Lucy Popescu

freedom to write, review, travel…

Book Review – Haifa Fragments

Posted by lucypopescu on July 26, 2015

Mais, a jewellery designer, discovers further conflict when she begins to work for Amalia, a Jewish boutique owner, and becomes increasingly convinced she is betraying her heritage by working with Amalia. She also has to navigate tensions with her father, Majid, who resents her relationship with Ziyad. Then she discovers letters and poems written by Majid that reveal fragments of his past, a passion for writing, political engagement and Asmahan, his first love.

Khamis skilfully evokes a vivid sense of time and place, in particular the Wadi Nisnas souk in which Mais lives. She describes the laundry on the balkons, the regular market traders, how in the morning the “strong bitter smell of kahwa with cardamom would soon permeate the souk, penetrating the thin, uneven cracks between the stones”, while “the night air smells of rotten vegetables mingling with the odour of fish.”

However, the fragmentary nature of the narrative is also its weakness – Khamis offers various perspectives but her male protagonists are sketchily drawn. The introduction of bisexuality, implied in the relationship between Mais and Shahd and later a third character, Christina, a blonde backpacker who makes a move on Mais, is never fully explored and consequently feels superfluous. I longed for Khamis to delve more deeply into Mais’s complexities.

Haifa Fragments is written in English and Khamis repeatedly uses Arabic or Hebrew words when they are unnecessary. A glossary is provided at the back and while it makes perfect sense to include words such as sumud (steadfastness or resilience; the non-violent resistance of Palestinians who remain on their land) and finjan (a small Arabic coffee cup) it is distracting for the reader to have to look up kahwa (coffee) daktora (doctor) and shai with na’ana (mint tea).

Despite their fragmented lives, Khamis’s Palestinian characters find themselves ‘united by tradition, history, language, heritage. Divided by occupation.’ Piecing together and understanding her family history, Mais realises ‘she belonged here, in Haifa.’ Khamis offers no easy answers but her focus on the shared humanity of Christians, Jews and Muslims in the region, is compelling.

A shortened version was published in the Independent on Sunday

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