Palestinian Akram Musallam Writes of Loss and Memory

29 August, 2021
“Spiral Jetty,” 2013, by Gianfranco Gorgoni.
“Spi­ral Jet­ty,” 2013, by Gian­fran­co Gorgoni.


The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scor­pi­on
, a nov­el by Akram Musallam
Trans­lat­ed by Sawad Hussain
Seag­ull Books (Oct 2021)
ISBN 9780857428936

khulud khamis

The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scorpion is available from Seagull Books.

Akram Musallam’s nov­el, The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scor­pi­on, orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Ara­bic in 2008, is a med­i­ta­tion on loss, absence, and mem­o­ry. How can we know for sure that some­thing we lost had actu­al­ly exist­ed in real­i­ty and is not mere­ly a fig­ment of our dreams or imag­i­na­tion [cf. “That in Alep­po once…,” the aston­ish­ing 1943 short sto­ry by Vladimir Nabokov —Ed.]? Does the mem­o­ry of a place, a per­son, an expe­ri­ence, and the empti­ness left by their absence mean they exist­ed? Through an intri­cate­ly woven and mul­ti-lay­ered nar­ra­tive, where con­tent and form are close­ly inter­con­nect­ed in a spi­ral­ing struc­ture, Musal­lam asks these ques­tions with­out offer­ing any answers. If any­thing, by the end of the book we are thrown right back to the begin­ning by the force of its spi­ral­ing form and, like the char­ac­ters of the sto­ries told by the nar­ra­tor, are left in des­per­ate search to fill that empti­ness left by loss. 

The nov­el opens with a mem­o­ry: a dream-like chap­ter, an encounter between the nar­ra­tor, then a teenage boy, and a girl with a fresh­ly-tat­tooed scor­pi­on on her back. They meet in the dance hall where the nar­ra­tor works, and the girl flies back to Paris the next day, van­ish­ing from his life. From the out­set, the nar­ra­tor is not quite reli­able, as he is not sure if the encounter with the girl was real or if he had dreamt her, ques­tion­ing his own mem­o­ry of it at the end of the first chap­ter: “Isn’t this a nov­el-esque dream or a dream of a nov­el?” Lat­er in the book, the nar­ra­tor cir­cles back to the theme of dreams, through the char­ac­ter of his aunt, “the dream-lady,” who inter­prets som­no­lent imaginings. 

We then jump in time and meet the name­less nar­ra­tor, a jour­nal­ist and an aspir­ing writer, who finds an unusu­al place for con­tem­pla­tion: an emp­ty space in a park­ing lot, where he rents a spot and sits in soli­tude to think about his life and about writ­ing his nov­el. He weaves sto­ries, smooth­ly mov­ing from one to the next, intro­duc­ing char­ac­ters who are reflec­tions of one anoth­er, a fact rein­forced by images of mir­rors through­out the nov­el. In every char­ac­ter we encounter, there is a loss of some­thing essen­tial, which is strong­ly felt by a con­crete pres­ence of the absence left by the loss.

Four of the char­ac­ters in these sto­ries are described in the same exact way, as each of them tries to reach some­thing unat­tain­able: “He kept on try­ing and try­ing with a pecu­liar stub­born­ness until, over­come with fatigue, until he dripped sweat, he fell down, flung onto his back, mov­ing his head and limbs with a des­per­ate slow­ness, move­ments almost seem­ing­ly mechan­i­cal, as if they were his last.” This sen­tence describes the scor­pi­on, try­ing to climb onto the out­lined body on the mir­ror, the nar­ra­tor’s father as he tries to scratch the empti­ness left by his ampu­tat­ed leg, the ten­ant of a build­ing try­ing to climb through the empti­ness left by stairs that are no longer there, and a Pales­tin­ian born in Iraq to refugees, who begs the nar­ra­tor to take him back with him to Pales­tine. They are all des­per­ate­ly try­ing to reach some­thing that has been irrev­o­ca­bly lost, leav­ing them with a painful absence that will always remind them of that loss.

The nar­ra­tor him­self has also lost some­thing pre­cious, and that is the beau­ti­ful mem­o­ry of the place of his encounter with the girl with the scor­pi­on tat­too. The place, a hotel where the nar­ra­tor used to work, was bombed years lat­er, killing thir­ty peo­ple. Simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, he is aware of this yet refus­es to acknowl­edge it, chang­ing the place — in the nov­el he is writ­ing — to a dance hall to keep the mem­o­ry untaint­ed, though he knows it is futile.

The book is also a con­tem­pla­tion on the act of writ­ing itself. Through­out, com­ments are scat­tered on the craft of writ­ing, of mak­ing up plots, chang­ing nar­ra­tives, and try­ing to cap­ture mean­ing. Here, again, it is con­nect­ed to the empti­ness expe­ri­enced by many of the novel’s char­ac­ters, as the nar­ra­tor won­ders whether writ­ing itself isn’t an act of try­ing to touch emp­ty spaces, to scratch the ampu­tat­ed limb: “Isn’t writ­ing, in some way, the scratch­ing of some­thing that exists and doesn’t exist at the same time? Some­thing we know, we feel, we try to touch, to grasp, to silence? Isn’t writ­ing in some way a scor­pi­on try­ing and try­ing to scram­ble up a mir­ror, to stop at a point, on some image, in some mind? Isn’t that writing?”

Born in 1972 in Tal­fit, near Nablus, Pales­tine, Akram Musal­lam grad­u­at­ed in Ara­bic lit­er­a­ture from Bir Zeit Uni­ver­si­ty. He is a jour­nal­ist and reporter for the Ramal­lah dai­ly Al-Ayyam and has pub­lished two nov­els, Hawâjis al-Iskan­dar (The Tor­ments of Alexan­der, 2003) and The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scor­pi­on, which won the A.M. Qat­tan Foun­da­tion award. He also served as the series edi­tor for the crit­i­cal edi­tion of The Diaries of Khalil al-Sakakînî, the promi­nent Pales­tin­ian man of let­ters who fled Qata­mon with his fam­i­ly in 1948 to become refugees in Egypt.

In one way or anoth­er, most Pales­tin­ian lit­er­a­ture deals with col­lec­tive issues of the Pales­tin­ian peo­ple, the most promi­nent of them the loss of home and our col­lec­tive mem­o­ry of the Nak­ba. The col­lec­tive ulti­mate­ly almost always finds its way into the sto­ry, even in works of lit­er­a­ture that try to for­sake it and instead focus on issues that are either more per­son­al or uni­ver­sal. In The Dance of the Deep-Blue Scor­pi­on, Musal­lam reflects this ten­sion by keep­ing the wider polit­i­cal con­text sub­tly in the back­ground, as his nar­ra­tor notes: “If you were search­ing for the occu­pa­tion, it’s in the back­ground, and I can bring it to the fore­ground in every­thing, every­thing. I try to catch my breath a bit away from the occu­pa­tion.” But even this attempt at keep­ing the col­lec­tive in the back­ground ulti­mate­ly fails: “In a war like this, even places lose their neu­tral­i­ty, revolt­ing against being mere objects, becom­ing stake­hold­ers, tak­ing part in the nar­ra­tion, almost stretch­ing out their tongues and speak­ing, even reach­ing out their hands to scrib­ble on my man­u­script!” The result is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly a nov­el that reflects some of the col­lec­tive themes of the Pales­tini­ans — the col­lec­tive loss, absence, and mem­o­ry in this case — as well as a nov­el that expands beyond these lim­its and opens up to mean­ings that are uni­ver­sal and can be relat­ed to by every reader.

Sawad Hussain’s trans­la­tion of the nov­el is excel­lent; by the mid­dle of the book the read­er almost for­gets she is read­ing a trans­lat­ed work. It is worth not­ing, how­ev­er, that the orig­i­nal title in Ara­bic is Sir­at al-‘akrab allad­hi yatasab­bab ‘araqan, which lit­er­al­ly trans­lates to The Tale of the Scor­pi­on that Dripped with Sweat. It is under­stand­able the orig­i­nal title was changed, as the lit­er­al trans­la­tion does not work well in Eng­lish. How­ev­er, the Ara­bic title is of sig­nif­i­cance to the spi­ral­ing form of the nar­ra­tive. The book ends with a sci­en­tif­ic fact about the inabil­i­ty of scor­pi­ons to sweat, which throws the read­er back to the Ara­bic title and the first chap­ter, where the scor­pi­on “tried and tried with a pecu­liar stub­born­ness, scram­bling upwards, only to slide back down until, over­come with fatigue, until it dripped sweat,” under­min­ing the very foun­da­tion the whole nar­ra­tive is built on, and again ques­tion­ing the reli­a­bil­i­ty of the nar­ra­tor. We are left won­der­ing — just like the nar­ra­tor — whether that very first scene was in fact a real­i­ty, or only a dream dreamt up by him. It is also not clear whether this last sen­tence is writ­ten by the nar­ra­tor, refer­ring to him­self in the third per­son, or whether Musal­lam him­self — like a magi­cian who has just exe­cut­ed the per­fect mag­ic trick — makes an appear­ance, mock­ing his nar­ra­tor. We, the read­ers, are drawn back in, enticed to start read­ing the nov­el all over again and, pos­si­bly, uncov­er addi­tion­al lay­ers and con­nec­tions missed in the first read­ing. But ulti­mate­ly, just like the name­less nar­ra­tor, we are left with the ques­tion: “Isn’t this a nov­el-esque dream or a dream of a novel?”