Heba Hayek’s first job Sambac under improbable skies, published by Hajar Press in the UK, is a searing work about growing up in war-torn Palestine. Heba’s narrator, who is now studying abroad, reminisces about what home really is, when one is so far from the land where one was born, and what it means to miss the home that no longer exists. The reunion of these scraps offers him a refuge, the one that his family offered him with coexistence and living together through bombings, wars and demonstrations. By witnessing and commemorating the persistence of life and their losses, their struggles for survival, Heba fleetingly evokes images of resistance to the opportunities for care and comfort she has found through her family, aunts, grandparents -mothers and uncles and cousins. Many of them are no longer alive, all are now scattered across the world.
Accompanied by a playlist at the start, perhaps the author encourages the reader who has chosen to choose Sambac under improbable skies, to enter a world of loss, grief, grief and collective trauma. Perhaps the music will bring relief, just as the narrator finds strength and learns a way to live through the women in her life. She lays out a childhood surrounded by wonderful and strong women – her mother, her grandmother Sitti (one of my favorite characters) and his father with anger issues. One of the first chapters of Sambac under improbable skies starts with this line: I’m constantly craving old places, while finding new ones. She misses home dealing with her eating disorder and anxiety, interspersed with fond memories interspersed with painful descriptions of explosions, lockdown, checkpoints, deaths and injuries. One of the clips shows his mother virtually teaching him the steps to make a little kiss, their name for a delicacy called basbousa, a yogurt semolina cake, which not only reminds the narrator of her home but immediately lifts her spirits. That’s all Heba can do to make her feel at home.
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Sambac under improbable skies is a multi-part coming-of-age story, as there are hilarious memories of their school sex-awareness program, discovering crushes, and teenage friendships. The hilarity is obviously reflexive as cultural prerogatives supersede biological evidence about the location of major male and female genitalia. Such classroom discussions of sex and menstruation, the narrator recalls, were concealed under religious affirmations and an education in moral values about purity and chastity. The hilarity also stems from the harsh reality of life for women under occupation. Another incident is when women hold wax parties, pouring hot sugar wax under bare skin to remove body hair. Their grandmother rebukes the narrator’s protests, saying: “Illi biddo al-dah, ma byool ah” (If you want a happy vagina, you can’t say ouch.) A variant of this sentiment is found in all our Indian vernaculars.
In one of the chapters of Sambac under improbable skies, Heba chronicles a childhood in Gaza, consistently evoking the victimization, silence and patriarchal subjugation that a girl born and raised in Palestine is destined to witness. The humiliating experience of being strip searched at immigration, of having to move to a foreign country because you barely have enough money to pay exorbitant rents, of being searched for food, while yearning for comfort of a house that no longer exists is painful, a grief that is rarely expressed in words. Then maybe Sambac under improbable skies is a rescue to such souls who have had similar experiences. Memoirs of Farah Bashir spring rumors released in 2021, builds on a similar theme, set in Kashmir and the narrative focuses on female relatives living through periods of occupation, dispossession and longing. Heba’s voice is important as a survivor of dispossession.
Welcoming and encouraging artists, writers and filmmakers from these lands is also part of the resistance. Recently, while watching this movie, titled Tel Aviv on fire, a Palestinian film, directed by Sameh Zoabi and screened on Mubi, I was touched when one of the characters expressing their love by sharing figs, was told by their love interest that tomatoes are the fruit of love . In a largely militarized life, in the joy one finds in sharing, expressing, and finding validation of one’s emotions, collectively find symbols, passages, and narratives that decenter dominant narratives of violence, possession, and oppression. .
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Hajar Press, an independent publishing house in the UK was launched during the pandemic and published six books in its first year on a subscription model. Please check out other works by Unknown Voices here.