Mohammed Massoud Morsi, The Palace of Angels (Wild Dingo Press, 2019).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Mohammed Massoud Morsi (MMM): In 2014 and 2015, I freelanced for a Danish NGO (DCA) in Gaza and the West Bank. I was immersed in the stories of Palestinians, in particular Gazans, who opened up their homes and hearts. I listened to human stories of suffering. I listened to intimate dreams. In Israel, I was met with suspicion but, surprisingly, also with much curiosity. I was told stories which traversed the prescribed narrative, often presented in no more than two shades of black.
The stories in The Palace of Angels do not take up much space in the debate, receiving little energy or focus. Hatred often shone, but I also discovered that behind the pain it covered, there were much brighter visions—whispered, only voiced over board games or chopping cleavers. Having returned to Copenhagen for a debriefing in 2015, I literally watched “It is only in Gaza you die twice,” a feature article I had written just days earlier in Gaza, being wrapped around a fish. I could have had my back to the basement shop, I could have looked in any other direction, but some force drew my attention to the shopkeeper, her white plastic apron crusted with dried-out fish guts as she flung the pages indiscriminately around the slimy creature. She tied a red ribbon around a complimentary lemon before handing the package to the customer. Journalists like to crack the line: “If it’s not good enough, don’t worry, someone will wrap a fish with it.” It was then when I felt the calling, stronger than ever before, to write the stories that form the trilogy of novels: The Palace of Angels.
It was a calling to never give up on the belief that we can be better and that we can understand each other, with all of our differences. I believe we will only find our true freedom, our true sense of belonging, by facing our pain and not passing it on to our children. I had to write the stories so they would not disappear. They lived inside of me—and they will remain there for as long as I live. Perhaps one day they will serve as a glimpse of what was, an unrecognizable past.
Another reason I wrote these stories is because it does not matter how we see ourselves, or with which concepts or doctrines we identify; the stories relate to all of us, regardless.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
MMM: The Palace of Angels uses the Palestinian fight for liberation to challenge our perceptions of identity, conflict, and love. It questions the relationships we form, with others and ourselves, the traditions and rituals we exercise, both good and bad—but also the restrictions beyond and within ourselves that shape who we imagine ourselves to be.
Although there are some historical, political, and legal references in the stories, they are focused on the personal narrative. Nobody is just a do-gooder. What might not be relevant to the mud-throwing media discourse is imperative to the understanding of our nature and why it is crucial for all of humanity to take a stand and bring the Israeli Apartheid regime to an end. The book demonstrates the belief that the power of the human story far exceeds that of law and politics, of historical narratives on either side.
The book uses fiction to address real life, but rarely mentioned possibilities. The stories that matter are often shadowed by the symbiosis between hatred and pain. The approach is based upon true stories, where political and historical references follow the narratives to show just how important a common vision is—and that the only just solution for liberation is equality.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
MMM: My previous work as a photographer and a journalist focused on the personal story. What began as research for newspaper features, some of which were published, became the foundation for The Palace of Angels.
The Palace of Angels is a trilogy of novels. They are interconnected, but in ways I believe readers should discover for themselves. The first story deals with conceptualizing one’s self in conflict, trying to solve the internal questions of conflict by engaging in conflict. “What Is Past Is Dead” is the gamble between identity and life.
“Twenty-Two Years to Life” centers on the dichotomy between love and war, and what happens to our sense of self when we entrench ourselves with the shovels of hatred, when we are bereft of hope and experiencing unimaginable loss.
“The Palace of Angels,” the last story in the trilogy, is the story of what is possible when we change the very fabric of our thought and when that leads to different actions it in leads to different emotions. It is the story of love and loss, of the challenge of change, and finally it is the questioning of who we imagine ourselves to be.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
MMM: I would like the book to be read by both Israelis and Palestinians—and also by readers in the United States and the rest of the world. I believe factual works in non-fiction are important, but I also believe it is the human story that will shift minds and soften hearts, and thus be the most powerful tool in the Palestinian fight for liberation. The book is also relevant to all of us, regardless of national concepts or religious doctrines. It carries a universal message.
The Palace of Angels has been underway for five years and, in that time, both Palestinians and Israelis have read it. I would love to have my belief reaffirmed—that the power of human stories can connect us on a much deeper level than the attempts of the bolstered hatred of corporate media to separate us.
The Palace of Angels also carries the message that our fighting hides our pain, our lost sense of belonging. That we—in all the faces of our humanity—are in dire need for a vision for the future. One that underscores the importance of human rights and works for a safe and sustainable existence for future generations. If we can redefine ourselves by that vision, we have already begun our path to a different and better humanity. The message is also that for us to be able to do that, we must have the courage to let go of our past and adapt our rituals (culture) and beliefs to shape our identities in a changing world.
I would like to see the last story in the book, “The Palace of Angels,” used as an example of what is possible for Palestine. That once upon a time Muslims and Jews mutually supported each other, and today the number of Jewish organizations working to end the Zionist occupation has never been greater. I would love to see all the stories be assigned to literary classes around the world—to understand how fiction can be used to show and also challenge the personal narrative, the personal conflict within the physical conflict, and to encourage journalists to embrace fiction as a means of telling the stories that remain untold in mainstream news.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
MMM: Together with a Palestinian-Syrian woman, I am working on a novel set in Lebanon in 2006 and 2014, with the working title: War and Plastic Surgery. It is a deep story about fleeing war in Syria and falling in love with a man chasing war in Lebanon. And so much more…
I am also working on a short story collection with stories from around the last twenty years.
J: What are the most important messages in The Palace of Angels?
MMM: That people, not states, have a right to exist. The book attempts to show—through the absurdity of occupation—the tragedy, despair, and also the compassion in the personal and collective lives of the stories.
A key message is that we can overcome our differences and that there is an alternative to conflict by moving away from the false dilemma of having to choose a side. We are victims of our own psychological prisons which convince us to remain in the trap. It is a false choice, driven by painful emotions instead of wisdom (without emotions), which benefits those who do not wish to challenge the framing of the Palestinian question, those who bring arms to the table, who brand the power games of our adult playgrounds, and perpetuate the pain.
The message is that we must “light a candle (place our energy with organizations and people promoting co-existence and peace) and not remain cursing the darkness”, for there will be no change with the latter. This is what forms most of the discourse—and the lack of it. It only requires a bit of browsing online to witness this fact. The energy is wasted on arguments that can never be resolved, for it draws on that false dichotomy of sides. Our thoughts remain blinded and lead to the exact same actions and experiences which eventually produce the same emotions. And it is those emotions which form the basis of our choices. Once we decide to change them, we can make different choices, but we must begin with our thinking. That is, the place in our minds where we talk to ourselves.
Excerpt from the Book
Dedicated to you, whose tears fell into the well of my soul, whose voices planted stories in the depth of my heart.
From “What Is Past Is Dead”:
The young woman opened the driver’s door and flicked a switch, illuminating the back in a blue light.
Hand and finger marks in dried blood were daubed all over the walls. Towards the back doors, blood had run from a large splattered blotch on the wall, down to the floor. A small pool had formed and dried up. Straight in front of me, on the back wall, someone had written something in Arabic. It had clearly been written in blood and was all smeared except for a small part.
I made out: ‘Tomorrow the sun will shine and I…’ and then the line of the last letter was dragged all the way to the side, ending in a blotch of blood splashed in every direction, like the remnant of a blast. The floor was full of dried-up blood pools, drops and smears, scratched and marked with bare feet and boots.
Whoever had been in there had either been bludgeoned or taken their last breaths. The comparison with the Mukhabarat my mind had previously conjured, suddenly vanished. I watched Mido swallow deeply and he looked over at me with the most terrified eyes I had ever seen.
I wanted to say something, but at the edge of my vision were three soldiers with smug grins on their lips.
I grabbed the rope handle on one end of the large crate in front of us and gave Mido a reassuring look, as if to say, ‘come on, let’s get this over with’. He grabbed the other end.
We loaded the first dozen rifles into our van.
From “Twenty Two Years To Life” (the middle story):
Mohammed was a tall and handsome man. His eyes were like honeycomb on fire, his hair pitch black in contrast. His skin was coloured like rye and his beard—as black as the rest of his hair— followed the lines of his square cheeks. Sarah was Mohammed’s second wife. Zeinab, his first wife, was killed when the taxi she and their children were in, stopped at a jam-packed intersection. It was rush hour. Kids were crossing the streets in all directions, young men hastily trying to sell handkerchiefs or washing windscreens as the cars came to a standstill. An Israeli F-16 fighter jet with a pilot that followed orders without question had already locked in on the car right next to them and pushed the button. In the time it would have taken the missile to ignite, fly through the air, reach the car and explode, Zeinab and their two sons, Abdul-Halim and Haydar, would only just have managed to look out the window and chase the roar of the fighter jet. Then it was all over.
The explosion created a large hole in the street and in it, the car that had carried a family of four, not some prominent military figure, had been turned into a mash of shrapnel and body parts. The other cars had been crushed against each other and the carnage suggested that of a human slaughterhouse. Flying glass had cut into scores of people, and although most survived, those surrounding the bullseye were immolated.
I had to get four other men to help throw Mohammed to the ground and we tied him up against a lamppost, screaming and kicking, until I had removed his children. Words fail to describe the silent conversation I had with death when I removed the two six-year-old twin boys who were left frozen in an incinerated pose of shielding themselves.
Both Haydar and Abdul-Halim were in their first week of school and had been carrying their little plastic backpacks. The explosion had melted the bags onto their skin and turned their clothes into ash. Haydar was still warm, charred beyond recognition. I knew it was him because he was the one with the large appetite. He was stiff and his skin felt hard and brittle under my fingertips. A man from the Red Crescent helped as we wrapped both of them in towels to be taken to Zeinab’s parents.
I went back to Mohammed who, tied to the lamppost, looked like a crazy animal: foaming mouth, kicking legs and twisting body, screaming at me with his mighty voice to let him loose, threatening to kill me if I didn’t. I got on my knees, unable to stop shaking, and looked him in the eyes. I tried to utter something, just one word, but nothing came out. Mohammed fell to sobbing as he stared back at me, tears running from his eyes. I went around to his back and untied him. He got up and straggled his way towards the taxi. Several men surrounded him, some wanting to stop him, some telling the others to wait and let him be. I didn’t move. I watched my childhood friend try to lift the body of his beloved Zeinab out of the car, only to have her tear apart like a papier-mâché Catrina with warm pulp bursting out from inside.
The following day Mohammed tried to touch Haydar and Abdul-Halim, but every time he came close, he stopped an inch away from their black bodies as if trying to find a place to lay his strong hands without hurting them. Instead, he prayed a single prayer, kissed the bodies of both his sons gently on the forehead, whispered something in Zeinab’s ear and stroked what was once her face with the back of his hand, like running a feather on soft skin. He didn’t shed a single tear. He rose like a lion standing upright, and then fainted to the ground.
We buried his family in a silence of low muffled prayers.
From “The Palace of Angels”:
We all, disregarding the name of our God, deserve to know there is a better way. We deserve a new reality where we all live together in peace. I’m part of my country and it is Palestine to me. To Linah, it is Israel. Do not ask us where we are from. Ask us where we wish to go, who we wish to become. We are part of this planet, part of the universe. Part of me, however small that part is, is a part we all share. It lives within us all—holds our integrity as human beings.
That part of us that will free us from ourselves.
For Linah and me, for us to share a life together, we had to leave. We went to northern Sweden where the only prison is the darkness of winter. Compared to the turnstiles and yellow of the checkpoint nights, compared to the horror of children, men and women being slaughtered before my eyes, compared to the daily humiliation and punishment for no reason, it’s as bright as the sun on the clearest summer’s day.