We couldn’t be heroes

5 months ago 109

The Palestinian novelist Sahar Khalifeh (b. 1941) folds a lot into her second novel, Wild Thorns, which was first published in Arabic in 1976, lifting her to regional literary fame. Now reissued in its original translation of 1985 by Trevor LeGassick (1935–2022) and Elizabeth Warnock Fernea (1927–2008), it contains multitudes: family drama, class struggle, feminist rebellion, a prison narrative and a document of the Israeli occupation in the early 1970s.

The book’s two driving forces are state and non-state violence. The action opens as a young man, Usama al-Karmi, returns from working abroad to engage in direct action to liberate Palestine. But before he can reach his home in the West Bank he must weave through a maze of large and small Israeli humiliations. As he makes his way to his mother’s new house he cannot believe that the Palestinians around him haven’t yet risen up against the relatively new occupation.

But while Usama sees the need for heroics, he can never quite manage it, and he often comes across as a sneering aristocrat annoyed by the aesthetics of the Palestinian working class. His cousin Adil has shaken off his own upper-class pretensions and is deeply engaged in the lives of his fellow workers – but he is also terrified of confrontation. Adil’s younger brother Basil is momentarily heroic, but also childishly self-important, and his main action is to out Adil’s secrets to their ailing father.

The cousins’ methods are opposed: Usama is planning to bomb buses, while Adil tries to help an injured Palestinian worker file for compensation with his Israeli boss. But the novel does not ask us to choose between violence and non-violence; both feel simultaneously brave and pointless here, like going into battle against a nuclear state with a few grenades or a handful of paperwork. Throughout Khalifeh writes against the grain of the heroic.

In the end the only tangible result is the destruction of the ancient family home, the last remaining sign of the cousins’ wealth. After Basil is implicated in violence Israeli forces blow up the house with most of the family’s history still inside it. In other circumstances the downwardly mobile could reinvent themselves as their world changes, but in this novel Palestinians have no room in which to manoeuvre. Usama describes the situation as akin to living in a “genie’s bottle”. We are left with a passing newspaper boy calling out headlines, including the ironic “Kissinger announces solution to Middle East crisis!”. Khalifeh leaves the reader not in a state of hopelessness, but rather of frustration, deftly shifting us into the role that Usama played at the beginning of the book: that of outraged observer.

Sahar Khalifeh did not have an easy path to writing. Shortly after high school she was married against her wishes, and she did not attend university until after her divorce. Her first novel, We’re Not Your Slaves Any More (1974), came out when she was a single mother in her thirties. It was followed two years later by the thunderclap of Wild Thorns, then many other books and prizes. While this reissue has a compelling new foreword by Mohammed Hanif, it also needs a new translation. The current version is serviceable where art is wanted.

Marcia Lynx Qualey is a freelance cultural journalist based in Rabat

Browse the books from this week’s edition of the TLS here

The post We couldn’t be heroes appeared first on TLS.

Read Entire Article