CHICAGO: From the shores of Jaffa, where the sea has remained the same but the land has changed, comes a powerful tale of two cities that are one and the same. One city’s memories weave in and out of new buildings and language, and the other overlays ancient street names and former inhabitants, as an old resident complains: “I walk in the city, but it doesn’t recognize me.”
From Palestinian author and journalist Ibtisam Azem comes “The Book of Disappearance,” a story that follows the life of Alaa Assaf and his family, the children and grandchildren of the only woman in their family to stay in Palestine after 1948.
When the reader meets Alaa and his grandmother, all the Palestinians in Israel, four million people, disappear overnight and are not seen again. Is it a miracle or a security operation? No one knows, but as fear and elation grip Tel Aviv, journalist Ariel tries to look for his friend, freelance cameraman Alaa.
When he cannot find him, Ariel finds his red notebook, the one in which he has written his memoir, in which his memories overlap with his grandmother’s — hers from old Jaffa, and his from new, and the surrounding villages now known as Tel Aviv. As Ariel tries to make sense of the mystery, he reads Alaa’s notebook and Alaa’s grandmother’s past comes to the fore.
Through Alaa, we read of his grandmother’s life in Al-Manshiyye, and later in Ajami, where she and other survivors were surrounded by barbed wire. She did not flee to Beirut but stayed and watched as the city around her left — its people dying or fleeing — and its survivors learned to live the lonely existence of strangers in their own land.
Through his grandmother’s memories, Alaa tries to understand himself and the city he grew up in. He writes about her Jaffa and his, “Two cities impersonating each other. You carved your names in my city, so I feel like I am a returnee from history...”
Azem’s work is powerful, her creativity stretching to far reaching corners and her recollections of an ancient land vivid in the mind. Her characters are resilient but shattered on the inside.