Sunday, December 20, 2009

Tackling Israeli-Palestinian issues through fiction

One of the hardest things to do in fiction is tackle a complex issue and still deliver an engaging story.

Randa Abdel-Fattah, a Muslim of Palestinian and Egyptian heritage who grew up in Melbourne, has a strong literary track record of tackling the challenging topic of being a teenage girl of Middle Eastern descent in urban Australia.

Her breakthrough first novel, Does my head look big in this?, was a witty and enjoyable story about an Australian-Palestinian Muslim who decides to wear the hijab, and the courage it takes to display her faith.

Her follow up, Ten things I hate about me, was more about cultural identity (rather than religious), in which a Lebanese teenager in Sydney goes to great lengths to hide her ethnicity from her friends.

Now, Abdel-Fattah has gone a step further, using her gifts as a storyteller to present a Palestinian perspective on the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

Where the streets had a name features the likable narrative voice of Hayaat, a teenage girl whose face is scarred from an event we don’t fully understand until almost the end of the novel.

Hayaat is like most teenagers. She wants to be loved and accepted. She wants her family to be safe. She’s learned to live with the restrictions and curfews of the occupation and the bitterness of those around her who have lost homes and land to the Israelis.

Hayaat has no desire to cause trouble, but when her beloved grandmother, Sitti Zeynab, falls ill, Hayaat is convinced the only thing to lift her spirits will be to touch the soil of her village again. So she and her best friend Samy decide to go themselves, to bring back a jar of the precious dirt.

The trouble is, Sitti Zeynab’s village is on the other side of the giant concrete wall built by the Israelis to keep them separate from the West Bank Palestinians. What should only be a trip of a few miles will take Hayaat and Sami a full day, as they negotiate check points, roadblocks, unreliable public transport and Israeli soldiers.

Given the polemic nature of the Israeli-Palestinian situation itself, it’s a near impossible task to write a story about it with polarising people. But while the Abdel-Fattah’s sympathies lie with the non-violent men, women and children suffering under the occupation, she avoids the trap of painting a simple picture of villains and heroes.

This is a human story. It’s an attempt to show the human face of the occupation – on both sides of the wall. Both sides fear and mistrust the other, but – as this novel quietly suggests – there is hope on both sides too.

Hayaat is a Muslim, yet her best friend Samy is Christian and the difference in their faith appears to have very little significance to them or their community: they are all Palestinian and all living under occupation. And, interestingly, the men and women who help Hayaat and Samy the most during their journey (probably because they have the freedom to so) are Israelis, who – openly or otherwise – oppose the occupation.

Abdel-Fattah’s connection to the people and the place in this story allows her to capture the humour, spirit and humanity of a people whose plight is frequently over-shadowed by the violence perpetrated by a few, but ascribed to all.

Sitti, who has suffered the most in Hayaat’s family, also has the greatest capacity to laugh at the situation of her people.

To Hayaat’s sister, who is dieting in the lead-up to her wedding: “A little meat on a woman is nice. Do you want people to look at your on your wedding day and think you had a holiday in Gaza?”

But Sitti also carries the grief of a nation without a status. To the Israeli family who claimed her home as her own: “I’m sorry for what happened to your family and your people, but why must we be punished?”

And finally, it is Sitti who offers her granddaughter a glimmer of hope that one day the Israelis and Palestinians may find a way to live together: “Justice will come when those who hope outweigh those who despair. Hope is a force that cannot be reckoned with, ya Hayaat.”

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