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A Glimpse of the Middle East through Fiction Part II: Israel and Palestine

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When my husband and I decided to move to Lebanon five years ago, I knew little about the place. Its neighbors are Syria and Israel, and I briefly held the thought that I would be able to explore the region. I’d been living in Latin America for years, where I’d paid more attention to local politics than the uprisings in far-away Syria (which had turned into a full-fledged war by the time we arrived). When a war broke out between Israel and Lebanon, I was living in Ecuador and more wrapped up in the presidential elections there than in what was happening in the Middle East. (For the record, the UN brokered a “cessation of hostilities” between Israel and Lebanon that went into effect on August 14, 2006, but a full-fledged armistice has yet to materialize.)

It’s embarrassing to admit, but like a 12-step program, the first thing we can do to improve our knowledge is admit our ignorance, right?

In my last post, I confessed to needing to bone up on Middle Eastern history prior to moving to the region. There I highlighted one book that helped me understand the way the region was carved up at the Cairo Peace Conference in 1921, and another that helped me learn about the Armenian Genocide and its impact on the Middle East.

The books below have helped me fill out my understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Of course, I was aware of it before moving to the Middle East, and had learned some relevant dates in world history class. But to truly comprehend the dimensions and the impact the conflict has had on the people whose lives it directly affects? It may take a lifetime. These novels gave me glimpses.


Ishmael's Oranges

Palestinian exile Salim Al-Ishmaeli first flees Jaffa for Nazareth, then Nazareth for London. Once in swinging-60s London, Salim becomes Sal, he meets a Jewish girl named Judith, and their star-crossed love story begins. Sound improbable? As the daughter of a Palestinian father and Jewish mother herself, author Claire Hajaj has firsthand knowledge of improbable beginnings and bridge-building between opposing points of view.

He looked up at her and down at the table again; his face seemed sad, almost shamed. ‘My name is Salim.’ He said it casually, but it sounded like a confession. ‘Salim Al-Ishmaeli. We’re an Arab family, not a Russian one, I’m afraid. Or a French one.’ He raised his eyes to hers.

Jude said, ‘That’s okay,’ automatically, but her heart started to race. The overwhelming urge inside her was to reassure him – of what? ‘My uncle lives in Israel.’ That one escaped her too, the stupid, uncontainable words stumbling off her tongue.

Balancing the Jewish and Arab perspectives, Hajaj turns “sides” into personal stories, humanizing the tragedy of the Middle East reality.

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Mornings in Jenin

I had only been in Lebanon a few days when an acquaintance offered to take me on a “windshield tour” of Beirut. That is, sightseeing by car. Her father-in-law behind the wheel, we drove out of the tourist center of the city and passed one of Beirut’s Palestinian refugee camps, a dense warren of concrete buildings crisscrossed by low-hanging electrical cables and guarded at the few points of entry by Lebanese military.

Unable to set foot myself in the Palestinian camps, Mornings in Jenin is the book that gave me took me there, when its protagonist Amal is driven from Palestine and ends up in one of the camps in Beirut. Not just any camp, but Shatila, where hundreds (or perhaps thousands) were massacred occurred in 1982. The refugee camp that I had driven by during that first week in Lebanon. The story of Amal’s family transverses the major conflicts in modern Palestinian history, the Shatila massacre just one of them.

More than a mere history book, culture and language—in both their burdens and their beauty—are integral to Mornings in Jenin, just as they are to everyday life in the Arab world. Amal ends up in the United States, and struggles to adapt.

“Thank you,” I answered, unsure of the proper American response to her gracious enthusiasm. In the Arab world, gratitude is a language unto itself. “May Allah bless the hands that give me this gift”; “Beauty is in your eyes that find me pretty”; “May God extend your life”; “May Allah never deny your prayer”; “May the next meal you cook for us be in celebration of your son’s wedding… of your daughter’s graduation… your mother’s recovery”; and so on, an infinite string of prayerful appreciation.

Mornings in Jenin offered me lessons in culture as well as history.

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To the End of the Land

Ora, Avram and Ilan meet as teenagers during the 1967 war, the three of them sickly patients in a nearly-abandoned hospital. The love triangle established in the hospital is at the core of this story, which is layered with the anguish of parenting during precarious times, the position of Arabs in Israel, and the scars that wars leave on the people who have lived through them. Grossman is masterful in inhabiting Ora, the primary narrator of the story, whose son Ofer volunteered for a dangerous 28-day campaign just after his three years of military service concluded. Unable to bear the wait for the soldiers who might come at any time to notify her if something happens to Ofer, Ora escapes her house for a month-long hike in the wilderness, dragging along her old friend Avram, now a man broken by the torture he experienced when captured by the Egyptians in the 1973 war.

He looks at the stream without believing he really crossed it, and when he smiles awkwardly at Ora, a fraction of the old charm flashes through. She feels a pang as she looks at him…. She returns a measured smile, very careful not to flood him. This is another piece of wisdom she’s learned in her long life among the tribe of men: the wisdom of not flooding them.

Grossman was working on the final draft of the book when his own son, Uri, was killed in the final hours of the 2006 war with Lebanon—just days after Grossman and two other literary greats of Israel, Amos Oz and A. B. Yehoshua, published a letter calling for a ceasefire. As Grossman writes in a postscript to the novel, “What changed, above all, was the echo of the reality in which the final draft was written.”

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Ports of Call

Amin Maalouf is one of Lebanon’s most highly regarded writers, although the country’s civil war forced him into exile in France at the age of 26, a place he went on to claim as home. In Ports of Call, the narrator, Ossyane, is the product of a love story between two people who ought to have hated each other, but instead loved one another.

He was Turkish, my mother Armenian, and if they were able to hold hands in the midst of the massacres, it was because they were united by their rejection of that hatred. That is my inheritance. That is the place I come from.

With that as his heritage, it comes as no surprise when Ossyane looks beyond nationality and religion when he falls in love. Like the author, Ossyane leaves Lebanon to live in Paris, but in Ossyane’s case, he goes to study medicine. He ends up joining the French Resistance during World War II, and meets and falls in love with Clara. Ossyane is Muslim, Clara is Jewish, and their paths separate and cross and separate again, crossing seas and continents.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is known to be intractable, yet Maalouf, known for his stories of tolerance and reconciliation, manages to leave me with the taste of hope in my mouth. 

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Reader, writer, globetrotter. Seattle native who has lived in six countries (current home: Beirut, Lebanon). Food obsessed. Bylines in NPR, Wall Street Journal, Vice MUNCHIES, Budget Travel and ... Show More

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