by Sahar Khalifeh
Although I was lost in historical time until the narrator mentions Kissenger and the U.N., Wild Thorns is well-written, and the author does a good job of giving the reader multiple Palestinian points of view:
- Adil, who supports nine mouths plus his father’s ravenous kidney machine–a beast that’s never satisfied…
- Basil, the radicalized teen, who believes the old proverb “prison is for men”,
- Adil’s buffoonish father who spends his days in the ancestral home, holding forth to French journalists about Palestine’s vanished glories,
- Nuwar, Adil’s timid sister, too afraid to name the man she wants to marry, and
- Adil’s cousin Usama. Usama is what the news shows us in the West as the typical Palestinian: young, stubborn, and a terrorist. He’s returned to his homeland from a few years of working in the Gulf States so he can blow up the busses taking workers into Israel. That is, Palestinian workers, because his mentality is that “if you’re not actively resisting the occupation, you deserve what you get.”
What Do the Characters Want?
A common question among the MFA crowd. This novel does a good job of portraying the divide between the wants of:
1) the fanatical characters, who want to reverse the “insult” of the occupation following the disaster of ’48 and the catastrophe of ’68, and
2) the normal people who just want to get on with things and live the best lives they can.
The Palestinian characters see themselves purely as victims, with no sympathy or acknowledgement whatsoever for the Israeli victims of the Holocaust. They don’t seem to know or care that their occupation is a direct consequence of their Arab neighbors having attacked Israel, unprovoked, in 1948 and again in ’68 (Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Lebanon).
What sucks is that the Palestinians weren’t the ones who attacked, but they get to suffer the consequences.
The characters know that all the talk of pan-Arab unity has been crap; that the rich in the surrounding Arab countries and in their own countries have let them down badly. That there are more divides in Palestine than Israeli occupiers/Palestinian occupied. There is some urban/rural class upheaval as workers leave their farms for Israeli factories–because they get paid more and have to bow and scrape less.
It’s a bit shocking to read Usama’s descriptions of a Palestine he remembers as green and lush, with exotic fruit trees, since what I see on TV is hot and dusty–squat concrete warrens overflowing with garbage. More shocking than the violence described in the novel is the lack of humanity on both sides: a Palestinian worker accidentally cuts his fingers off at his workplace, but the ambulance won’t pick him up because he didn’t purchase the right kind of insurance.
Author Sahar is a woman. (It’s not always easy to tell with names from another culture.) But I felt the women in this novel were fairly cardboard characters. We don’t get a lot of their motivations or inner life. (Although one of the women does change her thinking slightly after a shocking act of violence in the market.)
I really liked the copious footnotes for Western readers, telling you what famous names, folklore, and novels you may not recognize the references. Without them I’d only have gotten half of the sweetmeat out of this book.
However, I am still annoyed with violent Palestinians’ response to their condition: why is non-violence not an option? The Palestinian kids on TV, the vocal minority, they think that if they can just find the right kind of violence, it will work. I am over 40 years old and I can tell you, it never works.
The good, decent and peaceful Palestinians need to speak up and assert their will. They need to shut down Hammas and anything like it in order to get what they want. To get what they deserve. The right to live without fear, without violence. To live life in liberty, in the pursuit of love.
UPDATE October 18, 2015: This just happened in Nablus…the city in this book and the city the writer is from.