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EAST JERUSALEM NOIR
by Rawya Jarjoura Burbara
Akashic Books, November 2023
275 pages
$17.95
ISBN: 1617759856


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

(Editor's note: This volume in Akashic's City Noir series is paired with WEST JERUSALEM NOIR, a review of which also appears in this issue.)

Akashic Books's metropolitan noir series now boasts a massive catalogue of anthologies set in a vast array of American cities and around the world. If you're wondering what Sam Spade or the Continental Op would do in Zagreb, Lagos, Cleveland, or (I quote Akashic) "Indian Country," and--not the same book--"Native Noir") look no further. Noir as world tour is an odd choice for the modern world, because originally, noir is intensely Orientalist. It's not an accident that in THE MALTESE FALCON, trouble comes to San Francisco via ship from Hong Kong, and the criminal crew who pursue the Black Bird are mostly foreigners demonized by the American wartime press, including a Maltese aesthete, a pair of Germans, and a pathologically creative Irishwoman.

The latest installments in the series include EAST JERUSALEM NOIR (the Palestinian side) and WEST JERUSALEM NOIR (Israeli), which Akashic is advertising together. They don't go, respectively, with CAIRO NOIR and TEL AVIV NOIR. Instead, like Spade and Bridget O'Shaughnessy, they are locked in deadly conflict, an efficient, inseparable bundle of animosity. The result is interesting but, like some other installments of the series, only very loosely associated with film or prose noir.

EAST JERUSALEM NOIR, edited by Rawya Jarjoura Burbara is compelling but not very noirish. Indeed, the first story, Nuzha Abu Ghosh's "The Ceiling of the City," translated by Catherine Cobham, opens "The Ceiling of the City was high and wide. Morning's chandelier cast a rosy light over the houses and alleyways." Noir stories take place in dark, dim, crowded cities, and under the harsh glare of bare light bulbs swinging from the too-low ceilings of interrogation rooms zebra-striped by the shadows of cheap Venetian blinds. Where Ghosh goes from here is more noirish: interrogation. An East Jerusalem-born Palestinian is interrogated about his I.D. card, or at least that is the pretext, by a pair of blonde IDF soldiers who are themselves settlers from Europe or Russia. "You give me your ID cards," he thinks but does not say. "I want to know what country each of you came from." Sam Spade might have actually said those words out loud, to miscreants like Joel not-remotely-Egyptian Cairo. However, in Sam Spade's universe, he's the one with the gun.

The collection gets more Gothic via the introduction of monster metaphors. In Ibrahim Jouhar's "The Scorpion," translated by Sawad Hussein, "Scorpions" (again, the IDF) "live to prove the power of death to children who have yet to taste life." To my admittedly Western imagination, this sentence brings to mind William Blake's Satanic "Great Red Dragon"--again, more 1790s Gothic imagery than mid-20th-century noir. Osama Alaysa's "Between the Two Jerusalems" is another story of apprehension, fear, and death, involving a boy with Downs Syndrome who believes that he is a cop and in that guise of course falls afoul of Israeli policing. Having "managed to establish himself as an unofficial traffic officer," Dab'oo is given a real uniform by the feckless Palestinian Authority. I read this story with a sense of dread that would not have inappropriate to THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO. What one might expect to happen in this awful situation does, but the story is riveting anyhow.

The British historian and literary critic Rohan McWilliam has written that the Gothic as politicized in nineteenth-century British radical fiction is a world of dungeons, arrests, and horror. If so, the only stories that can be written about twenty-first-century Palestine might be Gothic.

EAST JERUSALEM NOIR was compiled before 7 October 2023, so does not depict the horrific, Gothic, or noirish aspects of life in Palestine or Israel since that day. However, it may help make people who are following the news to visualize parts of the countries involved.

In short, though, EAST JERUSALEM NOIR crystallizes more starkly than most of its Akashic siblings the essentially colonialist turn that the Akashic Noir series has now taken. Everywhere (and every geographically dispersed ethnicity) in the United States and the world is mashed into a set of largely outdated tropes that once made sense to white people in pre-1960s San Francisco and Hollywood. These tropes should not be expected to be found everywhere on earth, or anywhere at present. Like the Orientalists critiqued by Edward Said back in 1978, Akashic should consider whether this project is illuminating the dark spaces of the world's metropoli or homogenizing them. At least the editor and writers of EAST JERUSALEM NOIR dared to break their own publisher's generic rules.

Rebecca Nesvet is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay and co-edits Reviewing the Evidence.

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, December 2023

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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