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Posts Tagged ‘Palestine’

Sometime in the summer of 2019 I was in our local bookstore (where I used to work) and chatted with one of the staff who said she had been trying to get advanced reader copies of books into the hands of customers, to help find good reads and talk them up. She let me look through a pile. I grabbed Walking to Jerusalem by Justin Butcher. By the time the pandemic hit 6-7 months later, I hadn’t read it yet, and picked it up. I quickly decided my dad might like it (he recently celebrated walking the equivalent of twice around the earth) so I sent it to him. A few weeks ago he sent it back as he is weeding his collection. I picked it up again and am very glad I did.

Yes, it’s a book about a very long walk, from London to Jerusalem across 11 countries over several months in 2017, but mainly it’s a book about why the walkers did this. The event was called the Just Walk, and as Butcher explains early in the book, it was conceived as a way to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, which was a statement made by the government of Great Britain in 1917 that paved the way for the modern State of Israel. After outlining briefly the political reasons for the statement, Butcher notes that it was also inspired by antisemitism — there were plenty of British leaders (and ordinary people) who felt Jews couldn’t assimilate into English life and so the idea of a Jewish nation appealed to those who wanted Jews to leave England. And although the Balfour Declaration did state that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” the British government’s subsequent actions were more concerned with establishing a Jewish state than with protecting the rights of the majority Palestinian population.

Along with describing what it’s like to travel on foot, Butcher provides colorful commentary about the places the walkers passed through — in particular he writes about many sites that have welcomed pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land for centuries, as the group stops in those places. As he walked he used the voice recorder on his phone as well as journaling, so there are passages where he quotes some of the local guides at length. It’s all very interesting. Their Albanian host, for example, talks not only about the way Albania protected Jews during WWII but also about the economic collapse in the post-communist era caused by a government bond scheme fraught with corruption that bankrupted people and caused a violent uprising. I didn’t know anything about that, even though it happened only a couple of decades ago.

And Butcher describes the landscape near Kryezi, Albania: “The little grove surrounding the farmstead is a Tolkienesque glade of fabulously gnarled, ancient, twisted trunks of olive trees, with huge distended girth like baobabs, sprawling and stretching over the shelves of the hillside . . . . Between the vegetation, where the mountain slopes are too steep for any cultivation, there are great pale escarpments, riddled and marbled with fantastical swirling rock formations.”

Still, the most compelling thing about Walking to Jerusalem is the stories of the many Palestinians Butcher and the others meet or knew before the trip, people whose entire lives for generations have been impacted by displacement, occupation, intimidation, and violence. There are stories of so many individuals and groups in the Holy Land trying to bring people from Israeli and Palestinian communities together. So many acts of nonviolent resistance. So many stories of illegal settlement, of Israeli police and military ignoring the systemic abuse of Palestinians by militant settlers, of houses demolished, farmland encroached upon, collective punishment. I’m not going to quote one or two, because I think the cumulative effect is what is so powerful in this book.

Walking to Jerusalem is a moving read. It’s not any better in the Occupied Territory since the Just Walk — Butcher actually writes that things are worse by the time he is finishing the book. But the Palestinians he meets tell him again and again that what he can do for them is tell their stories. Let the world know that they are people trying to live their lives as best they can in the face of systemic injustice. It’s indifference that allows oppression to continue. I’m grateful for the people who did the Just Walk and all the organizations around the world and in the U.S. who are working to end both indifference and oppression.

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Hala Alyan is a Palestinian American poet and a psychologist, and both her vocations and her heritage are evident in her debut novel Salt HousesShe has a poet’s sense of imagery and language, her book is the story of Palestinian displacement over several generations, and her insights into the psychological wounds of war, statelessness, and resettlement are astute and moving. While I haven’t experienced being a refugee, I’ve volunteered with resettlement so I’ve enjoyed the hospitality of people who are at once American and something else, people who feel they belong everywhere and nowhere.

The main characters of Salt Houses are the progeny of Salma, matriarch of a family living in Nablus when the book opens. It is 1963 but the pain of fleeing Jaffa fifteen years earlier is fresh for Salma. Her younger daughter Alia is about to marry Atef, who is Alia’s brother Mustafa’s best friend. They live well in Nablus, even though Salma is a widow. The book moves forward a few years at a time, and in 1967, Nablus, too becomes a part of their past, when the Six-Day War scatters them. Salma goes to Amman, Alia and Atef join Alia’s older sister and her husband in Kuwait City. As you may recall, Saddam Hussein attacked Kuwait City in 1990, and so Alia’s generation is the next to flee a war with a fraction of their belongings, leaving behind jobs, neighbors, and a home. Alia’s children end up even more scattered, in Paris, Boston, Beirut, and Amman. In Beirut they again experience war, although they don’t flee. By the end of the book, Alia’s grandchildren travel from many countries to visit with her and Atef. Life goes on around them, but each generation retains the sense that within themselves, they are never far from where they come from, wherever they go. And where they come from, originally, is Palestine.

Through it all, Atef lives with trauma from the 1967 war that he can manage only by writing letters in secret in his study, letters he can never send. He also copes by focusing on his children, being present with them so that he doesn’t slip into the past. Alyan describes Atef’s feelings for his firstborn, “. . . he loves Riham beyond reason, a love tinged with gratitude, for when she was first placed in his arms, tiny and wriggling and red-faced, he felt himself return, tugged back to his life by the sound of her mewling. The arrival of Riham restored something, sweeping aside the ruin of what had come before.”

These family relationships form the heart of the story, which Alyan tells well. You want to know whether the tempestuous Alia and her equally strong willed daughter Souad will make peace, whether gentle Riham, so like her grandmother Salma, will be happy with her much older husband. Will Abdullah become radicalized? Will Manar find what she’s seeking? The many small dramas that make up a family’s life provide plenty for the reader to savor as the pages turn.

What makes this much more than a standout family saga is the greater narrative: the story of ordinary Palestinians – professional people, whose children watch too much TV and eat too much sugar, who work and worry about the same things families like theirs worry about around the world —  caught in a cycle of loss and displacement, the shadow of each generation’s pain resting on the next. They are resilient, and fortunate in many ways, but also perpetually grieving for what could have been, perpetually speaking with the wrong accent, and yet perpetually seeking and making home wherever they are.

This is a beautiful book and an important one. I think it’s safe to say that most Americans have only a tenuous understanding of the Middle East, and even though this is a novel it gets at human truth in a universally recognizable way.  Definitely, we should all learn the facts of the region’s history and geopolitics, but it can’t hurt to also try to understand the feelings of people who just want the best for their families, as my wise grandmother used to say. whenever we talked about places caught up in conflict. Salt Houses offers one way to begin to understand.

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Here’s another brief review I wrote for the library.  I love Penelope Lively‘s writing, and I really enjoyed her memoir. It made me wish I could hear her speak, or even better, sit down and have a cup of tea (or glass of wine) with her.

Novelist Penelope Lively reflects on “old age,” “life and times,” “memory,” “reading and writing,” and “six things” – objects around her  house that hold special meaning for her – in this vivid and unique memoir. The book reads like a conversation with a wise older friend, and Lively’s nonlinear narrative and varied recollections make this a book you can dip into. For fans of Lively’s fiction, her descriptions of various stories’ origins are interesting and enlightening. For history buffs, there are remembrances of a WWII childhood in Egypt and as the war grew too close, Palestine and England. Throughout the book, Lively notes the importance of reading. “I can measure out my life in books. They stand along the way like signposts: the moments of absorption and empathy and direction and enlightenment and sheer pleasure.” I found all of these in Dancing Fish and Ammonites.

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