Ibrahim Nasrallah has woven a tale in which themes intertwine; where possibilities and peril are never isolated from each other. “Gaza Weddings” (Hoopoe Press, 2017) immediately presents the reader with ambiguities that remain unresolved by the end of the book.
Situated within the complex social, political and psychological scenario of Gaza, the protagonists of Nasrallah’s novel are united by absence and incongruous identity. Twin sisters Randa and Lamis are given distinct personalities, ostensibly to compensate for their outward identical appearance. Randa, an aspiring journalist, provides the reader with observations and narrations of life. Through Randa, philosophy is no longer a cloistered subject. Her recording of people’s musings and thoughts portray moments of introspection from unexpected sources; so unexpected, in fact, that the utterances are justified by, “Well, if I said something like that, and if you wrote it down, then it must be true.”
Meanwhile, Amna, whose husband is in hiding due to being targeted by Israel, imparts varying scenarios of absence which darken her narrated anecdotes. Amna’s son Saleh, whose love interest is Lamis, is the only character able to differentiate between the twins. The author’s play upon identities has given Lamis an unrivalled absence, or passivity, in the book, punctured only by a heroic act that proves to be the catalyst for disappearing her presence.
Yearnings are sporadic yet permanent, reflecting the incarceration experienced by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. “In fact,” observes Randa, “we are so starved for open spaces that if we looked at the sea even for a moment, our eyes might swallow it up.” There is no escaping the ramifications of Zionist colonisation in the book. Dreams are obstructed, living in parallel realms where the living conditions are unable to satisfy aspirations.
Absence, driven by necessity, human rights violations and by absence itself, is particularly striking when considering the social fabric woven by the novelist. Reflecting Palestinian reality, the protagonists contend with the absence of men in their lives due to their involvement in Palestinian resistance. Ultimately, there is little difference between absence and death; the void created by Nasrallah is countered by a fierce sense of ownership. An unidentified man is killed and many women come forward to claim the body. Death only provides a possibility of certainty which the women cling to tenaciously, albeit acknowledging the margin of error due to the impossibility of identifying the body as well as maintaining degrees of secrecy when it comes to resistance activities.
Absence and ownership are also components of memory. Amna’s preoccupation, which is to marry Saleh to Lamis, is juxtaposed against her own memories of love, marred by the restrictions placed by Israel upon the Palestinians. Her monologues reflect depth of consciousness and awareness, mostly concealed under mundane or practical matters. One of Amna’s observations stands out: “The day will come when you will be able to see your picture inside the person who loves you.” Her statement is imbued with meanings, its truth tainted by the harsh realities of Gaza where many have had to contend with pictures rather than a physical presence.
Another way in which Nasrallah evokes the theme of absence is the marriage proposal which Amna makes for her son, Saleh. Circumstances allow for the breaking of tradition, yet Amna resorts to speaking to Randa, rather than the twins’ mother. The marriage proposal is only substantiated by the flashbacks which show Saleh’s interest in Lamis. However, towards the end of the book, Amna’s efforts are tainted with the incongruity which characterises the entire novel.
When one of the twins is killed towards the end of the novel, the plans for the marriage disintegrate in a more pronounced manner than the victim. Nasrallah’s play on identity is superb; by way of claiming that only Saleh could tell them apart, the reader is never sure of the dead twin’s identity. The remaining twin shifts between her identity and that of her sibling, while Saleh’s absence becomes even more pronounced due to the role he could have played in revealing whether Randa or Lamis was murdered.
The novel is fast paced, yet it also seems to be incarcerated within a moment that does not flow with time. Questions which remain unresolved inhabit a vacuum that at times borders on the absurd, particularly during those instances where the reader fluctuates between the literal and figurative interpretations. Nasrallah’s skilful narrative emphasises not only life, but also forces the reader to come to terms with how life can be interpreted to the point of chaos when the natural flow is disrupted.