Why you should care
Because there are new and thought-provoking things to say about tensions in the Middle East.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict began in 1948, which might lead some to believe that there is nothing new to write or read on the subject. Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation proves that assumption wrong.
The courageous, groundbreaking collection of essays reflects the peaceful diversity it wishes to see in the world. Edited by Pulitzer Prize–winning author Michael Chabon and his wife, Israeli-born novelist and essayist Ayelet Waldman, the book assembles contributors from all literary walks of life: from Colum McCann to Jacqueline Woodson, Geraldine Brooks to Dave Eggers, Hari Kunzru to Mario Vargas Llosa. They are writers from every continent, of all ages, of eight mother tongues. Some identify as Christian, Muslim, Jewish or Hindu, and some have no religious affiliation. Some had never visited Israel before, and most had never been into the occupied territories. All these writers were asked to do was, simply, pay attention.
The portrait they paint is too compelling to look away from.
There’s no two ways about it: Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation has a strong perspective. It was in part created by Breaking the Silence, a nonprofit organization composed of former Israeli soldiers who have come to oppose the occupation and strive to bring it to an end. The perceptive, personal essays reflect the gamut of life in Palestine-Israel. The portrait they paint is too compelling to look away from: What it is to live and work there — the daily frustrations and indignities of multiple checkpoints, the constant fear of arrest or worse.
In one essay, “Love in the Time of Qalandiya,” a reference to another novel birthed during a time of turmoil, death and tragedy, Taiye Selasi explores the possibility of Palestinian-Israeli love, taking Palestine’s national poet Mahmoud Darwish as her inspiration. Selasi visits nightclubs in Ramallah, mingling with the young, looking for and finding the rule breakers. She writes: “These are women after my own heart. They like to flirt, to drink, to smoke, they tell me, laughing. They like sex.” But one behavior for these liberated women is simply out of the question. “Would you date a Jewish man? No, never.” It becomes clear that this is not necessarily because the young have “drunk the Kool-Aid, accepting the purported otherness of their neighbors”; it is simply because the system, the “legal and logistical barriers,” are impossibly high.
But sometimes, as this collection deftly explores, these differences can be surmounted. The highlight for me is McCann’s extraordinary piece, “Two Stories, So Many Stories.” In it he records a meeting with two middle-aged men in Beit Jala: One is a Jew, the other a Muslim. Both are bereaved fathers who have forged an alliance out of their mutual grief. The Muslim man cuts through to a courageous argument; he refuses to be pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian. He says of others: “I demand of them to be pro-peace, to be against injustice, and against this ongoing situation in which one people is dominating another.”
These are all stories of separation, from one’s own fields, family, place of work and worship. As McCann says, they can “pry open our rib cages and twist our hearts backwards a notch. They can aim a punch at the back of your brain.” The going can be hard, the material often tragic. Desperate and repeated themes mirror the seemingly intractable situation in Palestine-Israel. But these are real human tales from behind the borders. What better way to be educated and enlightened than through the words of some of the world’s greatest writers?
Isabel Duffy spent more than 10 years working in the publishing industry in the U.K. before moving to San Francisco, where she interviewed many authors on stage for City Arts and Lectures. She has contributed to The Believer and recently trained as a psychotherapist.