Upon returning to Gaza from London where he has made his home, Omar begins recounting his family history to his son for fear that his son might turn out like him: confused about his origins for most of his life. On the complicated journey to the besieged area, the narrative unspools back to Omar′s childhood in letters to his son. Knowing his return might be dangerous and he may never see his son again, he buys a notebook to write these letters and begins, ″My dearest Mustafa, I am not sure where to start from. One day you will grow up and you may never need to read this because we will be together and I will tell you the whole story myself.″
Omar reveals some painful truths: as a child, he was once used as a collaborator; he was raped by a notorious officer in the Israeli army; moreover, he declared himself ″the youngest detective in the Jabalia Camp at the age of eight″ in Gaza to investigate the disappearance of his father.
Omar′s father disappeared while he was still an infant in the 1980s. No one claims to know the circumstances of Mustafa senior′s disappearance and Omar′s mother appears to be hiding something behind her pained smiles, even though she too has pled ignorance. Using his friend as sidekick, Omar conducts his own investigation into his father′s disappearance in this hybrid text – part detective story, part educational novel and part historical chronicle of the period before and after the Oslo Accords in the besieged Gaza Strip.
Replete with trauma
In Ahmed Masoud′s debut novel ″Vanished: The Mysterious Disappearance of Mustafa Ouda″, the fact that the detective at the centre of the narrative is a child who carries the heavy burden of a serious investigation in one of the most devastated and besieged areas in the world – the Gaza Strip – is simply a reflection of the way children are forced to grow up before their time in the beleaguered area.
Omar′s childhood is indeed replete with traumatic incidents: aside from an absent father, his investigation into his father′s disappearance leads him into the violent, terrifying grip of military commander Uri who forces him to collaborate against his own community and abuses the young boy in the process.
His trauma doesn′t end there – little Omar is shot in the leg by Israeli soldiers for throwing stones. Then, forced by circumstance to join the resistance movement, he is separated from his mother.
What should sometimes be a gruelling, emotionally exhausting and devastating read moves along too hurriedly. There are traumatic incidents that are rushed through within a couple of brief sentences.
Although it′s understandable that Masoud aims to have the steady, staunch, often concise and economical narration of the protagonist reflect the concept of summoud – Palestinian steadfastness and relentlessness in the face of incredible adversity and suffering – some pause to linger on the effects of trauma inflicted upon Omar might have made some sense.
For example, he joins the resistance movement while still a child because he′s pressured to do so. But, that he carries on his assignments with talent and flair is not connected at all to his trauma or to his sense of justice born of trauma.
Masoud rushes through this period of Omar′s life and thus Omar′s success in the movement appears to be attributed to a courage and bravado that come naturally.
Certainly, maintaining a fast-paced and action-oriented narrative facilitates the novel′s investment in unlocking mysteries, but when incredible trauma opens up fresh wounds, one begins to wonder why the narration breezes through it, rather than connecting it to the protagonist′s motivations. Both the protagonist and his narrator appear to be looking so far back that they are myopic about their present condition – traumatised, wounded and, to a certain extent, debilitated.
The novel gives insight into the period before and after the Oslo Accords in 1993, depicting the premature euphoria and celebration that gripped the people of Gaza. It also gives insight into the period following the Accords, wherein post-euphoria society further fragments, disillusionment sets in and dissatisfaction with Fatah – as well as the newly formed Palestinian Authority – grows alongside support for Hamas.
The novel is clearly critical of the Palestinian Authority as a repressive force that does the Israeli government′s bidding, sowings more discord and factionalism than could ever have been predicted at the euphoric outset of its formation. The novel also provides a chronicle of the first bombardments to hit Gaza at the time and the fear, shock, and frustration it created that led to increasing support for Hamas.
The pacing of the suspense up until the denouement at the end, wherein secrets are unlocked and the cloud of mystery is banished, is well-executed. The theme of collaboration runs like a thread throughout the novel, revealing that any vulnerability or weakness is taken advantage of to blackmail Palestinians into collaborating – drinking on the beach as many teenagers do, arranging travel documents for children′s life-saving surgery, inquiring into the whereabouts of one′s father – normal events that are used as leverage to ensnare Palestinians for generations into a life of treachery and violence.
Omar′s rescue throughout the novel comes from a variety of places in his community, but the character of Um Marwan, the neighbour who had known his father, is his primary saviour – not only by saving his life, but also by tending to his fragile and wounded inner world as both a child and an adult. All the female characters are depicted with realism and nuance – as strong and vulnerable, as self-sacrificing and self-indulgent, as truthful and deceptive. They are as complex as the besieged terrain that they navigate.
Indeed, the novel could have used more editing to flush out some awkward phrasing, such as ″nails running through my heart″, ″a hole in the middle of the family″, and ″an assortment of sorts″. Despite its flaws, the novel stands as a nuanced chronicle of a troubled, ravaged and besieged area of the world. It also stands as a traditional mystery full of suspense – yet one bound to a social realism that faithfully roots the narrative in the cultural terrain and history it navigates, trying to unlock its secrets – just as the protagonist tries to unlock those of his family.