The Sea Cloak and Other Stories

Book: The Sea Cloak & Other Stories Author: Nayrouz Qarmout Translation: Perween Richards Publisher: Comma Press Price: £9.99 You can purchase the book here. Review by Reshma Ruia

The Sea Cloak and other stories has won a host of awards including the English Pen Award. This collection of 11 stories by writer, journalist and activist Nayrouz Qarmout portrays the day-to-day lives of Palestinians living in what she describes as “the world’s largest prison” – Gaza.

Each story offers an insight into the emotional and cultural landscape of a community caught in the crossfire of politics and tradition. The title story ‘The Sea Cloak,’ describes a young girl’s yearning for freedom and romance while straining against family conventions. A trip to the seaside becomes a metaphor for broadening one’s horizons.

A common theme running through the stories is a desire for self-betterment and education, coupled with frustration and regret about the lack of choices. In ‘Pen and Notebook’, Qarmout writes about a family living in poverty. The three young sons collect stones from the rubble of destroyed buildings and sell them. Their earnings are handed to their mother, and the eldest son tells his younger siblings to buy a pen and a notebook in the hope that one day they will be able to overcome their hardships through education.

Qarmout depicts a world where violence and love, childhood joy and the cynicism of old age co-exist. Many of the central protagonists are young women who must negotiate a delicate balance between conformity and rebellion. They question the accepted norms set down by a patriarchal code of conduct that is ironically facilitated by older women who themselves have suffered and are resigned.

In ‘Breastfeeding,’ a mother crushes her daughter’s desire to study and marries her off to a much older man. She realises her mistake when the daughter returns home, heartbroken, after her divorce. “You will finish your studies and we will raise the child together. I will sew until you have a scholarship,” she says.

Qamar, the narrator in ‘The Long Braid,’ bravely defies her teacher who insists that she is “wasting her time” with singing. “All songs are degenerate; your only loyalty is to God, to your religion,” he says.

The innocence of first love and desire is offset against the callus brutality of living in a war zone. Qarmout deftly describes the parallel yet different lives being led by the Jewish settlers and the Palestinians.

In ‘Black Grapes’, a Palestinian labourer demands a fairer wage from his employer, who is a Jewish settler. The wages are to help his son at university.  The employer refuses to pay him and falsely accuses him of being a “terrorist”. He is swiftly killed without remorse or regret.

A similar thread of callousness runs through ‘White Lilies,’ where an Israeli drone operator carelessly targets an innocent Palestinian youth who is buying flowers. The process of killing is akin to a video game where there is no recognition of human loss and suffering.  “He centres on his target and zooms in, until the colours of the target’s clothes, the way he walks, even the flip flops…can be seen clearly.”

The translations by Perween Richards capture the idiom and nuanced language of the original. Historical and cultural references are explained in notes and the reader will find no difficulty in following the narrative.

These stories give a human face to the murkiness of Middle East politics and left me with a feeling of empathy and compassion for the Palestinians, a community that is often misunderstood and misrepresented.