Smoke rises from a building hit by an air strike on 25 July. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Tomorrow the war ends: diary of a writer in Gaza City

“Although I ask my family what date it is every day, and I look it up myself whenever I can, I always forget within a few short moments.”

Although I ask my family what date it is every day, and I look it up myself whenever I can, I always forget within a few short moments.

And so I didn’t exactly know the day, or the date, or the time. My phone was out of power. The night was as normal as any other in Gaza, or so I imagined it to be. No electricity, true, but this is nothing new. Perhaps it’s new for the length of the outage to stretch from hours into days, but still this is normal. There were no sounds of bombardment, or gunfire, or screams, only the sounds of drone aircraft. This, too, has become a normal occurrence, as these planes always circle above the skies of Gaza.

I sat in my room, thinking of this idea of normality. The house was quiet, enough to hear the sound of the night breathing between your limbs. Staring into the darkness of the room, you can avoid thinking of any images of death past or present that you might have seen.

The electrical current returned, though I heard no sounds of rejoicing as used to happen. The noise of televisions did not come from the walls of our neighbours’ houses. All I heard was my mother’s footfalls as she ran to plug in the refrigerator and check that we had water. The beautiful thing is that my mother’s running is something normal - it happens every day when the power comes back. Each of my siblings grabs his or her laptop or smart phone with a sigh, hoping to make use of the minutes of current to play, read, or write on their social media accounts about Gaza. This happens every day.

I convince myself, this time, that we are going about our daily lives, and that this sudden war will end tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, or the day after the day after tomorrow. I don’t know how long the thought had managed to settle in my mind before it flipped head over heels as the whole house shook. The books flew off their shelves, and the sound of a harsh blast made me jump from my bed and head into the living room. I asked, at the same time as the rest of my family: “Where is the strike? It must be close by…”

In a single second, the idea of normality is gone. We sat together, looking at each other, unable to cry or comment. One of us flipped through the channels, and we watched in grief and pain.

The sounds of the bombardment grew louder, as each one of us made a visible effort to withstand it. The closer each explosion came, the more we were struck by a single thought: is it our turn next?

When will there be a truce? Will there be a truce?

Not a day goes by without each of us asking that question. Each of us wants to go about our lives, just as we all know that everyone in Gaza wants to go about their lives.

I still don’t know what day it is, or the date, or the time. I have moved beyond the cycle of time. Day and night are no longer fixed. In war, you sleep at any time and are awakened at all times. It is war, and nothing else, and this is what we don’t want to admit. My mother goes to work and returns with two narratives, the first of life in the city that has gone to sleep and the other of the struggle to exist. In the streets there are houses transformed into ashes. The alleyways of the city are filled with piles of rubble, with memories of entire families buried beneath them. On another sidewalk, people search for food to give their children, urging their hearts to beat faster to show all generations that the meaning of survival is life.

I live in the middle of the city. It’s no more secure than any other region of Gaza City, yet people threatened with evacuation have travelled here. Along the street, houses have swelled with the displaced. Those who have fled look for help, settling by the dozens in storerooms and closets. They spend their time looking for a resolution that is surely close by, telling their children: tomorrow, the war ends. In doing so, they repeat what our grandparents said after 1948: tomorrow, we return.

Every person thus uprooted gathers two forms of sadness in his or her face. The first is the one we all experience, with each bombardment or loss. The second is the sadness of a personal loss, whether of stones or of flesh and blood, for the stones gave them shelter and contained the story of their lives.

Tomorrow the war ends. They win out over their sadness with this idea, and draw from it hope for tomorrow, a tomorrow that might return them to the threshold of the houses where they were born. They might not manage to forget the moment when their hearts were shattered into so many fragments, as they fled under the sounds of the bombardment, whether they were from Shajaiyya, Zaytoun, Tufah, or any place in all-too-small Gaza.

Tomorrow the war ends, and the city breathes in the mornings once again. Its mosques and churches go back to their prayers, as the city bids farewell to its martyrs. The sadness is broken by hope, which cannot help but rise again. The war will end, and the martyrs will guard the gate of heaven against any more deaths. The young will go to school carrying their bags, and run about in the yard. The war will end, and the wandering salesmen will go back to hawking their wares. The city’s famed hummus and falafel stores will open, and the Zawiya market will be filled with vendors and shoppers. People will buy their flour and their spices, and go on. Tomorrow the war ends, and the chroniclers will write at the top of their pages that the date the 2014 Gaza War ended was—

Translated from the Arabic by Andrew Leber

Najlaa Ataallah was born in 1987 and lives in Gaza. She has published two novels, one novel for young adults, and a collection of short stories. She is a contributor to The Book of Gaza: A City in Short Fiction, published by Comma Press

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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism