Books

2 Books Go Behind Bars With Palestinians

MY BROTHER, MY LAND: A Story From Palestine, by Sami Hermez with Sireen Sawalha

THE TALE OF A WALL: Reflections on the Meaning of Hope and Freedom, by Nasser Abu Srour. Translated by Luke Leafgren.


“The story of Palestine cannot be told smoothly,” the critic Edward Said observes in “After the Last Sky,” a meditation on the complexities of being Palestinian. “Palestinian life is scattered, discontinuous, marked by the artificial and imposed arrangements of interrupted or confined space,” he writes. “No straight line leads from home to birthplace to school to maturity, all events are accidents, all progress is a digression, all residence is exile.”

“My Brother, My Land” is a memoir of discontinuities, interruptions and confinements. The story belongs to Sireen Sawalha, a Palestinian woman who recounts the short and troubled life of her younger brother, Iyad, a high-ranking member of the militant group Islamic Jihad. Sawalha’s family narratives are relayed to us by the anthropologist Sami Hermez, who weaves them into their historical context. The resulting portrait of a Palestinian militant is at once intimate and patchy. Dramatic details stand out against a background of murky and perhaps unrecoverable motives.

In early chapters, Sawalha, born in 1966, tells the story of her hardscrabble childhood in the village of Kufr Ra’i, northwest of Nablus. In 1967, Sawalha’s mother, Mayda, was traveling with three young daughters in Jordan when war broke out between Israel and its Arab neighbors. While thousands of Palestinians fled what is now the West Bank, Mayda returned to Kufr Ra’i, where she secured the family home and its small fruit orchard. In Sawalha’s accounts of the olive and plum harvests, the picking of za’atar and the never-ending cycle of chores, she evokes a largely vanished world of rural Palestine, before its encirclement by Israeli settlements and the infrastructure of occupation.

These are the book’s most vivid pages. But it is the story of Iyad, the sixth of Mayda’s 13 children, which takes up most of “My Brother, My Land.” Born in 1974, Iyad had no experience of life before occupation. As a teenager, he witnessed the deaths of two schoolmates, killed by Israeli soldiers for throwing rocks during the first intifada. Soon after, he joined the paramilitary group Fahd al-Aswad (the Black Panthers) to take arms against the Israeli military and punish any Palestinians whom the group saw as collaborators.

In 1991, he was involved in the execution of four young men, supposed traitors. Hermez isn’t conclusive about the extent of Iyad’s participation, but notes that he came to regret his role. Iyad was captured by Israeli Defense Forces, interrogated and, Hermez writes, beaten. He was sentenced to 215 years in prison.

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