An imagined village that historically was on the trade route from Cairo to Damascus. Once ruled by the Mamluks, today is in Gaza.
“A river, brimming with God’s assortment of fish and flora, can through Beir Daras, bringing blessings and carrying away village waste, dreams, gossip, prayers, and stories, which it emptied into the Mediterranean just north of Gaza. The water flowing over rocks hummed secrets of the earth and time meandered to the rhythms of crawling, hopping, buzzing, and flying lives.”
The author, Susan Abulhawa, is a political activist whose family immigrated to the U.S. after the Six Day war with Israel. Her parents had lived in East Jerusalem, initially moving to Kuwait. She reportedly spent some time in foster care, and the character Nur perhaps reflects some of her experience. The story is a saga of a Palestinian family displaced after Israel’s War of Independence, told through the eyes of women. It is a story of family and traditional Palestinian values, in part, in contrast to American values and those of richer Palestinians. The underlying theme is of unprovoked displacement, occupation, and struggle to regain their freedom and village of Beir Daras. The novel begins with a recitation of the Israel-Arab/Palestinian conflict and the rise of Hamas, who the author supports.
“Declassified documents, obtained years later, revealed the chilling precision with which Israel calculated the calorie intake of 1.8 million Palestinians in Gaza to make them go hungry, but not starve.” The author’s statement is based on a April 15, 2006 article in the Observer section of The Guardian, and attributable to Dov Weissglass, then an advisor to the then Prime Minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert :
“‘The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger,’ he said. The hunger pangs are supposed to encourage the Palestinians to force Hamas to change its attitude towards Israel or force Hamas out of government.”
The authenticity of the quote and its context were later called into question (see https://bbcwatch.org/tag/dov-weisglass/ ). Without the undercurrent theme I might have been able to enjoy the story more, but its historical inaccuracies and unbalance, seem aimed at propaganda for recruits. Given that the author lives in Pennsylvania and did not bear the suffering that those in Gaza have experienced, this is bothersome to me. She admits that the venue is derivative from Ramzy Baroud’s book My Father Was a Freedom Fighter. To her credit she is the founder of Playgrounds for Palestine.
The story never demonstrates the starvation and deprivation that I expected it to. The families do not have all that they want and do suffer from bombings, but no family member is ever without food nor has diet limitations. They have periodic celebrations. It does not feel like a pogrom, if that was the author’s intent. Perhaps this was edited out. Perhaps the intent was not to directly create a political novel, but to do so indirectly. The preface and epilogue only intermittently reflect the novel and might have been omitted.
The more literary writing reflected in the initially quoted paragraph of this review is never repeated. This novel is principally story-telling. The characters are well-developed, particularly the matriarch of one of the family lines, Atiyeh m. Nazmiyeh, and Nur a granddaughter of a related family line, who is American born, and suffers in foster care before emigrating to Gaza. The interplay between these two characters and Nazmiyeh’s daughter, Alwan, is interesting, as Western American women (and Westernized upper class Palestinian women) values are unacceptable to retained traditional values. The atomic, individualized world of Americans, is rejected by the communal, familial orientation of traditional Arab (and Persian) cultures. The author is reflects the values of her characters, and is honest in doing so.
As this is principally a women’s novel, only the stories of a few males by marriage, birth, or relationship, are told. Nazmiyeh’s eleven sons are not part of the tale. Are they part of the resistance or are they merely trying to earn a living to survive? Perhaps the author can write a sequel based on their stories given her political activism.
If you are a supporter of Hamas you may like this novel or may find it too mainstream. Personally I am troubled by an agenda that keeps sending young people and families to their death, rather than to try to coexist and build a better life for those which it purportedly represents (and did at one point).