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It is timely to reflect on a book set in the Gaza Strip after the UN Security Council voted in favour of a resolution demanding the halt of settlement activity by Israel on occupied Palestinian territory. The resolution said Israel’s settlements on Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, have no legal validity. About 430,000 Israeli settlers currently live in the West Bank and another 200,000 Israelis live in occupied East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians see as the capital of their future state. The UN don’t have any teeth and Israel will almost definitely continue to ignore international condemnation under Netanyahu’s right-wing leadership but the Palestinians need some reason to hope and this important milestone should help. I wonder if it is Obama’s parting legacy that led to the USA abstaining from voting, because otherwise the resolution could not have been passed and Trump has already indicated that he supports Israel.
Anyway, back to the book. Abulhawa has a beautiful writing style that softens the horror of the atrocities and humiliations perpetrated by the Israelis on the desperate Palestinians locked inside the Gaza Strip. For example during the cowardly attack on December 27, 2008 by Israel on the Palestinians locked into Gaza, bombs rained down on the helpless Arabs who had nowhere to hide in their refugee camp. Helicopters flew through the Gaza Strip setting people alight with white phosphorous.
On the surface, life looked like decay. The destruction of buildings and infrastructure was so immense that debris and dust painted the air gray for days. The green earth was scorched then layered with the fragments of broken things and broken bodies. But after the dead were buried and all the tears had fallen, time thinned out to a liquid that rushed over Gaza like a stream over rocks, smoothing the jagged corners and coating them with a new moss of life.
Human Rights Watch reported on the same incident that Abulhawa included in her novel:
White phosphorus munitions did not kill the most civilians in Gaza – many more died from missiles, bombs, heavy artillery, tank shells, and small arms fire – but their use in densely populated neighborhoods, including downtown Gaza City, violated international humanitarian law (the laws of war), which requires taking all feasible precautions to avoid civilian harm and prohibits indiscriminate attacks.
The novel begins in 1947 with a beautiful story of traditional, peaceful life and love in a Palestinian village named Beit Daras. The story focuses on the pious Baraka family: Nazmiyeh can be outrageous and sassy with her words but she is a good Muslim and cares for her mother while starting a chaste love affair. Her brother Mamdouh learns the art of bee keeping while silently courting the bee keeper’s daughter. Their little sister Mariam spends her time beside the river talking to her imaginary friend who teaches her how to write. Their mother has been abandoned by their father and has moments of lucidity but spends part of her time communing with a djinn named Sulayman who protects her and her family. So, yes, as you have guessed by now there is an element of magic realism to this novel that lends some light to otherwise dark passages.
As you can imagine, it doesn’t take long until Israelis invade the village, execute men, rape women, murder children, and evict the rest of the villagers, forcing them upon a long and arduous walk to the Gaza Strip. The survivors of the Baraka family settle into life in a refugee camp along with others from across Palestine. They love, they pine for home, they survive as best they can despite the ferocious attacks by the heavily armed Israelis and severe restrictions placed by their Israeli gaolers on what could pass into and out of the Gaza Strip.
Israel sealed off the tiny Mediterranean strip of land, turning it into what became known as the largest open-air prison in the world. 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 book follows 4 generations of the Baraka family and part of the book is set in the USA following the terrible childhood of Nur. I enjoyed this book just as much as Abulhawa’s excellent novel Mornings in Jenin. She writes believeable characters and she injects humour and magic into the narrative when the story becomes grim. The book isn’t perfect and it would have been nice to have some internal monologue from the central characters but that wasn’t possible with the spirit of a 10 year old boy as the narrator. I cried a few times and I laughed too. I enjoyed reading the Arabic sayings (transliterated into the Roman script) and reading about female friendships, strength and resilience.
I have never written about Israel on my blog before. I think that the Israeli apartheid system and their colonialism strategies are an ongoing attempt at genocide. I boycott Israeli goods and I am disappointed when I meet non-Israelies who have volunteered to work on a kibbutz on stolen Palestinian land. I am not religious nor do I have any interest in any religion. I am an open-minded and well-travelled person so please don’t think I’m pro-Arab or anti-Jew. I am pro-peace, forgiveness, love and harmony and I am anti-suffering and violence. I acknowledge that Britain played a huge role in creating the giant cesspool of a problem when they gave away Palestinian land and then walked away when militant zionists started killing British and Palestinians in Palestine.
I am absolutely against the Israeli policies and I don’t see how peace can occur until Netanyahu’s party steps down and a separate, independent Palestinian state is formed. Imagine the huge relief that will bring not only to the Palestinians now living in constant danger and deprivation in Gaza Strip and West Bank but also the millions of Palestinians scraping a living in the generous but overloaded host countries of Jordan and Lebanon.
Read a good review of the book here: