The Palace of Angels opens sometime in the early 21st century. From Rafah in Egypt, bordered on the east by the Gaza Strip, we go into Palestine, divided and isolated. A place of checkpoints and incursions, barbed wire and desperate mean streets, this is hell; the unimaginable made corporeal. Stepping into this confined life, hemmed in by borders, laws, evil faceless politics, surveillance and poverty, you are caught. Your dreams seem beyond affordable. This is the time of the Intifadas, before the wall. Life is cheap, your existence sustained by dangerous activities you’d prefer to avoid, usually involving trade in arms and other contraband. Paranoia is everywhere, but some obstacles can be momentarily brushed aside with the right bribe, or a word from an important contact. Missile bombardment comes without warning and steals life from your family and friends. You wonder how life can be fulfilled in such dire circumstances but there is kindness and hope here, even where you least expect it.
“Memories of violence are not like other memories, They burn themselves into the soul.“
The Palace of Angels is a trilogy of confronting stories about the people who live and fight for freedom in this warzone. The stories are linked and the whole collection is brutal and sharp, yet tender and poetic. Its author, Mohammed Massoud Morsi, writes with a clear and lyrical hand. Like a brilliant foreign film, the book is rich in the details of domestic life; the food, the gestures, the language, and the smells and textures too. The storytelling is arresting and passionate, and the players stay with you long after you turn the final page. The narrator observes small magical moments, casually capturing the slight signals each person passes to the other almost without realising it. The stories have an insistent, almost existential quality to them – the future lies beyond certainty, and yet the heart carries on. Morsi’s great skill as a storyteller is to place us in the heart of this foreign situation, describing everything, both physical and emotional, with an economy of exposition. So much is happening and yet the story is seamless.
As readers, we are dropped into an alien zone, aware of the danger all around. It has its own consistent yet bewildering rules. Houses built on occupied territories are reclaimed, building bricks gathered from the rubble. Babies are gifted. Allah is great. Idealism and patriotism leads to further risk, even though just being in this land is risky enough.
What is fate in such a time? What is choice?
In all of this, the precious gift of life is treasured, as limited as it seems. Small pleasures and grand gestures are peppered throughout these stories. The characters all battle to determine their own fate, to build in the face of powerlessness and destruction, and in this way The Palace of Angels is an intense examination of action as the fruit of thought. Morsi clearly exposes the roots of inter-generational conflict and trauma, asking how the good people of Palestine and Israel can find peace and unity in this death cycle of martyrs and patriots.
This book is full of tears, and not only because the poignant love story is heartbreakingly captured. The contradiction of being stateless in your own land is almost unbelievable. Being without rights and dignity wears you down. As with the writing of Behrooz Boochani, this is bleak and gritty stuff, but you are compelled to move through it by the passionate hearts and the warmth of the people. The tenderness of human yearning is hard to turn your back on, and the story pulls you forward with a dramatic set of sharp turns, like sudden drone fire breaking an intimate moment. The characters of the story are young, conflicted and impulsive, which gives them strength while also threatening their safety. They struggle with internal conflicts that mirror those around them, but they are good people. There is a push for decency and truth propelling these young idealists as they fight for a place within their own land.
The very personal commitment of the author is ever-present in this book. You feel his tears on every page, and his connection to the cause both informs and verifies the details. This is an exigent and authentic book, a tribute both to the idea of safe refuge and of transcending hatred. It is incredibly vital and powerful. I urge you to read this as it deserves, and will reward, your attention. It is quite unique in style, and like a cocktail of bitter and sweet flavours, there is a lingering sensation. You may well change your perspective on the Middle East, Gaza and the refugee crisis. You may also change your view on fate, human agency and angels.
I am very much looking forward to reading more of Morsi’s work.
The Palace of Angels
Years ago, three young men, fired with idealism for Palestine’s second Intifada and fuelled by hashish, ventured on a clandestine transaction that left just one of them standing. Guns from Israel — bound for Gaza — in exchange for Egyptian hashish.
Many years later, the fight for freedom from Israel’s brutal occupation flared into another Israeli onslaught — another ‘war’. Amidst the bombardment of Gaza in 2014 — dreams and miracles were shattered for Farida and Fathi, caught in the clash of religious ideologies and the struggle to wrest or retain power...