Heba Hayek’s Gaza Memories

1 August, 2021
“Feeling Lost,” watercolor, 10x10” (courtesy Aula Al Ayoubi).
“Feel­ing Lost,” water­col­or, 10x10” (cour­tesy Aula Al Ayoubi).

Sam­bac Beneath Unlike­ly Skies by Heba Hayek
Hajar Press (July 2021)
ISBN 9781914221026

Shereen Malherbe

Heba Hayek’s novel is just out from Hajar Press in the UK.
Heba Hayek’s nov­el is just out from Hajar Press in the UK.

Not many press­es in the US or UK can say that they are ded­i­cat­ed to pub­lish­ing “ambi­tious, polit­i­cal­ly engaged books by writ­ers of col­or,” but such is the claim made by the new house Hajar Press, and among their authors is the young Heba Hayek, with Sam­bac Beneath Unlike­ly Skies. A slim vol­ume com­posed as a series of vignettes about a girl­hood in Gaza, Pales­tine, Heba Hayek writes, she notes, from “her desk in a flat in South­east Lon­don” and through her mem­o­ries you expe­ri­ence a shock­ing yet ten­der rem­i­nis­cence of grow­ing up in the Gaza Strip.

“We mourn when we remem­ber,” advis­es the novel’s epi­graph. “Most of our sor­rows seem nor­mal and unex­ag­ger­at­ed in the moment, even though they might change us for­ev­er.” In the author’s note, Hayek goes on to share how in 2018 she went on a trip to six dif­fer­ent cities upon leav­ing Gaza, just to meet with oth­er Gazan women and hear of their experiences.

The book is then indexed with a series of sto­ries that fol­low a tra­jec­to­ry of telling and retelling through mem­o­ries often linked to a taste, weath­er, fam­i­ly or oth­er trig­gers that take you back and forth to Gaza from Lon­don, Amer­i­ca and Ger­many. Each series has an asso­ci­at­ed “Playlist” which adds an ele­ment of youth­ful­ness to the book. It also adds anoth­er lev­el of mem­o­ry and feel­ings asso­ci­at­ed with each chap­ter, which I imag­ine not only lends itself to a more immer­sive expe­ri­ence but allows a younger audi­ence to con­nect with Hayek through the medi­um of music as well as writ­ing. As not­ed in the mag­a­zine Wasafiri, the playlist is “an artis­tic choice that echoes the care with which Hayek writes about her mem­o­ries…”

The sto­ry series is bro­ken up with a “Chronol­o­gy of a Girl­hood in Gaza,” a per­son­al list intend­ed to sum­ma­rize the key moments of girl­hood and although writ­ten as mat­ter of fact, it is like the rest of the series, com­posed like a girl­hood diary — in her own undis­put­ed words. This con­fes­sion­al writ­ing style con­tin­ues through­out the book. It is reflect­ed in the girl­hood vignettes and so is the sub­ject mat­ter, from sex edu­ca­tion class to her first wax­ing ses­sion, peri­od and boys. These ele­ments are a no-holds-barred telling of her expe­ri­ences and the lan­guage for these ele­ments is unfiltered.

Yet, this girl­hood is dif­fer­ent because it is inter­spersed with life in Gaza, from check­points, being searched, drones in the sky, the threat of immi­nent attack and the harsh real­i­ties of life there. Hayek and her friends miss class, but that’s because the bombs might fall.

Read an excerpt from Sambac Beneath Unlikely Skies

I com­mend the author for her vis­cer­al, hon­est style — there is no gloss over what she’s lived through and the end result is an inti­mate expe­ri­ence. The writ­ing switch­es between what feels like infor­mal accounts of sto­ries to some­thing dark­er that may come to have a pro­found and long-last­ing effect into the author’s adult­hood. This switch of sub­ject mat­ter caught me off guard; inno­cence mixed with the shock of real­i­ties in Gaza. The sim­plic­i­ty of this struc­ture allows the read­er to almost expe­ri­ence this inno­cence, and then have it replaced by some­thing alto­geth­er more adult and har­row­ing. This is enhanced by Hayek’s real­iza­tion of adult prob­lems as a child, for instance when she saw her moth­er hav­ing a ner­vous break­down: “That was the day I learned what it felt like to see peo­ple you love suffer.”

Sam­bac also con­fronts cur­rent crises such as liv­ing in times of Covid and what addi­tion­al strain this added to the author’s men­tal health, itself anoth­er top­ic that is strung between the sto­ries with a rev­e­la­tion at the end. This made the book feel rel­e­vant and added to the dif­fi­cul­ty expe­ri­enced by her generation.

Hayek cap­tures this bal­ance del­i­cate­ly between hav­ing a laugh with friends and then need­ing to be alone to try and deal with her past.  “In the morn­ing, I ask the friends who have stayed over to leave, telling them I have a meet­ing. I lie on the floor in my liv­ing room, where the sun casts soft, orange rays. It’s minus one degree Cel­sius out­side, but the snow doesn’t set. I am hav­ing a hard time bring­ing the Mediter­ranean to South­east Lon­don today.”

From the author’s recog­ni­tion of how well-mean­ing friends and fam­i­ly deal with the trau­mas of Gaza, to the real­iza­tion and almost com­ing to terms with her child­hood and dis­place­ment, I real­ly enjoyed read­ing her explorations.

As with oth­er Pales­tin­ian authors, such as Nevien Shab­neh and the new Pales­tin­ian anthol­o­gy, The Book of Ramal­lah, a clear link between home, its pro­duce and food is made by Hayek. Scents and tastes of orange blos­som water, lemon and sug­ar per­me­ate the texts and links her home­land to expe­ri­ences where the author trav­els. Tan­gi­ble echoes like the ones in where her hair is mas­saged with oil, then mas­saged with oil bought in exile, in a Euro­pean super­mar­ket, fur­ther enhance the real­ism of every­day life in dis­place­ment with the more roman­tic and yearned for expe­ri­ences of a lost home. The nos­tal­gic notions of home are nat­u­ral­ly jux­ta­posed against the dif­fi­cul­ty of ever find­ing a per­ma­nent one:

“I have recent­ly moved to my eighth home since leav­ing Gaza, not count­ing friends’ sofas and my old office…For too long, I have feared set­tling down any­where, so that I can blame my eter­nal sense of being out of place on my con­stant movement.”

I loved the tan­gi­ble links between every­day objects and how they were linked to some­thing much deep­er for the author. These nuances increase empa­thy and con­nec­tion between the writer and her read­ers, with col­lec­tive expe­ri­ences of dis­place­ment or even the long­ing for miss­ing fam­i­ly and friends.

What trans­ports the read­er along with the author are the echo­ing reminders of home and none are so sym­bol­ic as the sam­bac, the “haze of the fra­grant sam­bac shrub” echoes through the book and its impor­tance is described in the author’s note: “The sam­bac embod­ies her resilience—a word that has been overused but that nonethe­less is full of mean­ing and truth.”

I found it refresh­ing to read some­thing so can­did from such a young and brave writer. Hajar Press has had the vision to sup­port a devel­op­ing author at a cru­cial point in her career.  Indeed, Hayek cred­its the pub­lish­er for allow­ing her to have “a safe space” to share her expe­ri­ences. Unflinch­ing in its raw hon­esty, it allows us to con­nect more deeply with her expe­ri­ences of girlhood.

I would rec­om­mend Sam­bac to adult read­ers who appre­ci­ate inti­mate por­tray­als of expe­ri­ence as this will not dis­ap­point, but I urge a slight degree of cau­tion with respect to younger read­ers due to some of the content.


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