Jumana Emil Abboud, Four dwellers by the well, 2020

Sanabel Abdelrahman

Hope is Magical

Sanabel Abdelrahman’s years of magical thinking were perhaps sparked during her time writing a master’s on alternative and popular subcultures that emerged during the Arab Spring, or maybe it was while researching revolutionary graffiti in Cairo and its popular translations during the Egyptian Revolution. Whenever it happened, soon after, she moved to Cairo. ‘I have always loved it,’ she says, ‘and I made a living as an arts and culture writer, translator, and coordinator for magazines and research centres. It was a rich and challenging experience that opened my eyes to the enthralling dynamics of a city as surreally vibrant as that.’

In Cairo, Abdelrahman also discovered a fascination with the poetics of space in cities and literature being brought more concretely into lived realities. ‘I also discovered my interest in visual representation, especially film photography, which captures impressions of interior and exterior spaces in the city at an intimate level,’ she recalls. ‘Since then, all the personal and academic projects that I have immersed myself in have been about this: the organic, albeit painful conflation between us as individuals and the cities we reside in.’

After leaving Cairo, she worked in Amman, before moving to Marburg and a return to academia for a PhD with a different take on the city and the poetics of space: ‘I focused on the distorted physical and metaphysical spaces of Palestine as a direct result of Israeli settler colonialism – and the ways this distortion was reflected and challenged through literary magical realism in Palestinian literature.

'For the postdoctoral fellowship, I have been incorporating different angles to magical realism under the title Beyond Magical Realism: Situating Palestinian Liberation Within Indigenous Futurisms. I have also been investigating magical-realistic socialism and climate fiction.’
Kamal Boullata, ESPUR SI MUOVE – NO.1, 1999

Her research into magical realism goes way back and includes a love for major global texts and popular works. She mentions Gabriel García Marquéz’s magnum opus, One Hundred Years of Solitude; Le Fils Empaillé (The Stuffed Son) by Vénus-Khoury Ghata;, Beloved by Toni Morrison; and Island Beneath the Sea by Isabelle Allende.

‘The choice to pursue magical realism as an investigative tool of anti- and postcolonialism within the Palestinian context emerged at a critical point in my academic career and life,’ she says. ‘The PhD proposal I submitted to the university department and the scholarship fund, and which was accepted by both, was actually about Egypt’s revolution. A few days later, I wrote another doctoral proposal, this time about Palestinian poetics of space. I was very fortunate to have an understanding and encouraging supervisor who agreed to the change in topic.

I realized that the “poetics of space” was too narrow and subjective a lens to be used as an investigative tool for the revolutionary context. I decided to use surrealism instead. However, the stubborn presentation and application of surrealism as an inter-war art movement enshrined in Western psychology closed more doors than it opened. As I considered tools, modes, theories, working definitions, and experimental texts to guide the arguments I wanted to pursue, I had a simple epiphany that resolved the research hiccup and presented a view on life and collective struggle: all the novels that affected me deeply were written in the magic-realistic mode.’

After the many roads taken, Abdelrahman ’s process led to a definition of the genre: ‘a narrative mode that applies magical elements and figurations to real or realistic spaces, to create potent social and political stories that divert from predominant colonialist narratives and discourses around colonized people, while making space for agency, hope and unity.’

‘Magical realism was a deeply pertinent and potentially radical tool with the capacity to protect and nourish the collective imagination towards liberation, while borrowing from folklore and other forms of traditional knowledge to construct and reify liberated futures through anti- and decolonial applications under settler and postcolonial contexts,’ she explains.

‘Magical realism was not just the thread that brought my research together but a revolutionary and loving world view that helped me deal as a Palestinian with the reality and ongoing repercussions of Israel’s colonization. It gently guided me through the process of imagining different, liberated futures for a free Palestine.’
Kamal Boullata, BILQIS STUDY 1, 1942

Some of the novels within the Palestinian canon that have moved her include works by novelists and impressive polymaths: Ṭifl al-Mimḥā (The Erasure Kid) by poet Ibrahim Nasrallah; The Book of Disappearance by journalist Ibtisam Azem; and Al-Bāb (The Door) by theorist and politician Ghassan Kanafani. Some texts are easier to find than others. One novel Abdelrahman mentioned in a recent talk in Berlin was Sarāyā, the Ogre’s Daughter by Emil Habiby, a much-revered Palestinian writer. It is set in summer 1983 when the ghost of a curious Bedouin girl takes a man on a flight over the places of her childhood, particularly a Palestinian village north of Akka. Because the novel is so hard to find, all I know are Abdelrahman’s retelling and the following excerpts. ‘Sarāyā loved to play in the wilderness, jump in the water, and gather flowers in the spacious Palestinian nature,’ Abdelrahman told us. ‘The narrator recounts his life story as he comes back to Palestine while interweaving it with Sarāyā’s, whom he knew when they were children.’ After some searching, I found these excerpts online.

‘When being mingles with its extinction and extinction enters and joins existence… What you wish for happens or it doesn’t. But in this cosmic space, it’s the same.'

The man is rendered distraught at what he sees and feels.

‘Were I given the choice, I’d ask only that my spirit alight in this place in the next time around. Only in these places. But who says I’ll be able to choose? And why do I need the three ringed cane when I have my wilderness, my sea, my sky?’

Sarāyā is showing him how her realm of senses still remembers. Corporeal or not. What I’ve glimpsed of Habiby’s writing is lyrically marvellous; I’m desperate to find a copy.

‘I felt at once glad and stricken with grief. I put my misfortune to use and contented myself with the thought that I was still able to be alone in my wilderness, sea and sky – and abide forever in the places of my childhood with all five of my senses. I grieved over my friends who could only do so in absentia.’

Abdelrahman asserts that, ‘the novel is abundant with Palestinian ghosts and instances of time manipulation, as well as dreams and dreamlike experiences. Its first chapter is entitled ‘Yābā’ (‘Oh, Father!’), and tells of the narrator fishing while recalling the ethnic cleansing carried out by Israel in Al-Zīb village. As the Israeli surveillance lights intensify, Sarāyā emerges from the waters and invites the narrator to remember what had happened to him and to recount the Palestinian story of Nakba and struggle. She also provokes his memory of a time when she would take him on flights over Palestine. She would take his hand and fly over the natural landmarks of Palestine, such as Mount Carmel.

‘Do not, my dear ones, say that we have nothing left to lose. I swear to God that standing amid the ruins, before the sacred oak or secluded boulder is better than the life in towering palaces built upon the mists of exile. For that is a life more arid than the scorched earth of the Al-Marajá, the site on Al-Karmel where the prophet Elijah burned the priests of Bal. That is of the mountain itself.’

Other important texts Abdelrahman has discussed include Gate of the Sun by Elias Khoury; The Impossible Novel: A Damascene Mosaic by Ghada al-Samman; and al-Bukāʼ ʻalā al-Aṭlāl (Crying Over the Ruins) and al-Riwāʼīyyūn (The Novelists) by Ghalib Halasa. She also recommends the online anthology Speak Bird Speak Again (Qūl yā Ṭayr).

Away from texts, Abdelrahman believes in the power of many disciplines, mentioning the films that influenced her drive to write about magical realism in the Palestinian context, and highlighting the importance of Asian and Latin American artists within the genre: Divine Intervention by Elia Suleiman; Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives by Apichatpong Weerasethakul; Maggie by Yi Ok-Seop; and Lina from Lima by María Paz González. ‘In highlighting class struggles, the protracted manifestations of postcolonialism and capitalism, and Palestinian life under Zionist settler-colonialism, these movies use the magical-realistic mode to shed critical light on these expansive issues and modes of living,’ says Abdelrahman. ‘Palestinian visual magical realism is inventively prominent in the works of Jumana Emil Abboud, as in her stunning film I Feel Nothing, as well as her drawings and sculptures. Also, Larissa Sansour’s futuristic work, Juliana Seraphim’s paintings, Kamal Al Jafari, Elia Suleiman and Michel Khelifi’s films.’

Juliana Seraphim, Untitled, 1954

In Abdelrahman’s interpretation, magical realism is different to sci-fi. ‘Often, in Palestinian folktales, a hero – and just as commonly, at heroine – sets on a journey to free their kin, neighbours, and friends from certain evils, such as the entrapment by ogres of their loved ones in wells, jars or caves. The hero or heroine is only able to succeed in those liberatory tasks with the advice, guidance, and knowledge that they gain from family, neighbours, and friends. Sometimes, this knowledge comes from Palestinian magical creatures such as the flying horse in “The Golden Pail” or the speaking bird in “Little Nightingale, the Crier”. The wrongdoers who harm society are often punished at the end of the tales.

In the science fiction genre, however, it is usually one person – often a white man, depending on the context – who saves the entire world from destruction. The technological tools and advancements that create those “nightmares models” of reality and the future – as Heather Urbanski puts it in hers Plagues, Apocalypses and Bug-Eyed Monsters: How Speculative Fiction Shows Us Our Nightmares – can be manipulated by one “good” person or one “evil” person. The quest is usually an individual(istic) one.

‘Indigenous climate fiction studies also add a pertinent angle that we need to incorporate when looking at climate fiction, which is a science-fiction subgenre concerned with depicting ecological disasters, and science fiction generally.; This is the appropriation, exoticization and/or erasure of indigenous knowledge of nature, the past, and collectivity in those frameworks. This further appropriates the invaluable indigenous experiences and connections to the land connections for the benefit – more accurately, exploitation – of one male hero who “saves” the world, often owing to his country’s monopolization of technological capital and exploitation. Also, science-fiction rameworks often refrain from expounding the origins of future catastrophes, which are mainly (settler) colonialism, white supremacy, and capitalism.’

For more on this topic, she recommends Briggetta Pierrot and Nicole Seymour’s article ‘Contemporary Cli-Fi and Indigenous Futurisms’ and Eve Tuck and C. Ree’s ‘A Glossary of Haunting’ in Handbook of Autoethnography.

For Abdelrahman, Arabic magic realism is massively under-researched. She believes that, as a mode, it’s rarely, regrettably, represented as serious. ‘Magical realism is rich and vibrant with roots in Arabic literature and folktales that go back to what is considered the “first” magical-realistic text: One Thousand and One Nights,’ she says ‘After the Arab defeat in 1967, a view of raw “realism” was set as the new mode for fear of losing focus and reliving another defeat. This confined the Arab generally and the Palestinian specifically to an arid settler and postcolonial reality in which liberated, just futures were almost impossible. Owing to its generous imaginative spaces and potential for collectivity, magical realism is vital for Palestinian life as it is for Arabs generally, the way it has always been to African and Latin American nations. I hope that in the future, we will witness a greater and more serious investigation of magical realism in literature, arts, cinema, and everyday life emerging from Arabic contexts.’

Observing some of Abdelrahman’s research while becoming increasingly emotionally invested and devastated in current (and longtime) affairs in Gaza, has ignited my sometimes dormant but enduring interest in magical realism. The ways in which the very best of it disrupts the everyday with strange or miraculous episodes and powers. I think about its potency now and forever. What can we hope to see and happen strangely, miraculously to disrupt the hellish everyday Palestinians are dealing with right now? Are there any stories, alongside the likes of Sarāyā, that can bring this hope to the fore?

‘There must be a myriad of secret, powerful stories that we’re not aware of yet,’ says Abdelrahman.

‘At a collective level, I believe that Palestinian resilience, hope, strength of soul, and revolutionary spirit are manifestations of a magical realism that transcends the passing settler-colonial structure that is Israel. Palestinians are imagining and constructing liberated futures in the present, a superhuman effort and faith, as well as a collective firm belief in the hopeful and liberated futures that await them in a free Palestine.'

'An example, among many, which I always love to go back to, is a video of resilient Palestinian women speaking about their “real” flights to Palestine in their dreams.’

Jumana Emil Abboud, Ripple I, 2022

Born and raised in Jordan, writer and academic Sanabel Abdelrahman studied in Canada, Egypt, and Germany. Her PhD thesis was entitled Oh Whale, Do Not Swallow Our Moon!: How Manifestations of Magical Realism Reflect and Challenge Distorted Palestinian Spaces in Literature. It is currently being edited and will be published by ​I.B. Tauris, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing. Abdelrahman is now working on a postdoctoral research fellowship in Berlin.

Interview by Alexandra Pereira