I asked my mother, born and raised in Nazareth: what do you think would happen in Israel if all of the Palestinians disappeared? She said: they (the Israelis) would eat each other alive. I told her, yes, that’s what happens in the book I’m reading; she preened, proud of herself for knowing the outcome without any other details. She said, “That is what my dad used to say—if we weren’t there, they’d find someone else to hate.”
The Book of Disappearance by Ibtisam Azem, translated into English by Sinan Antoon asks: what happens when Palestinians disappear from the borders of historic Palestine? I will admit: a novel built around the wish fulfillment of the Zionist project did not imbue me with much confidence. I am a Palestinian in the US who works in publishing—I know the types of books that appeal to American audiences, the way Palestinian narratives must be framed in order to sell books. I know the difficulties in getting to say what we really mean. But that very Americanness clouded my initial read, filled me with a cynicism I feel embarrassed over now. As I read this novel I asked, over and over, is it productive, to imagine a Palestine without Palestinians? My cynicism was thoroughly thwarted; this book unravels myth upon myth surrounding the Israeli occupation of Palestine, perhaps most prominently the myth of “liberal Zionism”; Azem’s book shows it as just part of the colonial ideology that so violently ripped Palestinians from their home, and that continues the nakba today.
The Book of Disappearance is told through various accounts of different sorts: there are the journal entries from Alaa, our original narrator, recounting his grandmother’s stories of Palestine pre-48. There are the articles by Ariel, Alaa’s liberal Zionist “friend,” who spends his time investigating the aftermath of the disappearance. There are glimpses into the rest of historic Palestine, and how it is faring. Azem constructs this reality through the journalistic, through the false objective. This technique is a spectacular one for achieving what she does—when the Palestinians disappear, Israel descends into unambiguous (almost comical, if that’s possible) fascism.
The story begins with Alaa and his grandmother, who remembers Jaffa pre-nakba fondly. At the Palestine Writes Literature Festival, Azem explained that she began her book this way so that, despite the premise being Palestinian absence, we still get access to Palestinian voices—she sought to not just center the Israeli reaction, but to first establish the Palestinian presence. I see this as one of the core strengths of the book: in this framing, Azem sets up a stunning illustration of the direct connection of the personal with the systemic, the systemic to the global. As we move forward, we learn of Alaa’s grandmother’s passing. After the disappearance, Ariel finds Alaa’s journal and his narrative is filtered through the colonizer’s; we read Alaa’s recounting of his grandmother’s stories, but only when Ariel wants to.
Ariel’s function as a character is to dismantle liberal Zionism; not in his actions, but in how his character is crafted. I know many people that may have seen themselves in him, not understanding the harm they perpetuate simply by not opposing colonialism wholeheartedly. Azem brilliantly builds on his character; one of the first details we get of him is his annoyance at a German girl and her ancestral guilt; he believes she is co-opting the trauma her ancestors inflicted. He tells this to Alaa, who, unsurprisingly, does not really want to hear it. Ariel’s Englishness, as well as his descent from an original Israeli settler, inflect his complaint about the performance of care with an irony that is immediate, and productively teased out. We also learn that Ariel did enlist in the army after toying with the idea of not; the consequence for refusing military service is often jail, and so Ariel chooses service, allegedly to make more of a difference on the inside. The faux care that he complained about from the German girl is replicated in his own behavior; joining the IDF is nothing but self-serving. There is a scene where a Palestinian child is shot dead, right in front him. Azem assures us: he is making no difference at all. Ariel’s full confidence in his presence within the country, too, is so wonderfully corrupted by that added fact of his English ancestry. From British Mandate to Israel, Ariel is a colonizer through and through.
Azem marks the disappearance in a few ways: the bus schedules run behind because the Arab drivers did not show up for work; hospitals are understaffed; Alaa’s notebook is left unattended, until it is claimed by Ariel. Alaa’s journal is a stark foil to the rest of the narrative—there are the observational moments in which we witness the absence of Palestinians. There are the news blasts as the country descends into paranoid nonsense, the Israeli media spouting their fear of Arabs armed at the border, as if the surrounding nations participated in the disappearance if only to advance a military tactic. There are Ariel’s articles for his work: they are musing, and largely unhelpful to the greater cause of making sense of the disappearance. How could they be helpful? No one knows what’s happening. Alaa’s prose, in contrast, is full of yearning, processing the multitudes of grief he collects. The Palestinian narrative is present, but fragmented, and hyper-focused onto the recollection of Jaffa.
Soon after the disappearance, Israel orders a nation-wide registry; all citizens must register within forty-eight hours in order to keep their status, those abroad included. The paranoid fear of the Palestinians returning in droves, guns in hand, plagues the Israeli leadership, and leads them to up their surveillance, up their skepticism of their people, up the risk of violence on those they are meant to serve; there is a moment in which a Mizrahi citizen is attacked, mistaken for an Arab. One of the points of view we get post-disappearance is from an Iraqi Jewish woman, who speaks Arabic in her hospital room; how arbitrary our divisions are, crafted by the state. How tenuous Arab identity is, donned and thrown off depending on how it will assimilate you into power. I think of my mother’s answer: the Israelis would eat themselves alive. When Palestinians are stripped from the equation, the people who uphold the state, layer by layer, become the new enemy. To explore the fulfillment of the Zionist fantasy from the Palestinian perspective is to challenge the fragility of the settler-project—scenes such as this are vital in unraveling that project, and in willing that project to fail.
My favorite scene is near the end. Ariel decides to wait for Alaa in his apartment; it makes sense that if his friend is to return, he would go home, and he lives just a few floors above him anyway.
One of the first things he does is take a shower, which was comically shocking—what an incredibly invasive and intimate act, to shower in a home that is not your own, without permission, without the person who actually lives there being there. Despite being just a few floors away, Ariel continues to settle in:
He went into the kitchen to drink water, make some coffee, and eat. There was only Turkish coffee in Alaa’s kitchen. He was too lazy to go back up to his apartment to bring his coffee maker. He put three spoons of coffee in the pot and poured water and stood waiting so it wouldn’t boil and spill over the stove. Alaa used to put the white cheese his mother made in jars on the shelves. Ariel got a plate to put a few pieces on. He added slices of tomatoes, cucumbers, and some of the spicy olives his mother made every year. He heated some pita too. He brought the coffee he made just the way Alaa does and went to the bedroom.
This moment is masterful, and speaks to my earlier assertion that this book succeeds in connecting the personal to systemic to global. Ariel intrudes on Alaa’s space; the Israeli settlers intrude on Palestinian land; settlers globally claim what is not theirs. As Ariel eats from Alaa’s kitchen, he takes a phone call with his mom; she says she is going to look at vacant Arab homes to buy up. He scoffs at her and makes himself a plate. He goes to the army and witnesses a Palestinian child murdered, then sips Turkish coffee. He believes he is indigenous, this colonial project is his return, but can’t even go to his own apartment for a meal. The Zionist project is many things: it is tanks and imprisoned family members, it is renamed cities and appropriated food. We do not know if the Palestinians return; we do not know what caused it. The closing beat of the book is Ariel selecting passages from Alaa’s journal to translate into Hebrew, in order to write a book about the Palestinian disappearance. The Book of Disappearance ends with this affirmation: Israeli identity is fragile, requires Palestinians to exist, however contradictory that may be. Ariel’s journalistic accounts lack substance, and so he takes from elsewhere. Palestinian memory is fragmented, once more, but this time, there may not be survivors to resist it.