Against a Loveless World

by Susan Abulhaw

Review by Brian Newman

Susan Abulhawa has produced another powerful story of Palestinian resistance, a passionate, political tale.

Not simply a novel, this book is part thriller, part history lesson, part love story, and part radical-feminist manifesto. Nahr, the storyteller, is a woman of immense strength. We are immersed in her early life in Kuwait, then in Jordan, then in Palestine, interwoven with the thread of her life in The Cube, her highly sophisticated prison cell in Israel, where she must clamp her hands to the wall before anyone can enter. The lights, shower and toilet flush happen at random times so time becomes unreal.

The silence of solitary confinement is altogether different than the soothing, promising silence of the sky. The quiet here has a sharp, jagged edge that tears at my mind.

And we follow the journey that led to her imprisonment.

The history of Palestine since the Nakba positions the narrative, but it also takes in other key recent events in Middle East history such as the rise and fall of Saddam Hussein and the US war against Iraq. Nahr even predicts current events:

The Saudis are all too happy to appease. They’re as bad as Israel! It wouldn’t surprise me if we don’t wake up in a few years to learn they’re working hand in hand with Zionists, probably against Iran.

Abulhawa explores both gender and sexualities throughout the book, embedded in a powerful political action narrative.

Born to Palestinian refugees, her childhood and adolescence in Kuwait is free and enjoyable, although even as a child, Nahr is a rebel, making trouble in school to stop her brother from being bullied, and defying expectations of being a girl. As a young woman, Nahr explores the boundaries of both sexual pleasure and sexual abuse, always conscious of providing financial support for her family – mother, grandmother and brother.

Forced to flee Iraq after the US invasion, Nahr and her family move to Jordan, and at first reluctantly, she visits the West Bank of Palestine. The place and the people grow on her and she finds both love and a commitment to liberation.

What engaged me most in reading this novel was that I expected Nahr to ‘need’ the reader, that I would need to will her through her ordeals, but at every turn, she does it all herself, in her own way, with her own strength. In some ways this creates a distance from the reader, but it also makes the character even more awe inspiring.

Whilst this is Nahr’s story, Abulhawa also presents others in full dimensions, and uses both humour and pathos to good effect. For example, when they are living under 24 hour curfew during the second intifada, friend Ghassan exclaims:

Those stupid motherfuckers are terrified we’ll outnumber them, so what do they do? They imprison everybody at home for months with nothing to do but make babies. And now there are thousands of little demographic threats. It’s damned poetic!”

And describing her mother’s embroidery:

(Mama) would spend hours upon painstaking hours hunched over her lap, needle and thimble pulling and pushing threads in and out of fabric, creating patterns that told the stories of our people in a pictorial language (Tatreez) conceived by Palestinian women over centuries. Mama was fluent.

This is a story of love, for an idea, for a place, for a people and for a person. Overwhelmingly for me, it is a story of a strong, powerful woman, complete in herself, and through that, able to take on every challenge of love and life under occupation. Devour this book and join the movement for a free Palestine.

Purchase the book online here.

Falastin: A cookbook

Author: Sami Tamimi & Tara Wigley

Review by: Brian Newman

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It’s rare for a book about anything to do with Palestine to make it onto Australia’s bestseller lists, but here’s one that has. It’s not a novel, it’s not a political tome, but it has some stories of life in Palestine…and it’s full of recipes!

Falastin, by Sami Tamimi and Tara Wigley, is a celebration of Palestinian food. There is no ‘p’ in Arabic, so this is the more correct translation. Tamimi is business partner of Yotam Ottolenghi, and both share a similar trajectory – both born in Jerusalem, both chefs, both gay, and both moved to London where they established their business and reputations as amongst the world’s foremost chefs, bringing Middle Eastern food to us all.

What sets this book apart is the series of little stories interspersed with the recipes. Written by journalist Wigley, they are glimpses of life under occupation, a gentle introduction to the experiences Palestinians endure on a daily basis.

For example, Battir is a small village just out of Bethlehem, a verdant valley with stone terraces and an ancient irrigation system, full of lush vegetables, including the famous long, thin sweet Battiri eggplants. The site of a battle over the separation wall, which was eventually won by a combination of Palestinian and Israeli activist efforts in the courts, the valley survived unscathed, and is now a UNESCO world heritage site.

Other vignettes include a story about Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel, cooking in the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, and Sumud, the story of one family’s long struggle of resistance to the theft of their farming land.

The recipes are Tamimi’s. Fantastic food, full of Palestinian flavours, less complex than some of the team’s earlier books, and delicious to eat. Plenty of vegetarian options, but meat and fish dishes are there too. My favourite so far is Musaqa’a, which echoes the Greek dish moussaka, and it is a winner! Next to try is the famous Palestinian dish Maqlubet, an upside-down savoury rice cake.

Is the way to a people’s soul through their food? Maybe, but this cookbook is a delightful story of Falastin and what sates its people. Read the stories, cook the food, and eat in solidarity.

Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architects of a new city

Author: Adina Hoffman

Review by: Claudia Hyles

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American writer, Adina Hoffman divides her life between Jerusalem and USA.  She spoke recently on ABC RN’s Blueprint for Living about Till we have built Jerusalem.  A much-acclaimed earlier book was the first biography of a Palestinian writer ever published.

Modern Jerusalem was built, not in Blake’s words, ‘in England’s green and pleasant land’, but beyond the ancient city walls after the Ottoman Turks constructed the Jerusalem to Jaffa road in 1867.  Today a walk along this road reveals in close proximity, Spyro Houris’ apartment building, Erich Mendelsohn’s Anglo-Palestinian Bank and Austen Harrison’s Central Post Office.

Erich Mendelsohn (1887-1954) pioneered Art Deco architecture before fleeing Nazi Germany to work in Jerusalem 1934-1940.  He recognised the Palestinian context and believed modern architecture should respect traditional culture.  Arrogant and difficult, he found in Jerusalem “every act is a struggle”; construction of the Hadassah Medical Complex and buildings on the Hebrew University campus exemplified this.  Initially he found the visible struggle invigorating, unlike the “concealed, clandestine” atmosphere of Europe, but the fight wore him down.

Austen St Barbe Harrison (1891-1976) was from 1923 to 1937 Chief Architect to the Department of Public Works in British Mandatory Palestine.  Fascinated by Byzantine and Islamic design, he included elements in buildings such as the former British Government House and the Palestine Archaeological Museum.  Refined, reclusive and “quietly inspired, he shared with the “defiantly visionary” Mendelsohn, the hope for a cosmopolitan Jerusalem.  The pacifist Harrison was crushed by the prevailing violence and fled the city.

Was Spyro Houris or Khouri (1883-1936) Greek or Arab?  Mendelsohn and Harrison’s careers are well documented, Houris’ story is mostly mystery.  Several of his buildings bear the enigmatic inscription, in Latin characters not Arabic, Spyro G. Houris, Architecte.  Such signatures were unusual and why the French “architecte”?  Exhaustive searches revealed little more than birth in Alexandria, death in Jerusalem and Freemason membership.  His legacy is highly-decorative private residences, then the height of chic, his eclecticism re-echoing Mendelsohn and Harrison’s stylistic cross-fertilisation.  He did not design public buildings, but accommodated the individual tastes of clients – Greek, Turkish, Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, Muslim and Christian Arabs.

Other fascinating characters inhabit the book – Salman Schocken, Mendelsohn’s wealthy patron in both Germany and Palestine; Ronald Storrs the “first military Governor of Jerusalem since Pontius Pilate” who decreed all Jerusalem’s buildings must be faced with local stone; David Ohannessian, the Armenian ceramicist whose magnificent tiles were used in the restoration of the Dome of the Rock.  One young man is unnamed – “unflappably Palestinian N., with his pious Muslim bearing and beard”.  Conversant with Ottoman Turkish, he helps the author search for Houris in the Israel State Archives, her despair heightened by the “steady stream of high volume anti-Arab invective” from an office telephone conversation about the dreadful 2014 summer war in Gaza.

This fascinating book is illustrated with many black and white photographs, tantalisingly tiny.  A Socratic quotation “Beautiful things are difficult” is the title of the section on Harrison.  It could be a leitmotif for the book.  Full of dichotomies, Jerusalem, indeed a beautiful thing, is difficult.

THE HUNDRED YEARS’ WAR ON PALESTINE: A History of Settler Colonial Conquest and Resistance

by Rashid Khalidi.
Review by: Frederick Rainger

Professor Rashid Khalidi is the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University in New York.

The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine chronicles the many conflicts that have afflicted Palestine.  Starting with the double-cross, inspired by the Zionist movement and implemented by the Western powers, notably Great Britain, in the period during and after World War I; continuing to the assaults on Gaza culminating in the violent destruction in 2014.  Khalidi includes comments on the Trump Presidency so the timespan of the book is from Balfour to Trump. 

It is a story of folly, violence, and failed attempts to solve the conflict.  Examples are, US Secretary of State James Baker’s attempt to be an honest broker between 1989 and 1992, Camp David 1977-1980 and the Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1995.

The root of the issue is the Zionist colonial enterprise and its territorial ambitions.  Khalidi not only identifies Israel’s Zionist and colonial ideology, he also pinpoints other matters which underpinned the ongoing conflict.  These include the intransigence of successive US administrations; the divisions in the PLO and the PA and their lack of transparency and strategy; the situation where opponents of Israel invariably underestimate the Israeli military superiority and the fact that some Arab governments, while mouthing words of support for the Palestinian cause, make accommodations with Israel.  

Does Khalidi offer any hope for peace after 100 years of war? He says that the Palestinians and Israelis should build bridges between themselves, the US needs to be isolated, the PA needs significant reform to make it more sophisticated, and it is urgent to build public opinion in the west and in the Arab countries.  These ideas are contestable but are worthy of vigorous discussion.

Khalidi’s writing is scholarly with interwoven personal views including references to his grandfather, an official in the Ottoman Empire and his own memories first as a child of a UN official and later as a resident of Beirut during the 1982 siege.  He also includes the voices of journalists, poets and resistance leaders.

The book is highly recommended.     
Available for purchase here.

Walking for Palestine

by John Salisbury
Review by Mark Furlong

Walking for Palestine is an account of three long walks the author undertook to publicize the Palestinian cause. Written with clarity and good humour, the reader is made a companion as Mr. Salisbury – a retired 60-or-so year-old man from Melbourne – walks twice from Sydney to Canberra (2014; 2015) and once from Melbourne to Adelaide (2016). The scenery and stop-overs are described but, more importantly, the reader is taken into the author’s thoughts and feelings before, during and after each trek. 

Without skiting, Mr. Salisbury’s strength of purpose becomes clear. There is no melodrama, yet the reader witnesses the heat, rain and tiredness that was endured – as the joys and satisfactions are also made clear. The fine company that convened in and around these walks is particularly highlighted.

A key strength of the book is that the author does not shy away from engaging with what he finds troubling and discouraging. This openness invites an intimate connection as Mr. Salisbury opens-out his interiority as much or more as he chronicles the material detail of his journeys. In this way he does not neglect his personal concerns, particularly with respect to this partner’s health and, to a much lesser extent, his encounters with exhaustion.

The book’s key theme is that decades of advocacy have not resulted in a clear movement towards justice. Mr. Salisbury worries, at least from time to time, that his efforts, like those of the Palestinian people and their supporters, have not only not led to demonstrable change but, quite possibly, have coincided with a deterioration in the relevant political and material conditions. This is an unsettling concern and the book is the stronger for not avoiding it. Feelings of impotence and discouragement, frustration and rage, may present a less obvious reality than, say, the Wall of Apartheid but these emotions deserve a clear and enduring recognition in their own right. As James Baldwin said ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed without being faced.’ 

In terms of form, the text is accompanied by a selection of colour ‘travel snaps.’ A good deal of historical and critical background is also included. Given the book is not an academic work, this material sometimes appears in a somewhat ad hoc manner even as these entries are often noteworthy. For example, Mr. Salisbury cites The Unspoken Alliance, a neglected study by Sacha Polakow-Suransky of the collaboration between apartheid South Africa and Israel. The author also notes that, unlike most world leaders, neither Israel’s President Peres nor Prime Minister Netanyahu attended Nelson Mandela’s funeral in 2013. 

Not designed to be a page-turner, Walking for Palestine is a worthy book documenting effort and reflection. As the many testimonials on its cover affirm, the book thoughtfully articulates a cause and shows how ordinary folk – you and me – can be creative and persistent in how we make a contribution.

The book can be purchased here.