I continue to be fascinated with this book—part 1 of this reading journal is here—and with the effort Ahmed (the narrator) makes, even while he is planning a suicide attack against Israel, to imagine his Jewish father’s life. The author, Myriam Antaki, sets the two men up as almost mirror images of each other: Ahmed, the disenfranchised, exiled, oppressed, orphaned Palestinian; his father, the disenfranchised, exiled, oppressed, orphaned European Jew; each one looking to reclaim for himself and his people a land he thinks of as home. But there is another parallel as well, this one involving a woman. Ahmed loves Iman, the prostitute in whose arms his mother finds him when she reveals to him who his father was. The fact that Iman is a prostitute, a woman who survives by selling her body, is important—or, to be more precise, the fact that Ahmed does not see her prostitution as a betrayal of his love, as a rejection of who he is, is important, though I don’t know enough yet about how Ahmed became radicalized, about the actual circumstances of his life, to find this importance in more than the way Ahmed’s feelings about Iman form an interesting parallel and contrast to his father’s experience with Aline.
Aline is a women—it’s not clear to me whether or not she’s Jewish—with whom his father has a brief encounter on the beach in the midst of the Nazi occupation. That encounter means a great deal to Ahmed’s father, who thinks of Aline, “her ivory skin, her face pale with pleasure” in order to “forget [his] pain…and [the pain] of others” (39). On the very next page, however, Ahmed’s father sees Aline with Von Postel, the German in charge of the occupation. His “nobleman’s hands are touching Aline, while she comes “close to him…show[ing] him her eyes, her lips, her half-open blouse” (40). Ahmed’s father experiences this as a deep, deep betrayal on Aline’s part. For him, she “is the shimmering woman, a sea angel who crumples her underwear to give [him] a thrust of that body, that heart which [he] believe[s] to be celestial,” but, when he sees her with Von Postel, his “sadness plunges deep into [his] entrails” and the night’s stars slowly burn his heart (40).
In offering herself to Von Postel, Aline—and from this perspective it doesn’t really matter whether she is Jewish or not—is arguably doing precisely the same thing that Iman does in the brothel, selling herself to survive. So it’s interesting that Ahmed does not idealize Iman in the same way that his father idealizes Aline, that he does not feel the same betrayal as his father in the knowledge that the woman he loves also sells herself to other men. (It’s not clear whether Ahmed pays Iman, though I suspect that he does.) I don’t know exactly what to make of this yet, but there seems to be a connection between Ahmed’s father’s idealization of Aline and the idealization of “the promised land” that Ahmed attributes to his father. On the other hand, Ahmed’s colder, more realistic, even more resigned stance towards Iman—who, one might say, because of her profession and the role it plays in a male dominant culture, has quite clearly been occupied—seems to mirror what the novel depicts as the more clear-sighted stance that the Palestinians have towards their occupied land.
There is more to say about this, but I want to turn my attention to an aspect of the novel that I mentioned in the very first sentence of this post: the way it captures the effort Ahmed makes to enter imaginatively into his father’s life, to understand the circumstances—as far as Ahmed can know them—that brought his father to what was then Palestine. I was struck in particular by Ahmed’s rendering of his father’s and grandmother’s experience in one of the cattle cars the Nazis used to transport Jews to the camps:
Meant for thirty men, eighty are crammed in. To perish by smothering is one way to die. It is a shorter death, happening with the same indifference as the wind falls or the star are extinguished. The people imagine the pain in their bodies. Their eyes take on a color of peril and stone.
Father, you try to help your mother, to support her as she mounts the last step into the car. You fear that frailty that is turning her lips and eyes colorless…. Piled into the cars, going off to a place where people no longer have the strength to stand up. The Germans refuse to leave a single door ajar. To survive you have to stay in a vertical position, motionless and silent. It is a sweating, shouting free-for-all. You understand that the least dangerous position is tightly in a corner of the car where the pressure of the others is less. That is where you put your mother and you form a screen to ward off any knocks against her….
The men have swallowed the last bottles of beer and wine and drink their own sweat to fight off thirst. The latrine buckets are overflowing. People relieve themselves on the floor if they can. Some are throwing up, others shout for something to drink….
People can no longer endure their skin, their sweat, their breathing. They go naked, and some feel an erotic desire in a last unhealthy sensuality. Others vomit and die. The corpses are stacked up in the back of the car. Your mother is silent, words remain glued to her suffering, to the abyss. (45-47)
What strikes me here is Ahmed’s—and, of course, Antaki’s by extension—commitment to rendering the suffering as fully as possible, a commitment which bespeaks a desire to understand, an awareness that this kind of understanding is somehow necessary, is what underlies our ability to see an Other as a fellow human being. At the same time, understanding this kind of suffering is, in some sense, easy. After all, not to see this suffering, not to apprehend it almost immediately, is at least implicitly to excuse the Nazi ideology that underwrote it, which would immediately remove pretty much any credibility from anything else Ahmed (and Antaki) had to say.
I do not mean by this that the effort Antaki makes through Ahmed to imagine the Jewish experience of the Shoah is in any way trivial or somehow of secondary importance. Indeed, I think you can measure just how important it is by how many people in the world are unwilling to undertake that same humanizing effort on behalf of the Palestinians, whose story may not include a dictator hell bent on wiping them entirely from the fact of the earth, but whose very human suffering for the sake of their land and their national identity is no less real than that of the Jews.
This imaginative act, of course, is not by itself enough to change anything about the situation between the Israelis and the Palestinians, or between the people around the world who have lined up on either side of that conflict; but without this act of imagination, I do not think any real change is possible.