The weight of emptiness: The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion by Akram Musallam

This is my life, my story: it has a lot of drama, successive doses of profound distress, and a lot of peculiarity, to the extent that I continually imagine myself a mere character in the novel, choreographed by the hand of a brilliant writer, but he overburdens me with unusual loads. I don’t mean in a literary sense—that’s for the critics—I’m talking on a human and personal level. He always puts me in the most complex scenarios, boiling over with seemingly cosmic plots, or at least in pivotal points of tearful collective historical plots, always overturning places on my head.

The narrator of The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion, Akram Musallam’s metafictional meditation on loss, identity and emptiness, is at the mercy of his own pen as he endeavours to commit his own story to the page, a story which finds him at the intersection of a lineage bound by village and familial legend and a series of events that define the history of Palestine in the first decade of the twenty-first century. He is his own anti-hero, haunted by successive losses, disappearances and absences that undermine his efforts to write himself into being. The resulting novel-about-a-novel-about-loss, by turns melancholic and absurd, thus becomes a mirror of much larger questions haunting the Palestinian imagination.

Born in 1972 in Talfit, near Nablis in the West Bank, Musallam is a journalist for the Ramallah daily Al-Ayyam. The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion, first published in Arabic in 2008, is his second novel, his first to be translated into English. And although its premise may sound bleak, this playful tale manages to be both sorrowful and fun to read. The magic lies in its charming and determined narrative voice.

The novel opens with a dream-like account of a night in late 1988 when our protagonist, a teenager working in a hotel across the border in Israel, has his first sexual encounter with a young woman who has a freshly tattooed scorpion at the base of her spine. At one point he asks her to stand, naked, facing the mirrored wall behind the carpeted stage in the “dance hall” where he slept each night. He traces her hips on the reflective surface with lipstick. The girl, a visitor from Paris, would leave for home the next day, disappearing from his life forever. However, she and her scorpion would begin to revisit him in his dreams, lying beside him once more. As he stroked the deep-blue design on her lower back the creature would come to life, slip off her skin and struggle to climb up the mirror to find its place between the lipstick lines drawn there. This scorpion in its desperate attempts to reclaim a perch on something that no longer exists, haunts the narrator, who adopts it as an identity for his story’s hero. “Isn’t this a novel-esque dream, or a dream of a novel?” he asks himself and the answer, he knows, is yes. Which I suppose means it’s both.

It is mid-2006 when he finally commits himself to realizing this novel-esque dream. He arrives at a parking lot in Ramallah and offers to rent a particular stall although he has no car to park there. He simply wishes to sit there, on the ground or on a plastic chair, think and maybe even write a novel. The attendant is uncertain, but the parking lot manager, a former political “prisoner” jailed for his actions during the Uprising, is smitten by the idea of hosting a writer. As the author-narrator’s story unfolds—that which we are reading and/or that which he is writing—the “prisoner” becomes his audience, his cheerleader and his challenger to the truth of the narrative as presented. But, just as real-life has dictated the narrator’s story, the liberties he takes in recording it are often the only way to begin to adequately—and safely—address the huge gaping holes that fate and history keep placing in his way.

‘Names aren’t that important, believe me, usually there are no names in my novel, haven’t you noticed that? Names are constraints for the characters and me, I don’t like them. I prefer to describe my characters according to what sets them apart. Then, my friend, you want a novelist to write “real-life things.” Listen: in order to be able to speak the truth, you have to wait for a lot of people to die; in the same way, speaking the truth may end up killing a lot of people.

The Scorpion’s earliest life memories are charged with absence. When he was very young his father lost his leg, the result of a workplace injury attended not by doctors but by construction site “first aid” of a much more basic sort. As the only child it would fall to our hero to scratch his father’s missing foot—not the stump, but the space where his foot once was. It was an early, tangible experience of emptiness and perhaps began to condition him for life in a time of conflict in a land under occupation, insofar as one can ever be prepared to have the places most important to you, your key touchstones, destroyed or irrevocably altered—to have your history erased. He would have preferred that the war would stay out of his life, but it kept intruding, driving the plot. For the narrator of The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion, his connection to lost places may seem exaggerated at times due to the magical tone of his tale and his tendency to limit or avoid identifying details, but they are not only fundamental to his sense of self and his ability to tell his own story, they echo the broader collective concerns that haunt the Palestinian people.

This is, then, a deceptively quirky, light tale filled with eccentric characters and family legends woven against historical events—the Passover Massacre in Netanya, the Second Intifada, the 2002 Invasion—that is deeply concerned with the stories we tell ourselves to address loss and emptiness, to remind ourselves that we do exist. As the narrator insists “my game, our game is a game of stories.” It is also about the stories we can dare to tell, especially in dangerous times. So, as his own manuscript takes shape, it isn’t completely clear where the novel we are reading and the novel being written diverge, if in fact they do. The scorpion is an enigma. Who is the scorpion? The narrator or his self-protagonist? Or a dream symbol of the impossible? A scorpion that can sweat, struggling to hold on to a memory and an idea of a time, a place and a nation that holds an increasing amount of absence as time goes on.

The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion by Akram Musallam is translated by Sawad Hussain and published by Seagull Books.

“The city is bigger than a poet’s heart and smaller than his poem”: Adrenalin by Ghayath Almadhoun

We who are strewn about in fragments, whose flesh flies through the air like raindrops, offer our profound apologies to everyone in this civilized world, men, women and children, because we have unintentionally appeared in their peaceful homes without asking permission. We apologize for stamping our severed body parts into their snow-white memory, because we have violated the image of the normal, whole human being in their eyes, because we have the impertinence to leap suddenly on to news bulletins and the pages of the internet and the press, naked except for our blood and charred remains.

—from “We”

There is an eerie and uncomfortable synchronicity in coming to Ghayath Almadhoun’s Adrenalin while, on the TV, a reporter stands against the skeletal structures of the besieged Yarmouk Camp in Damascus, once home to 160,000 Palestinian refugees, now a ghostly battleground where Syrian government forces are closing in on the last remaining Islamic State fighters in the capital region. That is because this devastated neighbourhood is also the birthplace of the Stockholm-based, Palestinian poet whose first collection to be published in English is one of the titles long listed for the 2018 Best Translated Book Award. From a part of the world that has been producing poetic visionaries for more than a millennium, Almadhoun offers a powerful twenty-first century testament that reinvents earlier forms and imagery to create a vivid, contemporary lament for the futility of war and the costs it extracts.

I was going toward death when the fighters stopped me. They searched me and found my heart on me. It was a long time since they had seen a heart with its owner. One of them shouted ‘He’s still alive,’ and they decide to condemn me to life.

—from “Schizophrenia”

His is a poetry about dying or not dying or being dead already too many times to count. About that which death can neither ennoble, nor ensure. In history, in the recent past, and in the ever present. In the world he conjures up, massacre and Damascus are personified, grief and angst are objects that can be purchased, new or second hand, and “suicided” is a verb. Employing a mix of prose poetry and free verse, the images he draws are coloured with unexpected juxtapositions and observations. It is a poetic reality at once modern and ancient, speaking to displacement as does the poetry of an earlier generation of Palestinian poets, but bound with the more recent flow of  refugees who have fled the Middle East and North Africa seeking new lives in Europe.

He is among those refugees, whether he fled or was lured away by love, the place he left behind lies in ruins. Yet, he is aware that the safe quiet space he has found in Stockholm confers upon him a privileged perspective and particular responsibility to be a voice for those people and places who have been rendered mute by conflict. And that elegy extends beyond Damascus, and yet is ever beholden to her—at once his mother and his first lover—and to his Palestinian identity. Take, for example, “Schizophrenia” a poem written following a visit to Ypres on the 100th anniversary of the first chemical weapons attack. Among the visitors to the reconstructed city he notes the contradictions and the burdens his presence represents:

I am the Palestinian-Syrian-Swedish refugee, wearing Levi’s jeans invented by a Jewish immigrant from Germany in San Francisco, filling my camera with pictures like a Russian peasant woman filling a bucket with milk from under her cows, nodding my head like someone absorbing a lesson, the lesson of war: I am the Palestinian distributed over many massacres, standing here naked, trying to wear my poem in the hope that it will hide my wounds, confusedly gathering pieces of me from here and there in order to become a witness.

As this series of poems and collected facts will go onto illustrate, the gas attacks of one hundred years ago, the recent sarin attacks on Damascus, and all of the wartime deaths  rendered by chemical means in between have taught us nothing. Nothing at all.

Almadhoun’s poetry is a potent blend of defiance, passion and melancholic nostalgia. It is a heady mix that produces work of raw beauty. Throughout this collection, his beloved birthplace is never far from his imagination, a bond evoked most intimately in “The City,” where Damascus is portrayed as a multifaceted female figure, timeless and complex:

She is the earliest cemetery, which people have celebrated as evidence that memories are real. I pass her, a stranger to myself, so she passes me without recognising my face. I distinguish her in the faces of strangers who have belonged to her, so she and I are briefly deluded into believing we are one. She is old like a fossil and I am new like the end of history, I hold on to her dress like a child and she holds on to my heart like a woman and we commit a poem, I the dreamer hunting down verse and she reality giving birth to children and not raising them. I the ephemeral and she the eternal, everlasting, I the fatalist stuffed with transcendental truths, she the heretical realist. There is no consolation for me, and no harm done to her, except that by chance we are lovers

The most striking quality of the poems that comprise Adrenalin is the urgency that comes through. These are fiercely intelligent political pieces that invite historical figures, philosophers and other poets into the conversation. Deeply rooted in the intertwined tragedies of recent Palestinian history and the Syrian civil war, it offers an urgent, compelling commentary presented in a style and manner that even those who tell themselves they don’t read poetry will find remarkably accessible and compelling.

Finally, if you would like an opportunity to experience Almadhoun’s poetry in the best way possible—hearing him read it himself—I strongly recommend this poetry video in which  he reads from “Details,” one of the most powerful pieces in the collection. Presented with Catherine Cobham’s piercing translation, against visual and musical accompaniment, this is the best endorsement for this book that I can think of.

Adrenalin by Ghayath Almadhoun is translated from the Arabic by Catherine Cobham and published by Action Books.