Since I plan to start my Lifetime Reading Plan project on 1/1/11, I have spent the last couple of months stuffing myself with contemporary books that will be more-or-less off-limits once the new year begins. Although I don't intend to discuss all that I have read here, I do want to mention a few of my favorites. One of them is a book a friend lent me some time ago--some very long time ago.
I had postponed reading the novel. It is a thick book with small print, and I kept saving it for a time when I would have long stretches of reading time to devote to it. Well, as you know, "long stretches of reading time" and real life with a homeschooling son and an academic side life don't seem to be compatible. So finally I just bit the bullet--and I am so glad I did!
On the Hills of God, written by Ibrahim Fawal, is the story of seventeen-year-old Yousif Safi and his coming of age. What makes the story so powerful is its setting: Palestine in the late 1940s, right as Zionism comes to the fore--and the creation of the state of Israel is about to happen. This time of upheaval utterly transforms the world in which he and his family live.
Yousif is a Palestinian Christian. His two closest friends are Amin (a Muslim) and Isaac (an introspective Jew). When the book begins, it is clear that although the religious labels are in no way invisible, they do not completely separate people--people who all love the Palestinian lands of vast green hills full of olives and oranges and pines.
Soon, however, Yousif and his friends see Zionists surveying the land and beginning to create a separate society. As things become more and more tense over time, violence begins to erupt. A man from their hometown is killed by in a Zionist bombing in Jerusalem. When Isaac's father attends the funeral, he is attacked--and soon his family comes under grave threat as well. They move in with the Safi family, but things only get worse. Eventually, they are forced to move away from the mixed community of Ardallah. They settle in Tel Aviv.
After some time, a violent Zionist group stages an ambush in Ardallah. When caught and unmasked by the town residents, one member of the group turns out to be Isaac. He insists he was forced to join the mission. The young man acknowledges that he is not innocent but he did not want kill anyone, and just as he was forced to come, he knows the Arab community will feel forced to kill him. "We're all victims," Isaac realizes. "We're caught in a war from which we can't escape. "
Yousif pleads for his friend's life--"Isaac is one of us!"--but his Arab townsmen respond with violent reciprocity. When the doctor offers to sedate Yousif in order to ease his emotional turmoil, he refuses, saying, "I want to feel the pain." And that is exactly what the author allows us to do.
How hard it is to avoid participating in discrimination--even violent acts of terrorism--when surrounded by a community declaring that others are evil and threatening! Fawal shows how this is true for every side. It isn't long before Yousif's world has been completely dismantled. As he says, "Everything in this country seems to be soaked with blood."
It is heartbreaking to see Yousif defend his beliefs that all--Muslim, Christian, and Jewish--should act as family. He seems to believe that if he tries hard enough, the people of the Palestinian lands could act that way again and create a community built on love and reconciliation. As he says, "One can always fight. But first, let's try talking to them. I don't think the average Jew likes what's happening. We lived together like good neighbors. They were happy and we were happy. Why can't we just go on like before?"
What happens next is the story of the Nakba--that is, the "great catastrophe" or "Palestinian Exodus" where 700,000 Arabs (Christian and Muslim) experienced the humiliation of occupation and were eventually pushed out of their homes and lands. It is a horrifying story that startlingly few Americans seem to know about at all. Every time I think of it, I can't help but say that modern Jewish prayer: "Never forget." And as you know, this is a story with no happy ending. There are still Palestinians living in refugee camps and in exile--still separated from their homeland and from each other.
As the book begins to come to a close with Yousif's world in tatters around him, he even loses some of the faith he had grown up with. He questions the goodness of his Christian God: "If you would allow your own son to be nailed and stabbed, if you would let his legs be broken, if you would let him die on the cross like a common criminal, you'd probably let our homes burn to the ground. If that's the way you'd treat your own son, to whom should we Palestinians turn for protection?"
Despite all the destruction, the book ends on a note of hope and resolve. "The conscience of the world must be pricked, awakened," say Yousif. This is what the author seeks to do himself. "I promise you this for the sake of all of us who have been dispossessed--the families who have been denied their birthright and are now separated, the children who can't sleep because they're hungry, the babies who journeyed and died from thirst, the dead we left along the trail. Let this moon, which is staring at us like a grave one-eyed God, be my witness: we shall be delivered. We shall return."
* * *
I am Jewish--albeit an atheist Jew--who is too moved by my Judaism-informed beliefs about justice and righteousness to accept what happened "on the hills of God" during this period--or accept what is happening there now.
Although I don't remember for sure, I suspect my friend lent me this book when we were talking about the deeply compassionate (and perhaps even politically feasible, although I know many of you will disagree) argument made in Virginia Tilley's The One-State Solution: A Breakthrough for Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Deadlock--a one-state solution that is a true and multi-ethnic democracy.
On the Hills of God is a book meant for all people--those who love the land of Palestine and Israel (be they Jewish, Christian, or Muslim) and those who are new to the story. It picks no fights and is completely accessible to any reader with a heart, no matter what their politics. A must-read.