’s journal is the Book of Disappearance of the title. It is as much about Tata as it is about him, and she is all about Jaffa – her Jaffa, as it was before it was ethnically cleansed in 1948, and as it has been since, a relic existing in the shadow of the bustling “White City”: Zionist-built Tel Aviv. (She appears to be modeled on Azem’s own grandmother, who was expelled in 1948 from her home in the seaside Manshiyye neighborhood of Jaffa, which Israel destroyed.)
The journal shows us that in death his grandmother pulls Alaa ever closer to her and ever deeper into the spirit of the ancient Palestinian port city. The entries become letters he writes to Tata, who emerges as a strong-willed mix of wit, sadness, and bossy affection for her grandson.
Tata’s whole family had fled the murderous ethnic cleansing of Jaffa in 1948, except for her father and herself, then pregnant with Alaa’s mother. The departed family members could never return.
“People went away, a country stayed, our souls came loose,” she once told her grandson.
He notes that “All the Jaffans who stayed see a shadow walking next to them when they walk through the old city.”
“Longing for you is like holding a rose of thorns!,” he writes to Tata. When they used to walk together, she was full of life, he remembers, but always lonely, missing the city of people she grew up in.
“I walk in the city, but it doesn’t recognize me,” she told him. She would “complain that the streets were empty. They had many people, but were still empty. ‘All those people left their own countries and came here. What for? They crowd everything, but have no gravitas.'”
In place of “no gravitas,” Tata might have said “no soul.” When it comes to the Disappearance, the Jewish Israelis in the novel display almost none. Ariel, as a reporter, takes us through their crabby, cacophonous, at times absurd efforts to get control of the spooky situation. At first, there’s irritation that the Palestinians haven’t shown up at their mostly menial jobs. What, are they all on strike?
After that, the Israelis, who no longer need to be identified as Jewish Israelis, begin to worry for their safety. Is the Disappearance a diabolical Palestinian trick? They complain that their leaders aren’t telling them what’s going on. Was this maybe the ultimate security operation of the Israeli government? Is that monstrous or wonderful?
No explanation emerges, but they quickly get used to the new reality – and begin to appreciate the third and greatest “miracle” of the “rebirth” of their nation (after the “miracle” of the Arab exodus in 1948, and the miraculous six-day conquest in 1967). This time, moreover, no one can blame them for the Palestinians’ misfortune. The Israelis do, however, take the opportunity to pass a decree requiring all residents to register within 48 hours. Those who don’t show up – i.e., the Palestinians — will have their property transferred to the state.
Ariel gets caught up in the prevailing anxiety and excitement. He catches himself “wondering how the country would be were there no Palestinians in it.” But he misses Alaa and is very curious about where the hell his friend and all the other Arabs might be. Searching for clues, he begins reading the red notebook, which he finds in Alaa’s apartment.
Ariel wrestles with Alaa’s anger at Israel, which we learn had triggered a couple of big arguments between the friends. The notebook he is reading is full of his friend’s lamentation and rage. In one passage, Alaa’s frustration with all his Israeli friends boils over. He asks Tata, “What if we were to scream into their ears? Would they hear us? We could pull their ears and scream. Would they hear us?” His soul seems to be coming loose.
Ariel mulls it all over, strolling around Tel Aviv on a break from his reporting. He wonders, “Does a place have a memory?” But his modern city is more about dreams than memories — “small and beautiful with its big, clean, and dreamy beaches … a dream come true!”
His thoughts focus on Israel’s right to exist. He remembers Alaa kept calling Israeli Jews white, and sometimes called them settler-colonials. “Were we to recognize what Alaa sees, it would mean one thing: that we pack up and leave this land,” he tells himself, getting angry with his friend and “this disappearance game.” He comforts himself with grand thoughts about Israel’s fulfillment of “a dream that lived for more than three thousand years.” Memories of his English grandparents’ strong Zionist faith, which brought them to Palestine in the 1920s, bolster his conviction. “There was no other way,” he thinks, reviewing various Zionist tropes.
He remembers friendly advice he gave to Alaa about letting himself become “a prisoner of the past,” and foolishly refusing to “just enjoy living in a modern state with all this freedom,” compared with life in Arab countries. His friend’s emotional arguments about Jaffa and its memory are merely “tales of the defeated about the myths of the past.” As Ariel enters a favorite bar he thinks, poetically, Tel Aviv is “awash with desire … the city of sins, as its denizens like to call it.”
He carries on with his life. He even decides to translate excerpts of the notebook into Hebrew to be part of a book with the working title “Chronicle of Pre-Disappearance.”
Then things get stranger. Alaa’s last notebook entry finds him in Jaffa, writing to his grandmother, “But today, for the first time, I smiled when I was missing you. Only because I remembered why I loved you … because you loved life. … You were alone in Jaffa, but you loved it like you loved a man madly.” He says he has repaired her little house and is sitting in the moonlight in her courtyard. “I feel so happy today. As if I’ve rediscovered Jaffa, or learned to love it again. I walk and see its beauty.”
The timing of this journal entry deepens the mystery. Ariel found the notebook in Alaa’s Tel Aviv apartment the morning of the Disappearance. How then could Alla write in it later in Jaffa?
The following night, Ariel heads to bed in Alaa’s apartment and hears a peculiar rattling. Then, he hears a whisper distinct enough that he searches all around, but again finds nothing. Before the clock strikes 3 a.m. – the exact time of the first Arab disappearance 48 hours earlier – he falls asleep with the thought of changing Alaa’s door lock, “pecking his dream.”
Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” comes to mind, where a murderer hears his victim’s heart beating “louder – louder – louder!” under the floorboards, until …. Only here the fearful guilt doesn’t belong just to Ariel. The red notebook lies open in the apartment with lots of blank pages. Is it still being written?
I won’t give away the later turns in Azem’s wisely wicked plot. Suffice it to say that, with lyrical layers of irony and insight she foreshadows the nightmare that awaits the apparent beneficiaries of the Disappearance.
Copyright Steve France.