Book Review: A Sky and Seven Seas: It is Palestine

Ossama Lotfy Fateem , Monday 28 Dec 2020

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Samaa w Sabat Behoor (A Sky and Seven Seas), by: Najy Al Najy, (Cairo: Ibn Rushd Publishing), 2020

Imagine being in an endless war, imagine that there is no end in sight, imagine that the only victory possible is for the continuous oppression to stop, well if you are a Palestinian you do not have to imagine, this is the life you have been living for more than 70 years. If you are a Palestinian with literary talent then you put the suffering of your people in a novel or a poem. That is what novelist Najy Al Najy did in his first novel “A Sky and Seven Seas.”

Once we know the background of the writer, the symbolism of the title becomes clear: sea, sky but there is no land, yet it is the absent that is present throughout the novel; the novel is about the land.

The story starts with a Palestinian refugee getting approval from the Israeli authorities to visit Palestine. This is sort of a dream come true for the exiled Palestinians, those whose ancestors were forced out of their land a few decades ago. Returning to the lost land is the dream that every Palestinian carries in their heart at all times, many generations of refugees have the same idea and goal: one day they will return.

The characters in the novel are marginal, Ziad, the Motherland’s visitor, is there to tell his people’s story, show their daily suffering through an attractive narration that is meant to explain what life under oppression looks like.

The novel is structured around the events that the writer was keen to record and mention, whether in recent or more distant history; the wall that the Israelis built under the false pretenses that they are protecting themselves, while it is actually there to isolate Palestinians, making their lives more difficult than it already is, an example of the fairly recent collective oppression that the Israelis exercise against the real owners of the land.

Before the wall was built, kids would walk five minutes to go to school, the same goes for a female teacher who lives just next to the wall; after building that prison fence, however, it takes an hour to go around it then pass through a check gate where the wait is intentionally lengthy and cruel, the Israelis simply do not want the kids to go to school.

The writer chose the battle of Abasseya that occurred in 1947 to document as an example of a more distant history that is still fresh in the minds of the old generation and well documented in history books. The name Abasseya is not familiar to Palestine, the reason being that Ben Gurion Airport was built on it. But the collective memory of Palestine retains its old name. The guide accompanying Ziad in his journey mentions that all the exiled carrying foreign passports ask to visit their old villages and cities; places that they had heard about only through their parents. The visits, which that sometimes last only a few hours, irritate the Israeli inhabitants; it reminds them that they live on stolen land and that this land belongs to someone else.

The writer described the battle where Abasseya was lost through the eyes of an eight-year-old who helped his family and neighbors with errands and worked in the orange groves. When the Jewish gangs surrounded the village and everyone realised that the purpose was to exterminate Abasseya and its population, the few courageous stayed and met their death, while some escaped in hopes of regrouping forces to return and take the village back. Al-Najy described the courage of the few against the massive trained Israeli terrorist gangs and how eventually “Al-Nakba” occurred.   

“The time line in today’s world is classified as BC and AD, here there is before the battle and after the battle.”

“Here” refers to Jenin refugee camp and the battle is when the Israeli forces decided to destroy the camp. The part where Al-Najy describes the resistance and the death of an old lady, Om Marwan, who was killed in battle while baking bread for the men defending the camp, is a master scene. The images are implanted in the reader’s mind; people who do not know despair, who continue their struggles, fights, battles in spite of their despair. The way Al-Najy tells it, this happened in nearly every refugee camp in the Palestinian occupied territories. Demolishing refugee camps has been a systematic policy of Israel.  

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem was among the places that Ziad visited in his trip. Identifying with Jesus is mentioned and explained in a language that can be surprising to many readers, both Ziad and Jesus belong to the same land of Palestine, they just came at different times, a fact ignored when the Palestinian suffering is discussed whether in the media or among politicians. If the connection is made the guilt would be overwhelming to all believers of Christianity, and they might support the Palestinian cause more effectively.   

During the journey, Ziad found one of the elderly merchants in Jerusalem who owned a very small shop yet would not give it up or put it up for sale despite the offers, temptations, threats and obstacles that the Israeli authorities pose with taxes, licensing and fees; he simply would not give up. The writer intelligently destroys the argument of the anti-Palestinian propaganda that they sold their land and now playing the victim’s role. That merchant is not a unique case; many of those who managed to stay in Palestine would not give up their property until this very day.

The writer shuffles the stories like a deck of cards when writing about the various events, and this method adds confusion, not clarity. There is a narrator, a visitor and various characters that clarify each event separately. It was not an effective way to reach the reader, but it was the events that made the reader curious about the new information that the writer provided.

‘A Sky and Seven Seas’ is a message to whom it may concern, Palestinians will keep struggling until the land is back under its rightful owners, they will not melt, they will not forget, and certainly will not quit.

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