A Palestine Reader, Part II: Adult Books [in The Booklist Reader]
The unrelenting conflict between Palestine and Israel keeps the Middle East in the news. But for a fuller picture of the Palestinian and Palestinian-American experience than what the media can provide, here’s a starter reading list.
The Book of Gaza: A City in Short Fiction edited by Atef Abu Saif
Ten stories by 10 authors from Palestine’s Gaza Strip “paint a portrait of Gaza through the eyes of its writers, a city different to the one represented in the media.” Editor Saif remarks (certainly with some irony) that, after Jerusalem, “no Palestinian city has been so blessed with media coverage over the last half-century as Gaza.” The concentrated tumult during that time over who has jurisdiction over the 4,000-plus year-old city has all but guaranteed continued tragedy. Trapped in such conditions, Saif notes how “[t]he Palestinian novel written in Gaza. . . was characterized by its concision – not exceeding a hundred pages at most,” its abbreviated length better facilitating the possibility of publication. Out of necessity, short stories, too, are a popular literary form. Check out 10 portraits here.
Extraordinary Rendition: American Writers on Palestine edited by Ru Freeman
Dense, diverse, dedicated, Renditions is indeed extraordinary. Beyond race, ethnicity, religion, and other easy labels, editor Freeman (On Sal Mal Lane) gathers 450 pages in which “each writer’s work speaks both fearlessly and flawlessly. . . demonstrat[ing] that our writerly preoccupations are inevitably towards justice.” With a table of contents that includes voices from around the world who’ve created poetry, fiction, and essays, from Colum McCann to Tiphanie Yanique to Alice Walker to Naomi Shihab Nye to Claire Messud to Christina García to Freeman’s own teenage daughter Duranya Freeman, Rendition is an illuminating piece of testimony, compellingly digestible entry by entry or in majestic total.
Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco
Sacco – Malta-born, Oregon-domiciled when not traveling, and internationally recognized as one of the world’s finest cartoonists – has built his career documenting death and destruction throughout the world. A 2001 Harper’s magazine assignment to the Gaza Strip to “focus on how Palestinians in one town – Khan Younis – were coping during the early months of the Second Intifada against the Israeli occupation” lead Sacco and his journalist partner to uncover “seemingly the greatest massacre of Palestinians on Palestinian soil.” Tragedies previously relegated to mere footnotes in various reports get full attention in Sacco’s revealing account. As Sacco concurs with one of his interviewees, such events prove more important than ever as “they often contain the seeds of the grief and anger that shape present-day events.”
I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey on the Road to Peace and Human Dignity by Izzeldin Abuelaish
Difficult to read for all the senseless struggles and tragedies contained within, Abuelaish’s memoir reaffirms the human capacity for resilience and joy. From a Palestinian refugee camp to Harvard and back to the Gaza Strip, Abuelaish lost three daughters and a niece when Israeli bombs demolished his home. Despite his justified anger, his hope for peace miraculously remains intact: “If we want to spread peace throughout this planet, we should start in the holy lands of Palestine and Israel,” he writes. “Instead of building walls, let us build bridges of peace.”
Gaza Writes Back: Short Stories from Young Writers in Gaza, Palestine edited by Refaat Alareer
Published in commemoration of the fifth anniversary of Operation Cast Lead (December 27, 2008 – January 18, 2009, also referred to as the Gaza War and the Gaza Massacre by various outlets), Gaza Writes Back is first of its kind: 21 of the 23 stories it contains were originally written in English by Palestinians, making it what editor Alareer calls “a much-needed Palestinian youth narrative without the mediation or influences of translation or of non-Palestinian voices.” Fifteen young writers are represented here, of whom only three are male (Alareer: “the fact on the ground is that more young female writers in Gaza use social media and write literature, particularly in English”) and almost half began as writing assignments in Alareer’s classes. As testimony, Gaza is unfiltered, unblinking, eyewitness reportage; the ending “About the Writers” sections put faces and backgrounds to most of the storytellers. As literature, the results are predictably uneven, often reading more like drafts than finished works. That said, necessity gives Gaza gravitas from which readers can’t turn away.
Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City by Guy Delisle
French-Canadian Delisle is a graphic genius who draws what he sees and adds droll, minimal commentary, which creates poignant, effective, and resonant memoirs. From August 2008 to July 2009, Delisle, his partner Nadège, and their two young children Louis and Alice, call East Jerusalem home. Two days after arrival, an MSF employee stops by and provides an initial glimpse of the complicated, labyrinthine geography – literal, historical, cultural, religious – into which the family has landed. Thus begins a year of living most surreally.
Keep Your Eye on the Wall: Palestinian Landscapes edited by Olivia Snaije and Mitchell Albert
Four times longer and twice as high as the Berlin Wall, Palestine’s wall is referred to as “the security fence” by Israel, “the Apartheid Wall” by Palestinians, and “the Separation Barrier” or “Separation Wall” by nearly everyone else.” Combining text and photographs by locals and internationals, editors Snaije (former executive editor of Alef) and Albert (former editor of PEN / International’s literary journal) create stunning testimony that addresses what they describe as “one of the world’s most emotionally charged and controversial constructions of the past ten years.”
Letters to Palestine: Writers Respond to War and Occupation edited by Vijay Prashad
“If you are occupying other people’s shit, guess what – you are fucked up. That’s that,” Pulitzer Prize-winning Junot Díaz writes with his usual bluntness in this book’s introduction. Without using expletives, but equally committed to breaking the silence of occupation, editor Prashad (The Darker Nations) further explains, “Occupation is a state of war. No country is as complicit in Israel’s occupation and wars than the United States. . . Slowly, cautiously, sections of the US population have broken with the pro-Israel consensus. . . The authors of these documents are committed to the people of Palestine as much as to humanity.” Essays, verse, diary entries by writers as diverse as Teju Cole, Randa Jarrar, Ben Ehrenreich, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Sarah Shulman are gathered here as witnesses. “These are their letters,” Prashad intones. “Please deliver them to the present so that we can make a better future.”
Native: Dispatches from an Israeli-Palestinian Life by Sayed Kashua
Kashua is a rarity: an Israeli-Palestinian who’s lived in Jerusalem most of his life who writes in Hebrew, is translated into English, and now lives and teaches in Illinois. Most intriguing, he’s been writing (with significant success and accolades) for the last decade-plus for Haaretz, a left-leaning Israeli newspaper. This, his latest book, collects almost 10 years of his writings, up until his departure from his homeland for the U.S. in 2014. He writes: “I think I tried to survive the reality around me through words; to create order out of the swirling chaos and find an inner logic in what I saw and experienced.”
Palestine on a Plate: Memories from My Mother’s Kitchen by Joudie Kalla
Ready for a delicious break from conflict? The daughter of Palestinian refugees, London-raised Kalla pays toothsome tribute to her heritage with food and memories while sharing the recipes from her mother’s kitchen. “Palestinian food is an identity,” the chef and restaurateur explains. Combining history and family experiences, Kalla tells a story of resilience and love, of challenge and celebration, all through the dishes crafted and enjoyed through hundreds, even thousands of years.
Palestine’s Children: Returning to Haifa and Other Stories by Ghassan Kanafani
Kanafani was a national hero, a literary and political leader whose life was cut short by violence in 1972 when, at 36, a car bomb killed him and his young niece. The titular novella, Returning to Haifa, combines two historical events in Palestine: May 14, 1948, when Israel declared statehood, which led to the expulsion of some 200,000 Palestinians from their homes that very day, a number that grew to 700,000, who were made refugees by the end of the ensuing war; and 1967, when the borders between Israel, Gaza, and the Left Bank were opened for the first time, allowing Palestinians to visit their lost former homes. Almost 20 years since Said and Safiyya were driven out of Haifa – where, amidst violent confusion, their infant was left behind – they return to find Miriam, a widowed Jew, who has been waiting, dreading the future of her adopted son. The Solomon-like confrontation between the two sets of parents and the one son that they share by blood and by nurture is a paralyzing situation that will chill every parent and any child.
Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape by Raja Shehadeh
Gorgeous, compelling, joyous, and wrenching moments are all here, as Palestinian lawyer and writer Shehadeh shares six extended ambulatory journeys taken over almost three decades, from 1978 to 2006, through his beloved Palestinian hills. From bucolic rambles to angry confrontations, from life-threatening incidents marked by ongoing gunfire to sharing a nergila with a so-called enemy, Shehadeh celebrates, mourns, and hopes for his homeland as he bears witness to the ceaseless changes around him.
Salt Houses by Hala Alyan
Poet and psychologist Alyan, a Palestinian-American Brooklynite, makes her fiction debut with this four-generation epic about a Palestinian family uprooted and scattered, reunited and lost, surviving and thriving. Fleeing from war in Palestine, then Kuwait, settling in Lebanon and Boston (and not), the extended Yacoub family wander the globe in search of belonging, acceptance, and always, a sense of home.
Sharon and My Mother-In-Law: Ramallah Diaries by Suad Amiry
With all the contention, violence, and tragedy, laughter seems a rare reaction to the decades-long Palestinian/Israeli conflict. Yet Palestinian author Amiry captures what she calls the “absurdity of my life and the lives of others” in her award-winning memoir, which will incite giggles as well as guffaws. By training, Amiry is an architect and founder of Riwaq Centre for Architectural Conservation in Ramallah, Palestine, where she currently lives. By experience, she is a refugee, activist, and peace negotiator. Only by accident, she is also a writer. Comprised of her “personal war diaries” from 1981 to 2004, Amiry’s stories are of the “you can’t make this stuff up” variety, so ludicrous that only her irreverent humor – even as it is sometimes mixed with tears – can make you feel her desperation, her anger, her own unwilling complicity with the all-too-often appalling challenges of her day-to-day life.
Sonora by Hannah Lillith Assadi
Debut novelist Assadi’s protagonist, like herself, is the daughter of a Palestinian father and Jewish Israeli mother. Ahlam comes of age in the Arizona desert, physically safe from war, but damaged by the bitter fighting between her parents, their escalating confrontations echoing the news from the other side of the world. Ahlam finds companionship with Laura, who she meets as a high school freshman, but their relationship is complicated, their behavior often veering toward the dangerous. Death never seems far away, even as they attempt to outrun their fears by fleeing to New York City.
This Is Not a Border: Reportage & Reflection from the Palestine Festival of Literature, edited by Ahdaf Soueif and Omar Robert Hamilton (June)
PalFest, the Palestine Festival of Literature, makes the inaccessible available in near-impossible situations by bringing Anglophone writers to Palestinian audiences. PalFest presenters “try to travel in the same manner as its Palestinian audience,” enduring difficult roads, roundabout routings, checkpoints, and border crossings. A self-described cultural roadshow for the locals, PalFest is also an eye-opening, often life-changing experience for the participants. A sensational selection of these international Palfestivalians – curated by mother-son editors, Soueif and Hamilton – are represented here, including such luminaries as J.M. Coetzee, Suad Amiry, Susan Abulhawa, Kamila Shamsie, Teju Cole, Deborah Moggach, Nathalie Handal, China Miéville, and many more.
touch by Adania Shibli
Less is indeed more in Palestinian writer Shibli’s U.S. debut-in-translation. The deceptively minimal 72 pages hold layered shards from a young girl’s life, some shining with promise, others sharp with painful gravity, but all undoubtedly from an existence shattered at regular intervals by violence and tragedy. Lauded as a major young voice in Arabic fiction, Shibli deftly intertwines the mundane with the shocking to reveal a girl’s life in uncertain times.
Published: The Booklist Reader, May 2, 2017