Helen Winternitz, A Season of Stones: Living in a Palestinian Village (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1991).
Gloria Emerson, A Year in the Intifada: A Personal Account from an Occupied Land (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1991).
“Nothing went wrong my first night in the village of Nahalin.” With this sentence, so laden with impending doom both for herself and for the village in which she chose to observe the intifada, Helen Winternitz begins her engaging chronicle of life under occupation. In the end, everything would go wrong: Nahalin became the site of a massacre by Israeli Border Guards, and Winternitz was evicted from the village — with profuse apologies — when her presence became too controversial for some more conservative residents.
Winternitz decided to live in a village when she arrived in the West Bank in early 1987, almost a year before the intifada began, because she “wondered what the Palestinians were thinking.” Ordinary Palestinians, that is, not the much-quoted leadership in exile or media personalities in Jerusalem. She wanted to learn about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by observing it at close range, by getting at “village-sized truths that have much larger import.” The project turned out to be more than an educational exercise for Winternitz, who ended up spending two and a half years in or near the village. Her empathy for the villagers, and Palestinians generally, struggling against the odds of land confiscations and military repression, is evident throughout this book.
Atlantic Monthly Press released a second account in 1991 of life under Israeli occupation, written by Gloria Emerson, who covered the Vietnam war for the New York Times and wrote a prize-winning book about it. Emerson says she decided to write a book on Gaza “not…in the hope of denigrating the Jewish state” but “only to illuminate…why there is a revolution that will persist for years until the Palestinians have their nation.” Emerson planted herself in a hotel in Gaza City in 1989 and interviewed some of the people making the revolution.
Although Emerson, like Winternitz, shows genuine sympathy for the Palestinians in their struggle, these two projects, conceptually rather similar, yield vastly different books. The key difference lies in the quality of the information that is presented. Both women are gifted journalists, but Emerson’s account remains superficial despite her six months in Gaza. Aside from several trips to refugee camps, she appears to have spoken not to intifada activists, but — with one or two exceptions — only to the “personalities” (shakhsiyyat), and not even many of these. She does not offer profound insights into either daily life under military occupation or the workings of the intifada. In contrast to Winternitz, Emerson did not, for example, visit a military court or a prison, but prefers to quote other Western sources who did. Although the accounts of these visits remain shocking, the author herself appears strangely removed from the action. At times her book reads more like a floridly written human rights report.
Winternitz, though, offers a truly insightful account of her interactions as a Western woman with both the conservative villagers and the politicized shabab of Nahalin. Reading A Season of Stones, which in many ways is a chronology of land expropriations and settlement building on the hills overlooking Nahalin, we come to understand why Palestinians resorted to mass revolt in 1987. We also discover how the occupation operates: not just by force, but mostly through petty humiliations and arbitrary punishments, the minutiae of daily life. Winternitz also helps to demystify some of the common bogeymen of Western discourse, as, for instance, when she notes that to people in the village, Fatah and the Popular Front, “although associated with terrorism and irrationality in the West, were as standard as the Democrats and the Republicans in any small American town.” Throughout her sojourn, Winternitz never appears easy on herself, is prone to self-criticism, and eventually declines — with sorrow but determination — to impose her presence on the village she has come to love when her residence there becomes problematic.
In Gaza, Emerson proves unable to escape a certain condescension toward the people she meets. In one telling example, she engages in what she refers to as a “dialogue” with an older Palestinian in Jabalya camp on why Americans so often regard Palestinians as terrorists. She presents him with the familiar litany of outrages. The man protests: Some of these attacks had nothing to do with the PLO; the intifada is essentially non-violent; why punish the people of Gaza by giving money and weapons to the Israelis? An indignant Emerson responds to the man from the safety of her hotel room: “It did not matter that I knew all this. When a Gazan decided to teach he was not easily deterred.” So much for dialogue.
Emerson’s unwillingness to listen to what Palestinians have to say leads her to stumble. In recounting the story of a Gazan who killed more than a dozen Israelis by steering a bus over a cliff in July 1989, Emerson remarks: “He acted alone…oblivious of the promise made in November 1988 by Chairman Yasser Arafat that the PLO would renounce acts of terrorism against civilian targets.” It is Emerson who is oblivious, of the fact that the perpetrator, whatever personal grief may additionally have motivated his lethal attack, was acting against the PLO’s pledge precisely because he did not belong to that organization and disagreed with its policy. Emerson misses a perfect opportunity to explain the emergence and popularity of groups in Gaza like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
No such blunders mar Winternitz’s book, although neither author manages to avoid some factual errors. Both make some problematic observations which appear to derive from their being outsiders looking in. From Emerson we learn that taxi fares in Gaza are “very small amounts.” Maybe to Emerson. We also read here that “Arabic is a language of expression not a language of information,” an astounding statement from a person who does not speak a word of Arabic.
Winternitz, who learned some (spoken) Arabic during her stay and has a demonstrably strong capacity to communicate, also slips on occasion. “The Palestinians of Nahalin lived quietly” before the intifada, she tells us. They “had not yet revolted against the Israelis.” There go 40 years of dispossession, oppression and resistance down the memory hole. Nahalin was the site of a bloody Israeli raid led by Ariel Sharon in 1954 that claimed 23 casualties (an event she describes on pages 208-209).
This may sound unjust, as Winternitz makes a genuine attempt to represent Palestinians fairly. But subversion of historical reality is unfortunately all too familiar in this genre. Similarly, Winternitz claims that staying in a village was something that “no one had attempted…in recent years.” In fact, Westerners, some of them married to Palestinians, have lived in the West Bank and Gaza for years, even in villages. Admittedly, they may not have written attractive books about their experiences, something that Winternitz, to her credit, did do.
In the end, we are eager to make exceptions for any weaknesses in Winternitz’s account because they turn out to be the type of errors we are all prone to make in our struggle to participate, observe and comprehend. We envy her: She had a rich and interactive experience in Palestine and then wrote a warm and intelligent report about it. Emerson’s book, by contrast, is a disappointment. Its author makes no attempt to analyze her own presence in Palestinian society and became instead what Palestinians refer to as an “intifada tourist.”