Thursday, 31 July 2014

The Occupation Diaries by Raja Shehadeh & The Wall by William Sutcliffe

Reviewed by Anne Stormont


These are two five star reads on the topic of freedom. One is non-fiction and the other is fiction. But they're connected by setting and they complement each other beautifully.

I became aware of The Occupation Diaries when I read a review of it in the Observer newspaper whilst on the flight home from a visit to Israel-Palestine in 2012. It was quite a coincidence to read about a book that was set in the very place I'd just visited. It was my third visit to the country and I was so impressed by the review that I bought the book as soon as I got home.

I was even more impressed by the book itself. Shehadeh's writing certainly confirmed the impressions I'd formed during my visit. The book is made up of diary entries during a two year period from 2009 to 2011.

It chronicles events leading up to the Palestinian bid for statehood at the U.N. But it is far from dry. This a very personal account, Shehadeh gives a clear and detailed record of his everyday life and of the lives of his fellow Palestinians living on the West Bank. He states his annoyance, anger and frustration at the ignominies, inconveniences, injustices and dangers that they face on a daily basis. But he never rants or lectures and his words are all the more effective for that.

Readers get a vivid portrait of Palestinian life and history and gain a clearer understanding of the politics and issues that the citizens on both sides of this contested land have to deal with.
The standout section for me was Shehadeh's poignant account of a visit to Nablus station. In it he tells how when he arrived there were about twenty passengers waiting for the train. He describes the atmosphere of excitement and anticipation as they await the train's arrival. But when it does arrive at the platform, no-one can get on. The train is an image. It's part of an art installation commemorating the station's centenary. Nowadays, however, no-one uses it. There are no longer any trains linking Nablus to Jerusalem, Damascus, Amman or Cairo. No trains cross this isolated and hemmed in territory. Travel in and out of the West Bank is a tortuous and uncomfortable undertaking for the Palestinians. But, as Shehadeh says, the experience of seeing the image of the train let the observers go beyond their 'dismal present' and envisage a future of freedom and connection with all their neighbours.
I recommend this moving book to anyone who wants to gain an insight into this conflicted area. Shehadeh is a skilled writer and educator and  a quiet and honest activist.

It was while I was reading the above book that my husband presented me with The Wall. It had been recommended by a colleague of his and he reckoned I might like it. He was right. This a charming work of fiction and is also set in The West Bank.

The main character is a thirteen- year-old Israeli boy named Joshua. Joshua lives in the (fictional) town of Amarias. Amarias is an illegal Israeli settlement which is situated close to a checkpoint (based on the real one at Qalandia). Joshua, still grieving the death of his father - killed while doing reservist service in the Israeli army - lives with his mother and step-father. Joshua doesn't get on with his overbearing step-father who bullies and controls both Joshua and Joshua's mother. Joshua also hates Amarias - finding it too manicured, perfect and stifling.

The town is close to  a heavily fortified checkpoint in the wall which divides Israel form the occupied territories of the West Bank.

All Joshua knows of the territory beyond the wall is that it is there that 'the enemy' live. That is until the day he finds a tunnel under the wall and goes through it. Here he meets Leila and her family. Joshua finds a place that is truly another world to the one of Amarias. It is the first of several very tense and risky visits. On the other side of the wall, Joshua's concepts of loyalty, identity and justice are all challenged.

It is the character of Joshua that gives this book its charm. He is naive. He has no vested interest. He's not weighted by history, religion or politics. He sees the issues as simply unfair and unjust.

The book is a political fable which presents a political reality.  Looking through young Joshua's eyes, we are reminded of the simple truth that there are two sides to every story. It's a clash of innocence and experience.

In the end it's a redemptive tale -  or at least it is for Joshua. There is hope for his future, hope that just maybe he'll use what he's learned to redeem and give hope to - even in a small way - people like his Palestinian friend, Leila.

I urge you to consider reading both the above books. The writing is straight-forward,  informative and moving. More than that - it is full of dignity and life-affirming truth.

Both books are available in bookshops and on Amazon
The Occupation Diaries is published by Profile Books

The Wall is published by Bloomsbury

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