Five Books: Stories to Shape Life

By Susan Abulhawa

(Born to refugees of the 1967 Six Day War, Susan Abulhawa is the author of the novel Mornings In Jenin, the profits of which partly go to the children’s charity she founded, Playgrounds for Palestine. She chooses five books about Palestine by Palestinian writers.)

My Father Was A Freedom Fighter, by Ramzy Baroud

This is a wonderful book. It’s a history book, a work of literature and a memoir. Ramzy Baroud is a political commentator and historian, the editor of the Palestine Chronicle and of a book called Searching Jenin: Eyewitness Accounts Of The Israeli Invasion, about the events of 2002. He grew up in the Gaza refugee camp and is very familiar with the psychology of the people in the camps – to this day they’re holding out hope and still dreaming of going home. He captures this delightfully and his descriptions of place and people are just magnificent.

Works like this are so important because, you know, when people write about Palestine it tends to be in dry, sterile prose. There is nothing dry about this book. Even though it’s non-fiction it is full of emotion and wonderful characters.

I Saw Ramallah, by Mourid Barghouti

For me, the language of this book is almost more important than the story, which is a moving account of Barghouti’s homecoming. He writes very much in the Arab tradition of poetry. He depicts a situation that so many of us in exile or living under occupation feel. Occupation interferes in every aspect of life and death, he says: “It interferes with longing and anger and desire and walking in the street.” But life goes on.

I am in Palestine at the moment for the literature festival, and what I see among the young people is so humbling. Students from Gaza University tell us how they’re missing basic necessities, but mostly they’re starving intellectually and are desperate for books and knowledge. What they’re living under is so inhuman but they have such remarkable spirit. This is the untold story. For all these years Palestinians have been going on with their lives, getting an education, getting jobs, getting married, and dealing with this occupation as best they can. They go through checkpoint after checkpoint, roadblock after roadblock, one procedure after another, and yet they still live.

That’s what is so often missing in the dominant mainstream narrative about Palestine and how Palestinians have been resisting passively for 62 years simply by going on, refusing to break or hate.

In Search of Fatima, by Ghada Karmi

This is another memoir, the story of violent uprooting and dislocation, presented in an intimate and very personal way. Fatima was the much-loved governess and nanny to the Karmi family, one of the wealthy Palestinian families of Jerusalem. Overnight, [in 1948 during the creation of the state of Israel] the family became penniless. They left their home, their furniture, pictures, food, everything. At that time Jewish families literally walked down the street and picked out the homes they wanted. The family ended up in Britain, and Fatima was left behind. They never saw her again.

Ironically, the Karmis moved to Golders Green, a north London suburb with a prominent Jewish community. Ghada integrated fully and had Jewish friends.

She gives an account of going to a Jewish friend’s house for a bar mitzvah or wedding or some such occasion, and the family raises the Israeli flag and sings Zionist songs. She describes how strange and shocking it was to see these people she loved raising the flag that flew over the demise of her family and country. You can imagine the emotional conflict yet it’s a very tender book.

Palestinian Walks, by Raja Shehadeh

No, this is not a guidebook. Actually, Raja Shehadeh is a walker but he’s also a lawyer living in the West Bank and a very unassuming, soft-spoken man. In this book he describes the walks he took in Palestine over decades, detailing the changing landscape.

This is just one man who took all these walks, and the outward walks are symbolic of inner journeys. When there are places he can’t walk to due to the Israeli borders, he goes into himself and explores his own personal borders. His reflections on what he sees are gentle in their approach to describing an awful and harsh illegal military occupation.

Shehadeh is a beautiful soul who has a way of talking about the politics without talking about the politics.

Out Of Place, by Edward Said

Edward Said has a very special place in my heart, as he does, I think, in every Palestinian heart.

He was a giant of a man and I was gutted when he died. In some ways I thought he was bigger than life, bigger than death but of course he wasn’t.

This is a very intimate book about his young life. His parents were domineering or distant, and he talks about always feeling stranded, left behind, out of place.

This book resonates with me, not just because I absolutely love the man but because it mirrors a lot of my own feelings about being a diaspora Palestinian – you perpetually feel out of place, you never really have a sense of belonging, just existing in the winds wherever you are.

(Susan Abulhawa was interviewed by Ruth Chatto. This article first appeared in www.fivebooks.com)

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