Two good reads for the price of one this week. One is non-fiction and the other is fiction. But they’re connected by setting and they complement each other beautifully.
I became aware of The Occupation Diaries when I read a review of it in the Observer newspaper whilst on the flight home from a visit to Israel-Palestine last year. It was quite a coincidence to read about a book that was set in the very place I’d just visited. It was my third visit to the country and I blogged about it here. I was so impressed by the review that I bought the book as soon as I got home.
I was even more impressed by the book itself. Shehadeh’s writing certainly confirmed the impressions I’d formed during my visit. The book is made up of diary entries during a two year period from 2009 to 2011.
It chronicles events leading up to the Palestinian bid for statehood at the U.N. But it is far from dry. This a very personal account, Shehadeh gives a clear and detailed record of his everyday life and of the lives of his fellow Palestinians living on the West Bank. He states his annoyance, anger and frustration at the ignominies, inconveniences, injustices and dangers that they face on a daily basis. But he never rants or lectures and his words are all the more effective for that.
Readers get a vivid portrait of Palestinian life and history and gain a clearer understanding of the politics and issues that the citizens on both sides of this contested land have to deal with.
The standout section for me was Shehadeh’s poignant account of a visit to Nablus station. In it he tells how when he arrived there were about twenty passengers waiting for the train. He describes the atmosphere of excitement and anticipation as they await the train’s arrival. But when it does arrive at the platform, no-one can get on. The train is an image. It’s part of an art installation commemorating the station’s centenary. Nowadays, however, no-one uses it. There are no longer any trains linking Nablus to Jerusalem, Damascus, Amman or Cairo. No trains cross this isolated and hemmed in territory. Travel in and out of the West Bank is a tortuous and uncomfortable undertaking for the Palestinians. But, as Shehadeh says, the experience of seeing the image of the train let the observers go beyond their ‘dismal present’ and envisage a future of freedom and connection with all their neighbours.
I recommend this moving book to anyone who wants to gain an insight into this conflicted area. Shehadeh is a skilled writer and educator and a quiet and honest activist.
It was while I was reading the above book that my husband presented me with The Wall. It had been recommended by a colleague of his and he reckoned I might like it. He was right. This is a charming work of fiction and is also set in The West Bank.
The main character is a thirteen- year-old Israeli boy named Joshua. Joshua lives in the (fictional) town of Amarias. Amarias is an illegal Israeli settlement which is situated close to a checkpoint (based on the real one at Qalandia). Joshua, still grieving the death of his father – killed while doing reservist service in the Israeli army – lives with his mother and step-father. Joshua doesn’t get on with his overbearing step-father who bullies and controls both Joshua and Joshua’s mother. Joshua also hates Amarias – finding it too manicured, perfect and stifling.
The town is close to a heavily fortified checkpoint in the wall which divides Israel form the occupied territories of the West Bank.
All Joshua knows of the territory beyond the wall is that it is there that ‘the enemy’ live. That is until the day he finds a tunnel under the wall and goes through it. Here he meets Leila and her family. Joshua finds a place that is truly another world to the one of Amarias. It is the first of several very tense and risky visits. On the other side of the wall, Joshua’s concepts of loyalty, identity and justice are all challenged.
It is the character of Joshua that gives this book its charm. He is naive. He has no vested interest. He’s not weighted by history, religion or politics. He sees the issues as simply unfair and unjust.
The book is a political fable which presents a political reality. Looking through young Joshua’s eyes, we are reminded of the simple truth that there are two sides to every story. It’s a clash of innocence and experience.
In the end it’s a redemptive tale – or at least it is for Joshua. There is hope for his future, hope that just maybe he’ll use what he’s learned to redeem and give hope to – even in a small way – people like his Palestinian friend, Leila.
I urge you to consider reading both the above books. They’re straight-forward and informative and moving. More than that – they are full of dignity and life-affirming truth.
Both books are available in bookshops and on Amazon
The Occupation Diaries is published by Profile Books
As I mentioned in my last post, I left home for Israel on the 19th of July. It was my third trip to this always fascinating, often beautiful and frequently infuriating land.
The main purpose of my visit was to see my old school friend, Revital. We met at high school in Edinburgh forty years ago, when her father brought the family to live in Scotland while he studied at the university in the capital for his PhD. We’ve remained in touch ever since. they now live in a lovely self-built house in the north of Israel in Tivon near Haifa.
My first visit was when I was nineteen – a long time ago – and my second was in 1993. In 1993 the Oslo Accord had just been signed and Revital’s husband was involved in its inception. It was a time of great hope in Israel. It looked as if a fair resolution had been reached that would allow Palestinians and Israelis to be equal partners in a new nation.
Sadly, things did not turn out that way. The optimism is long gone. It was a very different Israel that I visited this time. Although I knew from news bulletins and reports that things had deteriorated, I quickly became aware that here in the UK we don’t get to hear the half of it.
Revital, although she is an Israeli, is pro- Palestinian and deplores Israel’s actions against the Palestinians. She is actively involved in trying to get many more Israelis to become aware of these actions – carried out in their name.
Her husband is Ilan Pappe, a well-known academic in the field of Middle Eastern history and politics. His pro-Palestinian views mean that, as an Israeli Jew, it became very difficult for him to maintain his position at Haifa University. He now works at Exeter University and spends a lot of his life on aeroplanes.
It’s still a beautiful country. The Galilee is green and mountainous and its scenery gives Skye a good run for its money. Its desert landscapes are, to a visitor used to the lushness of Scotland, even more beautiful. But, oh – that Wall – or rather those walls.
There’s the Wall around the West Bank – a monstrosity whose run includes Jerusalem. And there are also the walls – with only one point of entry/exit – that encircle and isolate two whole Palestinian towns of 100,000 people. Both barriers are hidden in plain sight right beside the main Israeli north-south motorway. Ilan told me that most Israelis don’t even know these walled towns exist and therefore have no inkling of the misery caused by the restrictions placed on those townspeople.
I have neither the knowledge, experience nor understanding of Middle Eastern politics to provide much enlightenment for those wanting to get to the roots of this conflict. I can only recommend that you read Ilan’s book ‘The History of Modern Palestine’ if you want a rigorous academic take. Or, if you want something ‘lighter’ but still insightful, then UK comedian, Mark Thomas’s, ‘Extreme Rambling’ is superb. Mark walked the length of the Wall. His account of his journey uses both humour and straight talking to highlight and spotlight some of the utter absurdities and cruelties of the Wall’s existence. Thomas’s book also bears out what Revital and Ilan told me about the land grabs that are going on as Israeli settlers lay claim to large areas of the West Bank. They are supported by the military who harass and bully the Palestinians and Bedouins off their land and out of their villages. These Jewish settlements are able to divert water from the Arab farmers making their existence virtually impossible. Not only that, the Israeli military have also built whole new rnages of hills in order to make it more difficult for the Bedouin farmers to walk their animals to water and pasture!
One day during my trip, I joined Revital and another friend of hers, Rocheleh Hayut, as part of Machsom Watch http://www.machsomwatch.org on a visit to two West Bank checkpoints in the Jordan Rift Valley. Machsom is a group of women who undertake to peacefully observe that human rights are respected at the checkpoints.
Below is a slightly adapted version of Rocheleh’s account of our visit.
Hamra (Beqaot), Tayasir, Mon 23.7.12, Morning
Observers: Revital Sella, Rocheleh Hayut (reporting and photographing), Anne Stormont
One of the Jordan Rift Valley checkpoints that prevent direct transit between the West Bank and the Jordan Valley, in addition to Tayasir Checkpoint. Located next to Hamra settlement, on Route 57 and the Allon Road.
Report by Rocheleh Hayut; Translator: Charles K.
11:30 Bezeq checkpoint.
11.50 Hamra checkpoint – Hot!!!
There’s a new netting above the position shading the soldiers and cars crossing east. The mobile scanner is in place.
A huge bulldozer parks near the guard tower. After 12:00 labourers arrive from their jobs in the settlements, some in buses, others in vans and cars. All cross west without being delayed.
People carrying shopping bags cross eastward. A taxi, loaded with bags and suitcases of people leaving to visit relatives in Jordan. Festively-dressed parents and a newborn infant…
A resident of Farus Beit-Dajan told us about water wagons that had been confiscated from him, and asked us to help him. We called Jamila, who explained how they handle the issue of confiscated water wagons (which, of course, is complicated). Meanwhile the man continued on his way without leaving a phone number or letting us put him in touch with Jamila.
Five or six huge trucks went through the checkpoint while we were there, each transporting a tank or something similar to a tank but without a turret.
12:30 We left.
Alon Road (Highway 578)
The long beam “oversees” the road. The gates are locked. Fields opposite the Ro’i settlement have been prepared for planting. They’re fenced, with rows of irrigation lines on their surface.
12:50 Tayasir checkpoint
Flags of the Kfir brigade fly from every pole: “Lions…Together Victorious.” Labourers returning from work here as well, crossing westward to the West Bank. A few people in taxis traveling east.
We went up to the position. The commander – the First Sergeant who chased us away last time, insists now also.
We promised to leave, since he has the power and the weapons, but told him we have permission in principle to stand next to the position. It’s obvious he wants to start a discussion. “Since the checkpoints were erected there haven’t been any attacks…that’s a fact!” They attack us because we’re Jews – why else?
He teaches us what he said he learned in his high school geography (“I took the advanced geography course – 5 units) and history classes about the Jordan Valley: “It’s ours!!! It always has been, always will be.” As always, the discussion leads nowhere. It’s hard for the soldier, he’s young, he really knows only what he’s been taught. The discussion is quiet, respectful, it exposes him to a different point of view about the situation.
13:15 We left.
13:30 Bezeq checkpoint:
The guard asks about the Machsom Watch badge, and raises the gate.
Hamra/Beqaot checkpoint 30.07.12
It was a privilege to be given this opportunity to take part in the above observation and I thank Revital and Rocheleh for it. All the Palestinians who passed us waved in acknowledgement. Some stopped to talk. They all seemed stoical in their acceptance of this level of obstruction in their daily lives as they travel to and from work, hospital and family visits. But then they don’t exactly have a choice.
As for the rest of the visit –
When we met at the airport, the few years since I’d seen Revital and Ilan in Scotland fell away. It’s said that the sign of a true friendship is that even when the friends have been apart for a long time, they just take up where they left off – and that’s certainly what happened with us. We chatted away in the car from Tel Aviv to Haifa and the talking hardly ceased for the duration of my stay.
Revital and I visited a friend of hers, Chagit, whom I’ve met on my previous two visits and who once visited me in Scotland. She lives in a beautiful house and we shared a delicious meal, cooked by Revital and Chagit while I ‘supervised’.
It was also good to see Revital’s parents again. Revital’s mother told me that I now look very like my own mother – decided to take that as a compliment! We all had lunch together at a lovely restaurant near where they live. They have moved out of their former home in Jerusalem to a new place just outside the city. Life in this once sublimely beautiful city is very different with that bloody great wall dividing it in two. But it was good to glimpse the old city in passing and see the sun glinting of the golden dome of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Later the same day we visited Revital’s brother and his family. What a lovely man he is! We last saw each other when we were teenagers so there was a lot to catch up on.
I saw Haifa by night, looking down on the German quarter and the Mediterranean from the high vantage point at the Bahai gardens. I visited the upper Galilee and attended an open evening at a new kindergarten for both Jewish and Arab children.
I visited the home of an Arab woman whom Revital knows. Despite it being Ramadan and therefore a time of fasting, Sharma gave Revital and me cold drinks and the most wonderful chocolate cake I’ve ever tasted –whilst abstaining herself. Sharma’s eight-year-old son, Mohammed, looked at me as if I was from Mars – this fair-haired, fair-skinned grandmother from a place he’d never heard of.
But while his mum and Revital were talking in the kitchen, and Mohammed and I were left alone in the living room, he begun to sing quietly to himself whilst glancing at me from time to time. I recognised the tune – Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes. Gradually he switched from Arabic to English – tentatively singing the words and doing the actions. I smiled and gave him the thumbs up and when he got a bit muddled, I sang the correct version. I was rewarded with the biggest smile. He then moved on to asking me my name and where I was from and responded to my reciprocal questions. He seemed quite spellbound that this subject, i.e. English, that he’s learning in school actually works. It was a magic little encounter.
And in amongst all the serious stuff Revital and I found plenty time to enjoy each other’s company. Sometimes we walked the dogs together or went to the shops. We saw a photography exhibition, and an art exhibition and popped in at the circus school run by a friend of hers. We talked till after midnight on most evenings – plenty reminiscing and laughing – as well as discussing our work and family lives and thought and dilemmas about the future. Revital is of course concerned about her elder son’s imminent call up for national service – something I’m glad I haven’t had to face up to.
All too soon it was time to come home. Revital and Ilan took me back to the airport and accompanied me through the first part of security. And then it was back to an impossibly busy Heathrow and from there to Edinburgh for the night. The following day I travelled home to Skye.
I was sad to leave but also glad to come home. Home to where the temperature – in weather, political and emotional terms is altogether cooler.
Revital suggested that for our 60th birthdays we should go to the, Michelin starred and very famous, ‘Three Chimneys’ restaurant here on Skye. That will be in four years time –so plenty time to save up –it’s an expensive place.
Plenty time too, surely, for things to improve in the fascinating, complex and infuriating country of Israel. Time perhaps for the Israelis to cease looking inwards and seeing themselves as victims. Time to develop a more confident, outward-looking view that can embrace all the citizens of Israel-Palestine in a nation of mutually respectful citizens. I hope so.
Sorry to have been away so long. It’s a month since my last post and it’s been a busy time. However, I’m determined to get back in my blogging stride once more.
I thought that I’d combine the usual themes of the first two Tuesdays in the month, namely – a roundup of island life and a bit of rant and a rave.
The biggest news is that last month our daughter, her husband, their daughter and the cat relocated to the island and are living with us until they get a place of their own here. We’ve all settled into a routine and are managing to live comfortably together. It’s such a wonderful blessing to have at least some of our family so close.
School stopped for the summer holidays at the end of June and the last couple of weeks of term at our primary school were incredibly busy. We had the closing ceremony for our very own Olympics, we had the final mile of our marathon in a month for children, parents and teachers, and we had our Olympics musical and our annual prize-giving. Pupils, parents and staff were certainly giving it their all right up until the last day. I love my teaching job but oh I do love the holidays as well!
But there was no immediate rest. On the day school stopped me and the husband packed up and drove the three hundred miles to Edinburgh for a week of socialising and shopping.
My city break got off to a fab start on the Saturday morning. I went to a talk at Edinburgh Central Library by author, Sara Sheridan. I’ve reviewed some of Sara’s books here on the blog – two of her historical ones – ‘The Secret Mandarin’ and ‘Secret of the Sands’ and her latest novel, ‘Brighton Belle’ – her first venture in crime writing. Sara is an author that I greatly admire and I was delighted that her talk coincided with my visit to the capital. I was also delighted that Sara invited me to meet her for a coffee before her talk. She’s a lovely lady and her talk on her writing career and on her plans for an eleven book series for Mirabelle Bevan aka Brighton Belle was fascinating and informative.
The week continued with an extended family gathering of my husband’s clan – a rare occurrence where almost everyone was in the same place at the same time and a great chance for a catch up. We continued to be sociable for the rest of the week and had several lunches and dinners with various old friends. I also spent some time at the big, city shops.
This was my first retail therapy session in nine months – so I made the most of it. One of my purchases was a brand new crash helmet. It’s a flip-up, white number and will serve me well on my up and coming ‘granny rides pillion’ escapades – of which more later.
We also made it to the cinema. We saw Prometheus – the Alien prequel – jaw-dropping special effects made up for a slight lack of characterisation and a thin plot. And we were tickled pink to see the opening scenes that were shot on Skye. Our island was even mentioned in the story – apparently Skye was visited by an alien race 35000 years ago and this is evidenced by cave paintings on the island. What a hoot!
It was a good week in most respects and definitely deserving of a rave review – but I’m afraid there’s a bit of a rant too. Edinburgh is my home town. It holds a special place in my heart. I love it. But – oh dear – it’s in a very bad way. The city centre has been completely wrecked by a botched and ridiculous attempt to install a tram system. The project is years behind the original timetable and millions of pounds over budget. The route has been drastically reduced from that which was first intended and will be of little practical use if and when it ever gets up and running. Edinburgh already has an excellent bus service – one of the best in the UK – so there’s really no need for trams. The heart has been ripped out of what was a most beautiful city. Roads are closed and traffic endlessly diverted, businesses are ruined as customers and clients can’t get access, tourists are baffled and locals bewildered. Crossing the city is like being in a circle of hell. I was left feeling very sad by Edinburgh’s plight.
I was very glad to get back to our stunningly beautiful island. Unlike the rest of the UK, the Hebridean islands have had only a couple of days rain in almost eleven weeks. Locals and tourists are enjoying a very pleasant summer. The hedgerows are brimming with tall, ox-eye daisies and purple flowering clover. Sheep are being gathered in to be shorn. Porpoises, dolphins and whales have all been spotted in inshore waters. The tourist season is in full swing – there are cruise ship passengers, bikers, campers, caravanners, climbers, cyclists, B&B guests, self-caterers and walkers – the island attracts all sorts. It’s great to see it showing itself off to best advantage – with no mist and rain. And as I write this at ten o’clock in the evening it’s still light outside – marvellous.
At the moment – when not being distracted by my gorgeous wee granddaughter – I’m catching up with all the aspects of my non-school life, including both writing and non-writing projects. The husband and I hope to do a couple of motorcycling trips – including a jaunt to the Western Isles. We also have a few local walking trips in mind.
And in ten days time I’m off to Israel for a week. This will be my third trip to the country. I’m going to visit an old school friend who is an Israeli. We’ve kept in touch and see each other about once a decade. It’s my turn to go there. It’s an amazing, beguiling, complex and at times baffling and infuriating place – and is well worth a visit. My friend lives in Haifa on the Mediterranean coast so it will be hot. But we plan to escape to the relative coolness of the Galilee for a couple of days. I can’t wait to see her and to catch up properly – face-to-face.
So watch this space at the end of the month for a report on my trip.
In the mean time there will be a book review post on the late Tom Lubbock’s incredible book ‘Until Further Notice I am Alive’ and a guest post by Karen Cole on ghost-writing.
David Grossman was born in Jerusalem. He’s one of Israel’s most acclaimed and controversial writers. He has written fiction, non-fiction and books for children. He has won several European prizes for his writing.
His latest novel is ‘To the End of the Land’. The book is translated from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen.
It’s an epic – almost 600 pages in the hardback edition. The story is set in Israel and is told in a mixture of magical realism and, well, real realism. It’s a tale of family life, of love, crisis and the cost of war. The message is very much anti-war.
The three main characters are Ora, her husband Ilan and their best friend who is also Ora’s former lover, Avram. As told in the prologue, the three originally met in 1967 when they were hospitalised during the Six Days War.
But the main action takes place in the present day. Ora, now middle-aged and estranged from her husband, undertakes a long trek through the Galilee. She had been eagerly anticipating the ending of her son’s military service but when he is sent into one, last, major battle she senses he won’t survive. She goes on the trip in order to avoid being around when the army come to tell her the worst.
She coerces Avram to go on the trek with her. Avram has been a recluse since the 1973 Yom Kippur war when he was a POW and suffered terrible torture.
During their long walk, cut off from the world, they sleep out, cross over rivers and valleys and Ora tells Avram the story of Ofer, of her life as a mother and in this way keeps her son alive. For Avram, as he listens, there is a thaw, a reconnection with humanity.
The cover notes say that the book has a ‘war and peace’ rhythm – and that is true. There is on the one hand the ghastliness of war and on the other the exquisite pain and pleasure of motherhood.
And through it all runs the current of Israel’s, seemingly, intractable and impossible situation – of the awful realities of risk and war that wait for each successive generation.
This beautifully told, anti-war novel is all the more poignant when you discover that Grossman’s own son was killed in 2006 while serving in the Israeli army.
It is a heart-wrenching and unforgettable read.
‘To the End of the Land’ is published by Jonathan Cape
It’s weird, isn’t it – how sometimes, events ‘out there’ coincide with and match stuff you’re doing in real life?
I’m writing my second novel at the moment. I don’t want to say too much about it at this stage but here’s a general outline.
The book is set in Scotland and Israel and the main character is a half-Jewish Scot whose mother was a holocaust survivor. Her soldier son has been killed in the war in Afghanistan.
The underlying themes are those of cultural heritage, homeland and the displacement caused by politics and war. And these are overlain by the more personal themes of dislocation caused by betrayal, bereavement, and the ageing process. The parallels between enforced Scottish migration, the Jewish diaspora and the plight of the Palestinians are all touched on – as are the parallels and contrasts between Scotland’s and Israel’s national status – but ultimately it’s a story about homecoming, recovery and the sustaining power of love.
Part of my inspiration came from the fact that I’m a Scot and had a Jewish great-grandmother. I have Jewish Israeli friends who daily risk their personal safety by taking a pro-Palestinian stance and I’ve been to Israel twice.
So there I am writing away and two published novels are brought to my attention.
First – the Man Booker winner for 2010 – The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson. Main storylines in this book – what it means to be Jewish, bereavement and thwarted hopes. It’s a story of friendship and loss, exclusion and belonging, and of growing older. I haven’t read it yet but it’s on my list.
The second novel – I was attracted to it after reading several reviews in which it was highly praised – and I’ve just finished reading it. It’s called ‘To the End of the Land’ and it’s by David Grossman. It’s an anti-war novel. It’s set in Israel and is a story of family love, bereavement, and the reality and surreality of life in Israel. The main characters are Israeli Jews who are ambivalent about their nation’s status. It’s a wonderful book and I’ll be posting a review of it very soon.
Now, it’s gratifying to find that I’m inspired by the same themes that inspired two such revered authors but I also feel rather daunted.
However, I’m choosing to interpret this synchronicity as auspicious rather than ominous. I’m going to finish my book and can only hope it will be at least a zillionth as good as the two mentioned above.
Footnote: I had dinner at the Haifa home of the first Arab Israeli academic to get a post at an Israeli university and the question of land and nationhood was being discussed. The host mentioned this quote from Tolstoy – who said that the only land a man needs is a hole, six feet by two feet – his burial plot.
I was reminded of Chekov’s retort to Tolstoy – namely that a man needs the whole globe, all of nature, where he can display his free spirit.
The Scottish writer Neil Gunn said life’s about us getting along, understanding one another and the earth. He said that when we do that we get peace of mind and with luck a little delight.
I’m with Chekov and Gunn – always was – and now Jacobson and Goodman are at my shoulder too. Exalted company indeed.