These collected essays about the writers’ separate experiences in the occupied territories of Israel/Palestine have a kind of cumulative bludgeoning effect. The reader passes through stages of rage and resistance to the kind of stupefaction one encounters in a bombing war. Why on earth would anyone do such things? They’ve been led to it slowly, gradually, until the ‘enemy’ is ‘other’ and normal human rights rules do not apply.
In a very short introduction, Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman admit they’d not paid attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for many years because it was such a dispiriting subject. But in 2014 Waldman attended a conference organized by Breaking the Silence, a nonprofit organization composed of former Israeli soldiers who had worked in the occupied territories and who opposed Israel policies there as a result.
When Waldman related to Chabon what she had learned and seen during and after the conference in 2014,
“…we both began to realize that storytelling itself—bearing witness, in vivid and clear language, to things personally seen and incidents encountered—has the power to engage the attention of people who, like us, have long since given up paying attention, or have simply given up.”The stories are absorbing and diverse and really give us an idea what life has been like, and is like now, for Palestinians. An international cast of writers, Geraldine Brooks, Colm Tóibín, Madeleine Thien, Dave Eggers, Anita Desai, among many others, have each looked, thought, and written their experience. It is exhilarating, infuriating, surprising, and meaningful. We learn new things. We see what they have seen. Injustices are recognized, spoken, acknowledged. And the writing, well, it is everything we anticipated.
Reading this book all at once puts pressure on one’s peace of mind. Read it in pieces if you like, one or two by authors you admire, or by authors you’d never heard of. Just read a couple to get a sense of the crisis again, to see how it has evolved. Just bear witness a little while. This is something happening right now, as we sit down to a plentiful dinner in a comfortable chair. Just a moment to recognize that this is something we can actually do something about. This isn’t a natural disaster. It is policy grown gnarly and twisted over years.
Mario Vargas Llosa has an essay in the collection and his view is long, and wide. “…I feel that the ever more colonialist bias of recent governments—I am referring to the governments of Sharon and Netanyahu—may be terribly prejudicial to Israeli democracy and the future of their country.” He, like most of us in the U.S., love Israelis for being irrepressible, but we do not love what they have done in this case. They are losing their national identity, not enhancing it.
“The soldier roused himself from his torpor long enough to shrug one shoulder elaborately and give Sam Bahour a look in which were mingled contempt, incredulity, and suspicion about the state of San’s sanity. It appeared to have been the stupidest, most pointless, least answerable question anyone had ever asked the soldier…[he] had no idea why he had been ordered to come stand with his gun and his somnolent young comrade at this particular fork in the road on this particular afternoon, and if he did, the last person with whom he would have shared this explanation was Sam…”Encountering the young soldiers completely derailed Sam Bahour and Chabon’s plans, apparently so common an occurrence that another incident of it just added to the indignities and humiliations suffered daily by Palestinians, even Palestinians who have gained some stature in the community. But look also what the circumstance has done to the Israeli soldiers. They are stupid with boredom at their post, and have learned to treat Palestinians as lesser beings. They are likewise suppressing their natural human dignity and are trashing the social contract humans have with one another. This isn't war, remember, or so they've told us.
Occasionally when reading these pieces, one gets a glimpse of what the policies surrounding the illegal occupation are doing to the children, our future. Rachel Kushner’s story, “Mr. Nice Guy,” centered on her visit to the Shuafat Refugee Camp in East Jerusalem. Her description of the high-rise buildings there evoke an involuntary embarrassed laugh, they sound so…unsound. The young boy following her around as she looks up at the structure says, “This building is stupidly built. It’s junk.” He and his family live there. See what I mean about infuriating?
And Habila's "The Separation Wall" gives us a honest man's incredulity. Just read it.
Each story gives a different aspect of living in the occupied territories that you’d never thought of. Read one or
You can buy this book here: Tweet