(this review contains no plot spoilers)
This is a book that deserves the widest possible reading. It covers the Palestinian – Jewish conflict through the experiences of one family over sixty years beginning before 1948, the establishment of the State of Israel and ending around 2002.
The story traces the lives, loves and losses of three siblings all with shared parentage and heritage but with vastly different experiences. Some of their shared experiences bind them together and some of them push them apart.
It is a heart-breaking story both on the grand political scale and on the intimate and personal level. I read it because a) it was chosen by my book group and b) I’ve been ill for the last 10 days so I’ve had the time. It has been such a powerful tool for reflection, I’m almost glad for the reason I’ve been able to give it such concentrated attention.
I’m ashamed to admit that the complexities of the conflict between Israel and Palestine have often felt too impenetrable, too distant and too difficult so I have shaken my head and turned away. I’m grateful for Susan Abulhawa using her gift of biographical story telling to portray the human motives and the human cost on both sides, particularly on the Palestinian side. Arab voices and viewpoints that we in the west generally only hear through a filter of fear or suspicion. (I use the term ‘we’ very loosely and am very aware of many who have courageously stood up for the Palestinian cause). One thread of the story concerns the journey of one who becomes a terrorist and because Abulhawa begins that person’s story from the very beginning of their life and unpacks all the hurts, fears and hates that lead up to that moment what seems impossible to understand becomes entirely understandable.
Every conflict has two sides and Abulhawa’s story helps us see the Palestinian side but she doesn’t tell her story as if there is no pain on the Israeli side either. Conflict always arises because of acute, unaddressed pain on both sides. It is a fictional book but only in the sense of the characters being fictional. It is set out with such factual clarity and pegs itself so firmly to history, it is virtually certain that ‘Amal’, ‘Ismael’ and ‘Yousef’ are out there somewhere or a family very like them.
There were two relationships in the story that particularly drew my attention and are the reason for this reflection: a mother with her daughter and a sister with her brother. Both are marred by a failure to love born out fear, born out of stoic determination not to face the pain of loving (for very understandable reasons). One relationship is resolved in almost every way and the other is resolved but only partially.
” I have not loved enough” is the final thought of a character who in that very moment loves the most intensely he or she has ever loved. (Trying very hard here not to plot spoil!).
We all love ‘poorly’ i.e. inadequately. This is a fact worthy of sincere reflection. Some of us love poorly because we say too much and we say it too harshly. Others of us love poorly because we say too little and appear indifferent. I have been guilty of both but more often of the first inadequacy.
I believe the only reason we were put on this planet is to learn to love and I despair that after over half a century I still have so much to learn. I will not indulge either myself or your curiosity to say why that conclusion is true but it is. I will however point again to another book that has given me the greatest possible help towards learning to love better.
I have reviewed this book elsewhere a long time ago on this blog and I can only say again it was a revolution in how I understood myself, my background and my ways of relating. This is another book I cannot recommend too highly.
Scazzzero speaks about ‘tip of the ice-berg spirituality’ which is when our faith has not touched the deep internal wounds and patterns of the past. This is a book that lead me into much greater emotional health and towards the contemplative style of worship that I now find so helpful. Ironically it has also led me to speak up more assertively for myself which I haven’t always done appropriately so, as I say, I still love ‘poorly’.
The chapters I found the most helpful in Scazzero’s book were about ‘Looking beneath the surface of life’ and ‘Breaking the power of the past’. One of the exercises he recommends is to explore the ways of relating that were around you in the home where you grew up and then to examine the ways of relating that existed in your parents’ generation. I first read this book (and it’s companion Emotionally Healthy Church) four or five years ago but I have revisited it as often as I re-read Nouwen. It was a revelation for me of patterns passed down through generations but again I will not indulge you with my personal history. Suffice it to say that Abulhawa’s book is a incredible example of how ‘failure to love well’ passes from one generation to another and it touched me deeply. Yet it is also a hopeful book because it speaks of the power of even the most tentative steps towards loving better.
The loss, horror and tragedy in this story are immense. It made me ashamed of my petty complaints and indifference to ‘bigger human issues’. I almost wrote ‘bigger political stories’ in that last sentence but I realise that is only another way to hold such issues at a pain-free distance and nothing is ever a purely political conflict. Conflict and pain, aggression and retribution, escalation and destruction are always personal choices with personal consequences. No matter how hurt I am, there is always the other persons’ viewpoint and the chances are they feel just as hurt as I do but probably for different reasons.
Was it CS Lewis who said ‘the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart’? I’m not sure but I know he said that the line between good and evil runs straight down the centre of all of us. None of us can take the moral high ground.