An Interview with Sahar Mustafah

Sahar Mustafah is the talented author of our featured fiction, “Triumph,” which first appeared in the summer 2020 issue (43.2) of the Missouri Review. Recently, TMR staff member Vivian Herzog spoke with Sahar about the occupation of Palestine, global feminism, and what it means to belong to a place. You can read her story here.

 

Vivian Herzog: As the American daughter of Palestinian immigrants, how do your own lived experiences inform the character of Intisar?

Sahar Mustafa: I very much see Intisar as embodying young people like my own daughters, who are third-generation Palestinian. They’ve largely enjoyed greater diversity and reclamation of their identities to an extent that I hadn’t growing up in America. Their generation is more optimistic and inclusive as opposed to assimilationist, as my experiences had been. However, there’s a danger in that kind of optimism—as we see in the character of Intisar—when you’re so far detached from the experiences of political occupation and trauma.

VH: Your story subtly discusses issues of abortion, domestic violence, and gendered power dynamics. How do these topics—and the way they’re portrayed in your story—speak to the current state of feminism in Palestine?

SM: I think we’re seeing a powerful surge of intersectional, global feminism and protection of women’s bodies. This story was inspired by a friend who works with a protective agency and has had to combat the patriarchal and cultural attitudes of silence. I hope this story might speak to the idea that women form the collective foundation of any country and it’s important to defend, uplift, and support Palestinian women from both domestic violence and the effects of the Israeli occupation—forces that seek to oppress or completely destroy them.

VH: The piece is written with such lush and precise sensory details. How did you conduct research so as to capture the specific character of the setting?

SM: Thank you for saying so! I’m fortunate to have lived in Palestine and to continue to travel there. Much of those direct experiences contribute to world-building that I hope feels authentic. My family still owns a small villa just a kilometer or so outside of a mokhayam, the Al Om’aari refugee camp.

VH: It seems to me there’s an element of challenge Intisar is chasing, or maybe that she has something to prove. Her cousins tell her she “won’t last” long in Palestine, which she refutes. What does this reveal about Intisar as a character or about her relationship to Palestine?

SM: Yes. I think it’s connected to a few things. One is the turbulent relationship with her father, away from whom a reader might sense she’s running in rebellion. Another dynamic is the American-bred sense of invincibility, which leads Intisar to feel equipped and qualified to succeed no matter where she lands. She’s got this “seen-it-all” experience of working as a sexual assault examiner in the States. Finally, and most interesting to me, is that Palestine represents a place she might find some sense of belonging and purpose in this life that she hasn’t quite achieved. This makes for a noble quest, but one that we discover is unattainable in Palestine. She’s fully immersed in her ancestral culture and wants to reclaim it, but she hasn’t rightfully earned it.

VH: Why did you choose to center the story around life at a women’s clinic?

SM: It allowed me to home in on a complex and nuanced population of Palestinian women as well as interlopers, so speak, like the Norwegian doctor. I could explore the salient similarities, as well as—and more intriguing—their resounding differences, stemming from race, culture, class, education, etc.

VH: Amti Farha’s villa is near to the refugee camp, but you explicitly write that the camp is hidden from the villa’s view. What does this detail say about the nature of life in occupied Palestine?

SM: As I shared earlier, my family and I were very close in proximity to the refugee camp, but it was essentially out of sight. I find this intriguing as an American citizen who gets to come and go, relatively unfettered. I was born to immigrants and have never had the experience of even temporary homelessness. It demonstrates the clashing existence of class and wealth among native Palestinians who escaped the squalor of poverty and displacement after 1948 and 1967, as well as the return of expats. In the end, I’ve come to appreciate that it’s really only a sliver of fate between me and my counterparts in the refugee camps.

VH: Most interactions in the story take place between women. Obviously, scenes of interaction between men and women occur, but they are briefer and more charged. In other words, these interactions seem to lack the warmth that defines the relationships between the women in your story. Were you conscious of this when writing the story? What does this say about gendered interactions in Palestine today?

SM: I wouldn’t characterize it as a lack of warmth in those interactions, as much as my desire to focus on the community of women for storytelling. I’ve always been moved by the compelling bonds between women, as a woman shaped by such bonds. Palestinian women possess a resilience and grace that transcends hardship and propels them to live and love their families—not merely survive.

VH: How does the historical plight and identity of Palestine guide your writing?

SM: I’ve only written about native and immigrant Palestinians in my fiction. Being Palestinian is an incredibly charged and fraught identity that also informs other identities I carry: American, Muslim, woman, mother, writer, teacher. There’s a perpetual yearning for home in the diaspora and for an end to the Occupation in Palestine to which I’m drawn, as well as how generational trauma and collective memory manifest in future generations.

As a writer, I’m quite conscious of the privilege I possess in being able to write in a space free from the shackles of the Israeli occupation. I also pay attention to what I’m creating as art, dispelling commonly reductive narratives around Palestinians. For me, fiction provides a space to explore identity and belonging without having to worry about finding the answers. I hope we get closer to those answers about our humanity every time we engage in a story.

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Vivian Herzog is an intern at the Missouri Review.  She is a senior at the University of Missouri, where she is studying magazine editing and creative nonfiction writing.