An esteemed Egyptian novelist and her fictional alter ego look back at the tumultuous past, reflecting on the resilience and deep-seated sorrow of the Palestinian people.
Part novel, part memoir, part historical/political screed and part rumination on the writing process, the book, first published in Arabic in 1999, is a literary juggling act. To start with, it is a first-person novel by and about Radwa, a professor of literature, called Specters. Inside that novel, a history teacher, Shagar, is writing a nonfiction history book, also called Specters. Ashour also intrudes directly to remark on the storytelling process, and the intersections of fiction and reality, past and present. There are enough plot elements, and enough leaps back and forth in time, for an epic film: civil disobedience, imprisonments, hospitalizations, assassinations, suicides, Kafkaesque bureaucracies, love, romance and exile. The focal point for both Radwa and Shagar is a tragic 1948 incident in which dozens of civilians in the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin were brutally killed by Israeli paramilitary forces. Like other violence perpetrated in the book, it is referred to as a massacre, a judgment with which some but not all historical accounts agree. The sense of loss and mistreatment that permeates the pages is deep, and the author's outrage is frequently justified. But by writing of Israelis and Jews in general with great anger and disgust (Ariel Sharon is described as "the fat man who loved dogs but hated Arabs"), while making no mention of the terrorism inflicted on them by Palestinians for decades, Ashour loses sympathy and credibility. For all the energy and ingenuity that went into the complicated structure, the design achieves little. At various points, the author only confuses the reader as to which character is doing what at a given time.
An expansive and heartfelt but overly random novel-cum-historical account.