The Sea Cloak by Nayrouz Qarmout

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Despite having more access to information than ever before, there are some topics which the West cannot seem to grasp. One of these is the history of, and current situation in Palestine, a misunderstood and often-overlooked nation.

We frequently hear shocking developments and benign platitudes from the mouths of politicians and newsreaders, yet become bored, switch off, and console ourselves with our own apathy – often forgetting that the most important voices are those of the ordinary citizens who are so often silenced in mainstream media.

Thanks to The Sea Cloak by journalist and political activist Nayrouz Qarmout, these lives are brought into sharp focus in a series of biting and beautiful vignettes. Despite those portrayed being fictional, the events are all too real and through a glorious tapestry of vibrant characters, Qarmout offers a chance for us to learn through human experience, rather than the unimpassioned voice of statistics.

Originally written in Arabic, Qarmout’s native language, Perween Richards has expertly translated Qarmout’s nuanced, lyrical prose into tales that transcend boundaries. In the eponymous first story, a young girl, heavily veiled, swims in the sea as she approaches the threshold between adolescence and womanhood. We watch as she revels in the shared experience of adolescence: the first feelings of freedom, of independence, of love.

The juxtaposition of trauma and everyday mundanity highlight the realities of living in a war zone. In Our Milk, a perfectly coiffed woman sits in the opulent surroundings of the King David hotel demanding breakfast; seconds later, this finery is shattered as a bomb goes off. This is echoed in further stories such as White Lilies: a drone operator presses the button on his target causing unimaginable horror then with slow, savage indifference idly scrolls through holiday destinations on his mobile phone.

Like Palestinian life, not all stories revolve around violence and warfare. Qarmout chooses to focus some of her stories highlighting women’s experiences with a fiercely feminist eye. This is especially apparent in The Long Braid, where a young girl fearlessly argues with her misogynistic teacher, despite being told that emancipated women are ‘sluts’. Though her female characters are often persecuted in her tales, they are not victims.

Despite it not being her responsibility to correct our ignorance, Qarmout makes every effort to educate the reader: footnotes are included at the end of most stories to place them firmly in their wider cultural context. They are intensely political, yet never preachy: they are crafted to entertain as much as to inform.

Qarmout, a journalist and political activist, has had a life as tumultuous as any of the characters she writes. After growing up in a Syrian refugee camp, she returned to the Gaza strip and currently works in the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. Her writing career has been no less eventful: only last year, her visa application to attend the Edinburgh Festival was rejected twice, with a last-minute reprieve granted at the last moment.

By reading The Sea Cloak, we learn so much about the lives of Palestine’s citizens, with all the beauty and grief they contain, yet are spared from didacticism or political rhetoric. Impassioned and glorious, it is a stunning addition to the rapidly growing voice of Palestinian writers.

The Sea Cloak is published by Comma Press and is available here.

Nayrouz Qarmout

Nayrouz Qarmout is a Palestinian writer and activist. Born in Damascus in 1984, as a Palestinian refugee, she returned to the Gaza Strip, as part of the 1994 Israeli-Palestinian Peace Agreement, where she now lives. She graduated from al-Azhar University in Gaza with a degree in Economics. She currently works in the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, raising awareness of gender issues and promoting the political and economic role of women in policy and law, as well as the defence of women from abuse, and highlighting the role of women’s issues in the media. Her political, social and literary articles have appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines, and online. She has also written screenplays for several short films dealing with women’s rights. She is a social activist and a member of several youth initiatives, campaigning for social change in Palestine.

Reviewed by Jasmin Elliott

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