Madeleine Thien’s essay, “The Land in Winter,” about her visit to the occupied territory in the West Bank and to Israel, appears in the collection Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation, edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman (HarperCollins 2017). She is one of 26 contributors that include some well-known names of authors: Rachel Kushner, Dave Eggers, Mario Vargas Llosa and Anita Desai, for example.
But what does the subtitle mean by “confront the occupation”? Does it mean 26 authors participating in demonstrations in front of the Knesset? Acts of violence against Israeli border guards? Confronting settlers through dialogue? No, no. Let’s be serious here. It means bearing witness. It means visiting the West Bank and writing about it: the confrontation is within. Or, as the editors put it in their Introduction:
“…storytelling itself—bearing witness, in vivid and clear language, to things personally seen and incidents encountered—has the power to engage the attention of people who, like us, have long since given up paying attention…” (p. IX, Kingdom)
Some contributors demur on this point. Arnon Grunberg separates witnesses and moral witnesses: “The moral witness must not only perceive the injustice, but also have suffered under it himself or be willing to actively oppose it. Am I a moral witness? I doubt it. Does writing make me a moral witness? Not nearly enough. I feel, in fact, more like a sightseer at the scene of a disaster than a moral witness.” (p. 363)
When he writes this, he is at the Qalandiya checkpoint with a woman from Machsom Watch, which is a group of women who observe the treatment of Palestinians crossing daily. Lars Saabye Christensen also writes about them in “Occupied Words”, in which he observes the humiliation of the checkpoint and concludes that “occupation is a queue.” (p. 109) In a thoughtful essay on walls, Helon Habila writes about Qalandiya and Machsom Watch; one of the women says “People shouldn’t be treated like animals,” as they watch the men running through the cage to the kiosk where their papers will be checked. Long and early is the queue; the time it takes extends the working day of Palestinians with jobs in Israel by hours.
“And yet throughout the world, past and present, for thousands of years, those whom we call good men, righteous men, have been accustomed to the sight of such things, have sat and looked and considered them to be matters of course, have not demanded justice for the victims or offered help to them. This is the most appalling, unjust, and unequal thing, the most inexplicable theory under heaven.”
—Sparrow quoting Kang Youwei, in Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, p. 360 (Granta paperback 2017).
Madeleine Thien bears witness through the personal and the factual in writing about her visit to three places. Thien opens her story with a Palestinian shepherd who has been stopped by police because his sheep have wandered into a military zone near the Israeli settlement Mitzpeh Avigayil, which borders the shepherd’s property. Like other Palestinians near settlements, Nael Abu Aram has had confrontations with settlers, who have attacked his sheep, have assaulted him, and have cut down 30 of his family’s olive trees. The military zone was land that once belonged to him.
She visits two bulldozed Palestinian homes in Wadi a-Jheish. She talks to the now-homeless children, who want only “to live” and “to bring money for my family.” (p. 59) Thien then explains that this village is in Area C, which is under Israeli jurisdiction and therefore no Palestinian development is permitted. New houses, new schools built without a permit in Area C will be destroyed. Her reading of UN and World Bank documents relating to Area C lead her to ask:
“Is it true that the state of Israel cannot exist if the state of Palestine does? What does it mean, in our contemporary world, to have a promised land?” (p. 60)
Most striking, however, is the time she spends in Palestinian Susiya. Here, too, she balances the personal with the factual, even mentioning that her grandparents had been villagers. Her brief history of the forced relocations and destroyed homes in Palestinian Susiya, and of the creation of the Israeli settlement Susya in 1983, is accompanied by her account of Nasser Najawa and his father. Nasser works with Israeli activists to prevent the demolition of Palestinian homes. Despite, or because of, international support of the legal case for Susiya, in January 2016, Nasser Najawa was arrested, interrogated, and released. (p. 69)
While with them, Thien asked Nasser’s father what he hoped for. He replied, “I wish not to be woken in the night to have my home demolished.” (p. 66)
Thien is not the only one to have visited or written about Susiya. So too does Ala Hlehel in his angry essay, “Bloated Time and the Death of Meaning” (translated), mainly about the effect of checkpoints on one’s sense of identity and freedom. Susiya shows up again in Emily Raboteau’s essay on perseverance and water, titled “Sumud.” Water is an ongoing issue here in this land of drought, not only over who controls it but also how it is used as a tool of oppression: in Susiya, when homes were destroyed, wells were filled in. The green of settlements and the brown of Palestinian villages is a visual indicator of who controls the water. Anita Desai contrasts Susiya and Susya as invisible and visible.
In July 2016, Thien visited Bethlehem, Hebron, Susiya, Wadi a-Jheish, Akko, Kiryat Arba and Tel Aviv. Her essay title, “The Land in Winter,” is a metaphor of hope. She writes that in summer, “Even the sky is austere, a pale blue cloth made entirely of heat.” (p. 56) But she is reminded by a Palestinian writer, Raja Shehadeh, that the land looks different in winter. “I was startled to realize that all I could see was one aspect of a harsh, inhospitable season. Raja could see this alongside its opposite: a floating green, both the withering and the generation of possibilities.” (p. 56) Thus “The Land in Winter” promises green, rejuvenation, hope for the land whose people would like it to be recognized as Palestine.
Thien concludes her essay: “The occupation began before I was born, but this numbing of our souls and our reliance on the word intractable: surely this cannot be our apology and our answer.” (p. 71)
Other essays offer perhaps not “our answer” but praise for those who help and those who persist. One of my favourites is Raja Shehadeh’s “Sami”, a story about his taxi driver getting him past road closures and across a checkpoint for a flight from Tel Aviv, a story more tense than a murder mystery. Examples of those who persist: the successful businessman in “Giant in a Cage”; the soccer players in “Playing for Paelstine”; and the music stars in “Hip-Hop in Not Dead.” In “Occupation’s Untold Story,” Fida Jiryis writes of her decision to move to Ramallah, of her daily frustrations as a Palestinian born in Israel, from finding an apartment to buying a dress.
Both Arnon Grunberg and Anita Desai write about Military Court Watch, an organisation that documents the treatment given to minors in Israeli military detention. Colum McCann reports on Parents Circle, a group for both Israeli and Palestinian parents who have lost children to violence. While not easy to read, these essays seem more relevant than the narratives by such visitors as Rachel Kushner and Dave Eggers and Lars Saabye Christensen, all of whom take on the “I Came, I Saw, I Was Sad” narrative. And as Eimear McBride (“The End of Reasons”) points out, their emotions are of no worth to the Palestinians, quoting a woman who says, “I don’t need your tears.”
While most of the authors stuck to the narrative of checkpoints and families in powerless homes, or contemplated the larger issues of dispossession and borders, some of the group snuck research into their narrative. What is different two years later?
- In 1980, Israel passed a law declaring Jerusalem a “complete and united” capital (Kushner, p. 76); now Trump has followed suit.
- In the city of Hebron, there are 200,000 Palestinians, 850 settlers, and 650 soldiers to protect the settlers (Tóibín, p. 236); in the last 40 years, Israeli settlers in the West Bank increased by 340,000 (Thien, p. 59). According to Peace Now, excluding East Jerusalem, 400,000 Israeli settlers comprised 12% of the West Bank population in 2016.
- In 2014, Israeli Defense Forces arrested 861 Palestinian children (Waldman, p. 373). In 2017, by the end of November, 313 Palestinian children were “security prisoners” in Israeli prisons (Military Court Watch).
- On the night of January 23, 2018, Israeli forces raided 32 Palestinian homes in the West Bank. The night before, 24 raids. The night before that, 19 raids. (Amira Hass, citing PLO Negotiations Department, “Raiding, Arresting, Mapping and Getting Home for Shabbat,” in Haaretz 29 January 2018, p. 4.)
Proceeds from the sale of this book go to Breaking the Silence and Youth Against Settlements, the groups that organized the visits for the authors. Breaking the Silence insists on the value of witnessing, and I would add, on the value of reading this collection:
“We are grateful to everyone who has taken it upon themselves to witness this reality, from up close and from afar, and to break the silence with us, to confront the occupation, and to fight for a better future for Palestinians and Israelis alike.” (p. 421)
“Life was full of obstacles, my father used to tell me, and no one could be sure that tomorrow or next year, anything would remain the same.”
-Madeleine Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, p. 25 Granta paperback.
Madeleine Thien has travelled extensively, has taught writing in Hong Kong and lived in Berlin. For more about where she has been, see her website: Madeleine Thien.
- Interview with Rajah Shehadeh in The Guardian about his latest book, Where The Line Is Drawn: Crossing Boundaries in Occupied Palestine.
- Madeleine Thien writes about The Dream of the Red Chamber in Brick magazine.
- Madeleine Thien’s essay “The Land in Winter” is also available on Granta’s website.
- Ta’ayush, one of the organizations mentioned in a footnote.
- B’Tselem, the Israeli Informatin Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.
- Why Jerusalem is not the capital by Zena Tahhan and Farah Najjar.
- Military Court Watch
- “Jerusalem Day“
- Planning Policy in Area C
- The Enemy, an NFB app that looks at both sides of conflict, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
- Israeli journalist Gideon Levy, “What Have I Learned From 30 Years of Covering the Occupation?” on Youtube posted by Haaretz.
- All royalties from the sale of this book will go to two groups: Breaking the Silence and Youth Against Settlements.
Thank you for bringing this book to my attention – definitely on my to-buy list.
Thank you, Debra, for this very thoughtful entry. I will definitely buy Chabon and Waldman’s collection of essays.
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