Interview with shortlisted author Osama Al-Eissa


- Where were you when the shortlist was announced and what was your reaction?

I was at home. Since the 7th of last October, I haven’t left the city of Bethlehem, because of the road closures and checkpoints, and what people are exposed to at these checkpoints. I didn’t expect my novel to be shortlisted, because of the number of eminent literary names on the longlist and also the quality of the novels, demonstrating the technical range and fascinating topics which are characteristic of the modern Arabic novel. I received a call from my publisher Khaled al-Nasiri congratulating me. We were both overwhelmed by thoughts about what was happening in Gaza, and I was happier about Basim Khandaqji being shortlisted [than about my novel being on the list]. He is someone dear to me.

- The Seventh Heaven of Jerusalem has been described as “a narrative encyclopedia of the city of Jerusalem”. Tell us about the research which preceded the writing of the novel and the different sources upon which it is based.

Jerusalem, like any other Palestinian place, is virgin territory, and this is a personal point of view. 1400 years ago, the Arab élites did not provide material which can be relied upon. Cultural archaeology has to be done into layers of myths, customs, ideas, and religious stories that formed a dynamic and advanced Palestinian identity, one which triumphed over one-sided perspectives, as promulgated by religions, invaders, conquerors, and travellers from faraway lands. I believe that each of us, Palestinian or international, has our own Jerusalem, and I researched my Jerusalem, where I studied and worked, whose streets I wandered, where I was imprisoned. I went on an adventure, in the company of the reader, without knowing how successful I would be. The novel is my longest chapter about my city, but I think it won’t be the last.

I contemplated years spent in the alleyways of Jerusalem, between its walls, its stones, and the faces of its people, its places of worship. I studied the documents of its rulers. In my novel Al-Maskobiya (2010), I presented part of the underworld of Jerusalem, the student resistance with its amazing ethnic variety. In this novel, I explored the heavens as well. There is nowhere like Jerusalem, where the heavens interfere in the affairs of earth, as though the warring deities have moved their wars to a small city burdened by history and awaiting an unknown future.

- “The conqueror does not hide his crime, the defeated does not write his story. Only the marble tells part of the story in this city which lives on stories” (page 105). Tell us about the importance of stories and their relationship to the memory of Palestinian place, andabout the contradictions between different stories about the same places. Are stories a kind of resistance?

The written history of Jerusalem is that of the victors. In that history we find pride and satisfaction in the streams of blood which has been shed in the city by the Romans, Arabs, Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottomans, and most recently the Israelis.

Many attempts have been made over the years to silence the voice of the defeated, those killed in wars, women who are victims of rape, farmers who lost their land, and who confronted governors, Caliphs, Sultans, scribes, Aghas, Bashas, and the religious aristocracy who inherited positions, influence and wealth.

I am the offspring of a family of farmers who suddenly became refugees after their land was occupied and they were thrown out of their village, west of Jerusalem. I belong to those who were defeated. I carry their story and attempt to tell it.

- In The Seventh Heaven of Jerusalem, is there a questioning of certain assumptions, including popular slogans and even the sacrifices of the early freedom fighters? As the mother says, “The true struggle is not to explode a bomb which kills the one who uses it, but to provide food for the family and education for children…to stand firm on the land, and not to die upon it” (page 76).

Of course, any true literary work poses questions, and my novel questions assumptions which have been, and still are, made about the Jerusalem of slogans, groaning under the weight of worldly and religious discourses. This is not the Jerusalem of ordinary people, their daily worries, internal contradictions and contradictory attitudes towards the various occupations. Where is the city which submitted to such a huge number of occupations and powers over the centuries? Those who have passed through it include the Ottomans, British, Egyptians, Jordanians, and Israelis. Each power brings its store of knowledge and its brandished whip.

In my opinion, Jerusalem is a cosmopolitan city, an arena where one can experience the mingling of multiple identities, which give the city its identity. The people of Jerusalem have stood firm, despite plans to uproot them, because they know – and this knowledge may not be expressed in the media – that they must live on the wings of the wind, trying their very best not to fall.

- What is the significance of the character of “the lion” in the novel?

The character of “the lion” may symbolise the barrenness of the culture of masculinity, the whipping up of zeal, languor, making light of one’s opponents, claiming heroic things, and other

classic components of the Arab character. But I did not want the sexual impotence of “the lion” to be a simplistic and naive symbol. In his character, we find other, more dramatic dimensions. Perhaps the way he commits suicide is one manifestation of these. He is a lion living in the city of myths and religions, permeated by history.

- Is the relationship of “Kafil” and his father like that of your relationship with your father, particularly when it comes to telling stories?

The Seventh Heaven of Jerusalem is not an autobiography, even though there are things which overlap with the character of Kafil.

- Tell us about the role of women in society and in resistance, as imagined by the novel.

Some women chose armed resistance, or to be more precise, guerilla action, which was unplanned and therefore failed. This is shown by the killing of the Jerusalem freedom fighter who lives in the African quarter, and the blind targeting of Kafil’s mother. Things became more organised later on, in the struggles of the student movement, as shown by the character Lur. In the occupied Palestinian territories, I think that mass struggle was the most appropriate and had the greatest effect. But the increasing oppressiveness of the occupier provoked revenge actions. Resistance is a reaction, so it often fails or makes mistakes, in contrast with the staying power which Palestinians have developed over centuries of occupations.

- A reader has said that your novel, with its many stories, made him feel like he was eating the rich healthy food of grandmothers. Do you like this description?

The beauty of novels is that after their publication, they are no longer the property of the writer. They belong to readers who may see in them delicious meals made by grandmothers, or the light and non-nutritious meals of our age.

Readers are always right, in their love of the novel, or their hatred of it!