August marks Women in Translation month, the same month that Comma will publish The Sea Cloak and Other Stories by the Palestinian writer Nayrouz Qarmout, translated by Perween Richards.
WIT Month is an initiative started by Meytal Radzinski in 2014 to showcase women writers and translators from around the world who write in languages other than English, and who translate into English.
Perween Richards is a literary translator from Arabic. She attended the Translate at City summer school in London in 2016, and was one of the two winners of the school’s annual translation competition, sponsored by Comma Press. She was awarded an English PEN Translates grant to translate The Sea Cloak.
Perween writes for this guest blog about Nayrouz’s forthcoming debut collection, its crucial portrayal of everyday life in Gaza, and her experience of translating the book.
The Sea Cloak is out 22nd August and available to pre-order now.
In The Sea Cloak & Other Stories, author Nayrouz Qarmout offers the reader a unique window into the lives of ordinary Palestinians. Life in Gaza is just like any other city, with its own unique challenges and internal politics. Not everyone is a freedom fighter, most are just normal people trying to go through life with dignity and purpose in the face of impossible odds. There is more to Gaza than the reality we are presented with, and the everyday things one takes for granted are a luxury to most.
“Not everyone is a freedom fighter, most are just normal people trying to go through life with dignity and purpose in the face of impossible odds.”
Nayrouz grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, and when she returned to Palestine, once again she was a refugee, but this time in her own native country. Perhaps as an outsider she was able to see clearly the problems Palestinian society faced, both internal and external. She has that unique ability as a writer, to step back and observe her surroundings with the eye of an outsider – not laying the blame on one issue. She sees clearly how society treats women, for example, but she doesn’t stereotype. Her unique ability to portray the complexities of life doesn’t allow her to paint all her characters with the same brush. In one story, a woman is a victim, but in another she is a villain, and in another she is just a person, without any added labels. She writes about a group of people sharing the same place, but living completely different lives.
Each character in Nayrouz’s stories has been failed by society, family, religion or the occupation. In ‘A Samarland Moon’, a woman struggles with her lover’s new found zeal for religion; in ‘Black Grapes’, a mother is crushed by her son’s willingness to work with ‘the enemy’, and in ‘The Sea Cloak’, a girl is overwhelmed by the limitations society imposes on women. In ‘Our Milk’, she challenges our view and definition of the terrorist.
Nayrouz’s stories reflect a real effort to understand the problems individuals living in a state of chaos experience. But she isn’t trying to solve the Palestinian cause; she’s showing us that Gaza is just another city, albeit one that exists under extreme conditions. You do not have to be a supporter of the Palestinian cause or believe in it to sympathise with and understand these characters. They are just people living in extraordinary circumstances. Everything is amplified. It shows that you cannot just be – you cannot just live, there is always more to the story and everything is bigger.
“You do not have to be a supporter of the Palestinian cause or believe in it to sympathise with and understand these characters.”
In 2001, in Tel Aviv, a bomb went off in a Sbarro’s restaurant chain, killing fifteen people. In 1946, a bomb exploded in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing 91 people. These are things that happened. They may be unconnected, but to the characters who live in Nayrouz’s stories, this is everyday life; an endless cycle of violence where one side wins only to lose on another day. For a writer to present these events without judgement one way or another, and to write about it with an unbiased eye, is important.
It’s remarkable that she has achieved such a positive reaction in the UK and I’m not sure this would have happened a few years ago. I think #WITmonth has contributed to the ongoing interest in her work, and the work of many marginalised women. Festivals and book fairs have offered her a lot of support and encouraged her to explore new venues for her work to be read by a wider audience. If nothing else, her difficult journeys to travel to the UK have shown the realities of living under occupation. The crossing an artist has to make to get to a cultural festival sheds light on the importance of art and writing, and the importance of people’s voices. It terrifies authority and it terrifies dictatorships. You only have to see the lengths they’re willing to go to in order to silence her.
Nayrouz has spent her life in refugee camps – first in Syria, then in Palestine. For many of us, the idea of living as a refugee in our country is an alien concept. But she returned and she was able to see and observe with the eyes of an outsider, society under a microscope. Refugee camps are full of all kinds of people, and that’s who we see in all her stories. The depth and understanding of her characters’ inner lives, and the originality of her prose has been an absolute pleasure to read and translate.
“The depth and understanding of her characters’ inner lives, and the originality of her prose has been an absolute pleasure to read and translate.”
Translating Nayrouz’s stream of consciousness style of writing, one that doesn’t necessarily tell us what’s happening where, or to whom, was a challenge, but it was a welcome challenge. It allowed me the opportunity to learn and it opened a real dialogue between an author and translator.
On the 12th of August, Nayrouz is due to be at the Edinburgh International Book Festival to discuss refugees, migration, and life in Gaza around the launch of her debut collection The Sea Cloak.