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According to the UN, almost 6 million Palestinians are refugees, meaning that almost half of all Palestinians are unable to return to their homes. The violent, and ongoing, dispossession and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people has become known as the Nakba—the Catastrophe—and from it are born millions of stories of movement and exile, of hope and unflagging determination.

Sara M Saleh is a child of such stories, the daughter of migrants from Palestine, Egypt and Lebanon, and an award-winning poet, human rights activist and community organiser whose work has long been concerned with Palestinian visibility and the struggle for Palestinian liberation. Her first novel, Songs for the Dead and the Living, is another gesture in this direction—one that makes clear that while Palestinians may not have a recognised right to return to their ancestral homes, they have not left them behind.

As much is true for the Husseinis, a large and boisterous family whose matriarch, Teta Aishah, was forced to flee her home while pregnant during the violence of 1948. Years later, it is Aishah’s youngest granddaughter, Jamilah, who the story follows, and who serves as the narrative’s cipher for diasporic Palestinian identity. Although Jamilah loves her life in Beit Samra, it is a precarious one. Her mother might be Lebanese, but Jamilah and her sisters will always be Palestinian. In Lebanon, this is a secret they must guard carefully, the threat of violence and social stigma ever-present. When conflict breaks out, the family is forced to flee to Cairo where Jamilah must make a life-changing decision.

This is a multigenerational saga, a novel that seeks to weave together numerous strands of family history and relate it all in under 280 pages. Such compression makes for a jam-packed book, overflowing with events: amid the turmoil of displacement, there are marriages, births, chance encounters and new friends. And, in greater measure: arguments, illnesses, departures and deaths. The deaths are sudden; the departures, too. There is little time to linger.

This is an activist project—of witnessing, and of education.

Returning to Palestine is, of course, never an option and Aishah’s immediate descendants do not think about Palestine the place (as opposed to Palestine the idea), or about going back. Aishah’s original brutal dislocation is transmuted to her grandchildren as an insidious and floating disconnection: never belonging to the place in which they reside, they cannot imagine what it means to belong anywhere. ‘Living in the present tense,’ Aishah knows, ‘is the only way to stay alive.’ There’s no room in the Husseini’s lives for the subjunctive.

Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire has said that the ‘educator has the duty of not being neutral,’ and Saleh follows this injunction. Her mission is a pedagogic one, and two-fold. First, to show what it means to be part of the Palestinian diaspora: dispossessed and ensnared in geopolitical histories beyond your people’s control. Second, to give a lesson in that history from the perspective of those living in its aftermath. This is an activist project—of witnessing, and of education.

To that end, Saleh makes use of even the most unassuming details as teachable moments. An epitaph on a park gate says the park was nationalised in 1952 and Saleh writes, ‘[a]ccording to [Jamilah’s father], that made sense because that was the year the Egyptian revolution began, abolishing the monarchy in favour of a republic, and bringing with it a period of political, economic and societal change that had consequences for people across the region, from Egypt to Palestine’. More frequently still, Saleh mobilises direct speech to provide politico-historical context, as when a doctor explains that she cannot give Aishah insulin because ‘donor funding is barely covering essentials now. The world’s still recovering from recessions and the energy crisis’.

Direct speech is also Saleh’s favoured approach in conveying the situation of the Palestinian people. Dialogue becomes a site of instruction, a movement which resembles the Socratic method, except insofar as neither interlocutor is asking a question and while both have a response, on the question of Palestinian futures, there are no easy answers. ‘[N]o one will protect you. You’re Palestinian,’ Teta Aishah warns her granddaughters. Later, one of Jamilah’s sisters scoffs that a cousin’s wife is avoiding them: ‘[S]he’s probably sick of all us Palestinians and our dramas. I mean that’s why the Egyptian government signed that peace treaty isn’t it? Just like everyone else, they blame us for taking up too much of their energy and resources.’ For some, these constant digressions into the politico-historical might seem heavy-handed or unrealistic. But, from experience, when lives are shaped by the vagaries of war and dispossession, people tend to talk about it. A lot.

Dialogue becomes a site of instruction, a movement which resembles the Socratic method.

Even so, there are places where such conversations have an overtly rhetorical, almost theatrical quality, straining plausibility. In the opening pages, when the Husseini sisters are trying to decide what to do with an injured bird nesting on their balcony, one sister grumbles that it is the girls themselves, not the bird, ‘in need of a safe home’. Another replies: ‘We do have a home, far away from all that’s happening.’ A third pipes up: ‘You wouldn’t like it very much if someone took that away, would you?’ Elsewhere, Saleh stages a conversation between Jamilah and her neighbour in Australia to draw a homology between Aboriginal people and Palestinians vis-à-vis their ongoing oppression by occupying settler colonialists. Here, the message feels diluted through a blunt over-simplification. Something is lost in prioritising the transferal of information this way—there’s not enough space for all the nuance, depth and complexity these circumstances entail. Things can feel squeezed in.

Similarly, when Israeli vacationers are shot dead in Sinai, we’re told that the Egyptian government is ‘cracking down’ to appease the US. Jamilah’s father notes that ‘[t]hese alliances are exactly how the imperial powers are set free to act out their wildest fantasies with no restraint’. This event accelerates Jamilah’s departure, but no further information is provided about the mass shooting or its aftermath, nor about how these events pertain to imperial relations. While I recognise this incitement for readers to do the work, declarations like this can feel disorientating, like political critique shoehorned between plot points without, perhaps, the space for either to fully unfold.

The brisk movement between events and lessons in geo-political history also results in moments of narrative confusion. For example, Jamilah’s husband is first described as studying engineering to honour his dead father, then as having pursued journalism and literature to honour his dead father. When he moves to Australia, it is to continue studies in engineering. Elsewhere, after an abusive altercation, a chapter ends with Jamilah’s husband declaring that the two of them are going to the beach. Yet, a page into the next, set some time after this conversation, Jamilah ‘had yet to see for herself’ if Australian beaches were as lovely as people said, presumably having not gone after all. These inconsistencies might be intentional, or they might be errors since they go unremarked and unexplained; it’s difficult for readers to know. With so many plot points to move between—all the while imparting three generations’ worth of information—some connective tissue seems to get lost.

Until now, Saleh has been best known as a poet, with her debut collection, The Flirtation of Girls, coming out later this year. Nonetheless, Songs plays firmly in the field of prose. This is not completely unexpected: Saleh’s poetry has the kind of robust clarity associated with narrative fiction, tending to the firm and declarative, to slip-streamed lines without heavy adornment, whose strength lies in their exquisite balance of the abstract and the real. In the novel, Saleh explores a different register. Her lines are still declarative though not as sleek; she peppers them generously with uncomplicated adjectives: a boy’s ‘floppy locks’ are ‘catching the beautiful sunrays of the morning’; ‘the waters below were extra sparkly’. Her placemaking is particularly broad, seeming to refuse specificity: ‘the sun sent the sky all sorts of colours,’ and the house ‘rested on rolling hills and lush land’.

With so many plot points […] some connective tissue seems to get lost.

Instead, Saleh searches for precision in frequent similes, some wonderfully evocative, such as when Jamilah’s mother ends a conversation ‘as though she was zipping closed a suitcase’, or when her sister holds ‘her misery in her mouth like a coiled spring’. But with so many, not every one of them lands. Some run on, losing their impact: Jamilah’s crush has ‘short stubble scattered across his chin like stunted seeds unable to bloom’; a man chooses his words ‘carefully, like a diplomat on a mission meeting with a country’s head of state’.

Others, in striving for novel associations, result in bewildering comparisons: a man snores ‘like an orchestra’ and leaps into a conversation ‘like a spring coiled in a clock’. At times, a simile robs its scene of emotional impact. After a traumatic sexual encounter, an unintentional moment of comedy is introduced with ‘[w]hen he was finished, he rolled over to the side like a dead seal into the ocean’, an image so bizarre as to distract from, rather than underscore, the misery described. Such associative leaps can leave readers feeling disorientated once again, unsure of what they’re supposed to be imagining and, at times, unclear of the stakes at hand.

This is not the only instance of incongruous word choice. A cassette tape is ‘stuck on the same […] song on repeat’, despite the fact that cassette tapes cannot be stuck on repeat; a baby is ‘a Godsend, a crucible in a sea of burnable things’; and in the mid-1980s, Jamilah’s mother uses the 2010s slang ‘whipped’ to describe a husband’s relationship to his wife.

These curious mis-usages, when read cumulatively and alongside the novel’s moments of narrative inconsistency, give the impression of a book written and published in haste. Of course, for Saleh, speed may be a necessity in the circumstances: the occupation is ongoing, and every day Palestinians are losing land and lives to it. This cause is an urgent one and without the luxury of time. As an activist, Saleh is working hard, not only to educate non-Palestinians about the situation but to enable a different future.