By Khaled Diab
Two books I read back to back do something that few books about the Israel-Palestinian conflict achieve: they look at the ordinary people, with the politics serving as mere backdrop to their human stories.
Since my tour of Israel and Palestine was all about humanising the conflict, I think it would be approporiate to meet the Palestinians and Israelis Suad Amiry and Linda Grant encounter in their highly readable and compassionate books: Sharon and my mother-in-law and The people on the streets: a writers’ view of Israel.
The first of the two books I read was Amiry’s – whom I had planned to meet while in Ramallah, but unfortunately she was delayed in Amman – which contains her regular correspondences from her house arrest in reoccupied Ramallah during Ariel Sharon’s famous offensive in 2002. The version I read also collected together this Palestinian architect’s diaries from the past quarter of a century and chronicles her move from Amman to Ramallah, including the epic journey to get official residency there, her PhD; her first-ever visit to Jaffa, her ancestral home; juicy gossip from the Ramallah grapevine; not to mention the cynicism, humour, compassion, resourcefulness and monotony of everyday life.
Linda Grant, a British Jewish novelist and journalist of a progressive persuasion, long ago came to the conclusion that there was not much she could do to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but decided that there was a human angle to it she was duty bound to highlight. And she does just that in her book, which mainly revolves around life in the colourful Ben Yehuda neighbourhood of Tel Aviv where she stays when she visits the country. But she also goes to Jerusalem and visits the Gaza settlements during the period of evacuation. She even recalls her first visit to Israeli as a starry-eyed teenager in 1967, just after the Six Day War; more interested in meeting boys than in politics and her anti-Zionism of the time being as much a teenage rebellion against her father as against the politics of the Israeli state.
Explaining her motivation for the book, she told me: “As I writer I can expend my energy on something which no writer should stand by and watch – the demonisation and dehumanisation of Israelis and Palestinians by each other and by their cheering sections abroad. That’s why I am such an admirer of your blog and your willingness to enter into dialogue.” In fact, I’ll be meeting up with her and some Palestinians and Israelis in London in a couple of weeks.
The human face of war
Between 29 March and 1 May 2002, there was a general curfew in Ramallah which was lifted for a few hours every few days to allow residents to run essential errands and restock their cupboards and fridges. Unfortunately for Amiry, her husband had been abroad on business and was stuck in Jerusalem for much of the duration, leaving her alone to rescue and live with her 92-year-old mother-in-law.
“Writing was an attempt to alleviate the tension caused and worsened by Sharon and my mother-in-law,” Amiry explains in the foreword.
Another unfortunate coincidence was that Amiry’s mother-in-law lived very near to Al Muqata’a, Arafat’s besieged and destroyed headquarters. The old lady’s electricity and water supply were cut off for all the days before her daughter-in-law could reach her.
After tremblingly coming face-to-face with Israeli tanks and military jeeps one time too many, Amiry decided to jump over the walls of people’s backyards in order to get to her mother-in-law’s house. “Those few hundred metres felt more like a few hundred kilometres,” she confesses.
Despite Amiry’s amateur heroics, her mother-in-law, Umm Salim, was not impressed when she opened the door: “Where, in God’s name, have you been?” she cried out, “I’ve been waiting for you for days.”
The distressed old woman flitted around her apartment fussing over what to pack. “Shall I pack my purple dress?” she asked concerned. Amiry, more concerned about how she was going to get the 92-year-old over all the walls, replied: “Just leave it. We’ll be back soon to pick everything up.”
“That’s what we said in 1948, too, when we left our house in Jaffa, and then it was also May,” recalled the worried old woman. When Amiry heard this, she stood still and began to cry.
A neighbour dissuaded her from trying to get the old woman over the walls. “You have to take the front door,” he told her. And, so, a terrified middle-aged woman and her aged mother-in-law stepped out into a war zone.
“You have to see these tanks,” Umm Salim. “Goodness me, look how big they are!” But the last thing Amiry wanted to do was to stop and admire the size of those killing machines.
Looking from the other side of the fence, Linda Grant visited and spoke to some soldiers. “I wanted to meet some soldiers, to find out what they thought and felt,” she writes. “because one thing I was sure of, they were not metal men, not terminators, manufactured in a Negev factory out of cyber-energised spare tank parts, but flesh and blood.”
She visited a mobile military unit charged with patrolling and guarding the West Bank. “… all around were these soldiers and all I could think of to say, on this first impression, was, ‘Kids! They’re just kids!”
“We peered inside the huts. I thought I was going to see bunks with neat rolls of olive-green bedding, anally retentive army tidiness, gleaming weapons. I was expecting order, and instead there was juvenile chaos.”
Every dog has its days
It took Amiry some seven years of toing and froing before she managed to get her permanent residency – and only after a dramatic confrontation with the city’s Israeli military chief. For her dog, it would prove to be an entirely different affair. “I didn’t know what would be harder: to end my boycott of Doctor Hisham [Ramallah’s only vet, who was sexist and bigoted] or to go to an Israeli vet who probably would have something against Arabs, but not against dogs,” she writes.
In the end, she decided the Israeli would be the better bet and headed off to a nearby settlement. The friendly vet, Dr Tamar, vaccinated Nura and delivered Amiry with a surprise: she gave the dog a Jerusalem ‘passport’. while her mistress could only dream of the human version. “You know what, Nura,” Amiry told her dog. “With this document, you can go to Jerusalem, while I and my car need two different permits.”
But, with some lateral thinking, Amiry put it to good use when she pretended to be the dog's chauffer to get through a checkpoint to Jerusalem without a permit. "As you can see, she is from Jerusalem and it is impossible for her to drive herself," she told the bemused Israeli soldier, who patted the dog on the head and waved the car through.
"All you sometimes need is a sense of humour," Amiry reflected.
Amiry also recounts a memorable incident of non-violent resistance. In September 2002, her entire neighbourhood got up in the dead of night to bang on pots, pans, lampposts, pylons, bins and even water tanks on rooftops to protest their house arrest and annoy the Israeli soldiers who had reoccupied Ramallah. Looking around to observe the madhouse, Amiry noted: "Even if Sharon and his occupation forces never get this message, it was good group therapy."
The trappings of nationhood
Israel was partly built on the Jewish desire to avoid future persecution and the dream of the Jewish people to enjoy the ordinary trappings of nationhood. “The urgent need for a superhero, for a Jewish tough guy who could take on the bad men of Nazi Germany, was rooted inside my father and all of his generation,” Grant observes. She tells of how her father’s most vivid and bewildering memory of his first trip to Israel was that a Jewish soldier was guarding a Jewish prime minister.
In the 1950s, some observers began asking why it was that Jews had gone “like sheep to the slaughter” in World War II. “And many Jews took that question personally… and decided that the Jews’ best defence was going to be not only retaliating, but getting the retaliation in first, to be on the safe side and to make sure the enemy knew what was what,” Grant describes.
And many of the older Israelis she met had moved there for the reason of not wanting to be ‘guests’ in ‘someone else’s’ land. The Russian grandmother of one Israeli she met had decided that “she was never going to live at the beck and call, generosity and mercy of a goy ever again”.
The Palestinians share with Israelis a sense of embattlement and having been betrayed by the entire world. In fact, it surprised me just how many Israelis believe, despite the obvious advantage of their position and their government’s efficient PR machine, the international media is against them. Palestinians, of course, believe the opposite.
Palestinians also possess the earlier Jewish yearning for the ordinary trappings of nationhood – which the Israelis managed, ironically, to achieve but only by, so far, denying it to the Palestinians.
In her book, Amiry expresses the desire for the normal things most of us take for granted. “One of my dreams;” she writes modestly, “is that my husband can come and pick me up from the airport or the Allenby Bridge when I come back home from abroad.”
“I have always been envious of my parents, as well as my grandparents, who lived at a time when travelling between the beautiful cities of the Levant was not such a huge ordeal,” Amiry recounts.
Let's hope one day that kind of freedom and mobility can be enjoyed again in the region.