Reading Around the World: Gaza, Palestine and the State of Israel

                                           Map Source

After the birth of the modern nation state of Israel, life changed dramatically for the Palestinians–the Arabs living in what is today Israel. Most Arabs were forced into what could be called “reservations” or “ghettos” of settlement with all  the connotations that such areas bring to mind.This is the life of the Baraka family who are forced to relocate to a refugee camp in the Gaza strip.

Susan Abulhawa’s novel, The Blue Between Sky and Water tells this extended family’s story through interwoven stories, a comatose prophet and both pathos and humor. Here we see the “other side” of the Israel story. The lives of stateless refugees forced to leave homes of sometimes ancient holding and reform their lives in a sealed off area with limited access to electricity, water, food, medical care, jobs and education. We learn of the smuggling tunnels that became a routine part of their lives. We see family members flung far to suffer the fate of international refugees. And, thru the young woman Nur, we see if thru the eyes of an American who must come to terms with her new reality. This was the one part of the story I didn’t buy. She never got mad. I suppose we were to see that as the result of the grinding down of her spirit in admittedly culturally insensitive foster care in the States.

At first I found the story confusing–I did not understand that some was foretold. This review is a huge help. I don’t say that to put anyone off–this is a superb book, I personally just started out confused. A little “mind-mapping” would have helped me. Once oriented, I had to read it in small doses–the emotion was that great.

I loved that the book shows the way women everywhere must get on with daily life. We wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, grandmothers, female neighbors, must do the work of keeping the family going regardless of where we live. I can picture women gathered around the communal bread oven,  or washing clothes or preparing the large meals necessary for such extended families. I can see the squabbles–petty and large–and love the way it is reflected in the women’s often Earthy-humor:

“…they gossiped about the evil bitches [daughters-in-law] and their husbands who were willing to ‘sell their mother for a wife’s p@ss!.'” (Kindle location 3391).

They complain about men and they detest, though accept, plural marriage. It is these comments that remind me how we are all women–all the same, regardless of clothing, style of worship, beliefs or skin color even while living in the “wreckage of nostalgia that paved refugee camps.” (Kindle location 407). But they clung resignedly to the knowledge that “Allah never gives us more despair than we can handle.” (Kindle location 3218)

The prophet in the story recalls:

“I was there with the women of my life. I was in the colors in the mulberries, magentas, and corals of a tired sun. In the blue between sky and water. I was there, watching. Their conversations and laughter anchored the ground in place, tucked the shore under the water, hung the sky and decorated it with stars and moon and sun. (Kindle location 4323)

But the men in this book are not tyrants–they are simply men in a world where men spend their time with men and women spend their time with women. They love their children, honor their families, but are just as weak or strong as any other men. They are not the sort who just collect wives as we in America often imagine. These are men, too, who must face great difficulty in just supporting their families. Going to work involves long waits at security checkpoints which can arbitrarily close.

“Men reclaimed masculinity from the grateful eyes of the women who tended to their tired bodies and sweat-drenched clothes.” (Kindle location 2376)

The frustrations of such a life are immense. And then, too, they and their wives must snatch moments of intimacy behind a pulled curtain, or, great luxury, in the only bedroom. How must father or husband feel knowing he cannot legally take his loved one out of the ghetto to a nearby country like Egypt for a simple X-ray? To watch a mother or wife or sister deal with breast cancer using only folk remedies and a long wait for radical surgery? How does a man keep his masculinity and keep going in such circumstances.

“…children who clung to their limbs, chests, and necks for the comforts a strong father could impart.” (Kindle location 2383)

Finally there is the story of rejection–of a child thrown away by the one who gave her life:

“‘There is something extraordinary about being rejected by one’s mother, she [said]…’It impoverishes the soul. It leaves holes everywhere and you spend your life trying to fill them up. With whatever you can find. With food. With drugs and alcohol. With all the wrong men you know will leave you, so maybe they will replicate the original hurt you felt. You do it to feel abandonment over and over because that’s the only thing you know of your mather. And it’s all you know to do to bring her close.'” (Kindle location 4139)

My exposure to this world came in college from a blue-eyed Jewish man with an Arab first name. Born with the Nation of Israel (the same month), he grew fed up with all of this–the ridiculousness of it, after his own family had lived peacefully with Arabs for centuries (not all did). His forced military service in the 6-day war sharpened this feeling, after the next war he was done. He came to the United States with his American born wife who, having immigrated to an Israeli kibbutz at 16, grew to be just as disillusioned as her husband. Later I worked with and casually went out with a Palestinian man who was here studying engineering. When he described what it took to get to American for school and the life he left behind I was shocked.  It propelled me to learn more about both sides of the life in the area. The political gamesmanship I’d learned in my undergraduate degree was played out far too vividly in their lives. I wanted to hide, to forget, to focus on me–but I could not. I went out into the world to learn as much as I could.

This book brought all of this back to me. I was grief stricken and teary in parts. I was mad in parts and I was irritated by every party involved behind the scenes of this family’s life (this fictional family representing all of those real ones)–those who closed the boarders, those who bombed, those who did “terrorist” attacks in retaliation. (Terrorist is whoever is against your side). Mostly I was angered anew at the International community for just letting it all go on and fester. Letting generations grow up in this way of mutual loathing and mistrust.

I highly recommend this book. It will shock, anger, comfort and cajole you.You will laugh, scream in anger, cry in frustration and rejoice all in one book. The Blue Between Sky and Water by Susan Abulhawa.



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