The human dimensions of the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank and the social contradictions of Palestinian society under occupation are nowhere better portrayed than in Sahar Khalifeh’s novel Wild Thorns, translated from the Arabic by Trevor LeGassick and Elizabeth Fernea (London: Saqi, 1985). The plot revolves around the mission of Usama, a young Palestinian who returns to the West Bank after working in the Gulf to blow up the buses that carry tens of thousands of West Bankers to work in Israel every day. (During this uprising dozens of such buses have actually been set ablaze.) Khalifeh probes the dynamics of Usama’s family and the problematic results of the “success” of his mission in this realistic portrait of life under occupation. She depicts not only the daily oppression of the occupier, but also the social and personal relations among the occupied. The daily realities of Palestinian society — the need to survive which compels many Palestinians to work for Israelis, even to construct settlements; the generational and gender conflicts within families which pit educated young men and women against elders to whom they must defer and against whom they cannot rebel without appearing to betray their cultural heritage; and the difficulties of finding effective methods of resistance — are often overlooked in popular nationalist slogans and in detached, analytic studies.
Sahar Khalifeh’s bold and unsentimental novel, while more nuanced than the slogans, explains their popularity and relevance. It is not accidental that Wild Thorns, the emblematic novel of the occupation, is the achievement of a divorced woman. Though scorned for leaving the husband she wed in an arranged marriage at age 18, Khalifeh fought to define her individual role as a Palestinian living under and resisting occupation. Women’s literary voices have in recent years emerged as the subversive truth tellers of Arab society, pronouncing that which is unpronounceable in formal male-dominated official discourse yet is widely recognized as true once it is spoken.
Sahar Khalifeh’s personal experience of some of the social contradictions she portrays in her novel is documented in Michel Khleifi’s widely acclaimed film Fertile Memory (1981). The film contrasts the life of Khalifeh, an educated professor at Birzeit University, with that of an older, more traditional woman from Nazareth, inside the “green line,” and subtly shows the similarity of their conditions while respecting the individuality of the subjects. Fertile Memory is unfortunately not currently distributed in the United States. It is one of the most moving films about the Palestine-Israel conflict and should be made widely available.
The appearance of a second edition of Walid Khalidi’s From Haven to Conquest: Readings in Zionism and the Palestine Problem Until 1948 (Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1987) could not be more timely. This long out-of-print anthology is one of the classic early efforts to present a documented account of the Palestine question challenging the Zionist version of history to a Western audience. Many of the selections have enduring value and are useful in teaching university courses and as background reading for church and political organizations engaged in a study of the origins of the Palestinian-Zionist conflict. The same is true of The Transformation of Palestine (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1987), edited by Ibrahim Abu-Lughod. These seminal essays, first published in 1971, are among the best treatments of the political, socioeconomic and demographic consequences of the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.
Less useful is Uri Davis’ most recent opus, Israel: An Apartheid State (London: Zed Press, 1987). The central contention, that there are valid comparisons between Israel and South Africa, is unassailable. Davis’ evidence is interesting and useful. But he overstates his case, and his heavy-handed approach will not convince the previously unconvinced. His main political argument, that the PLO provides a political alternative for Israeli Jews, belongs in the realm of fantasy.