Next we meet Hani Amer, whose farm lay on the route of the infamous wall. After a long struggle, Amer won the right to have his house and some of his land preserved . . . The Israeli Army built a gate that they opened for 15 minutes every 24 hours. . . Most disturbing is “planet Hebron,” where the list of abuses considered normal includes soldiers firing tear gas at schoolchildren to mark the beginning and end of each day of school.
BEN RAWLENCE, The New York Times, July 14, 2016
Children playing in the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City in 2007 (Ruth Fremson/The New Yorkr Times)
An intimate, vivid look at daily life in Palestine
THE WAY TO THE SPRING
Life and Death in Palestine
By Ben Ehrenreich
Illustrated. 428 pp. Penguin Press. $28.
“It is perhaps unavoidable and surely unfortunate that any book about the region between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea requires introduction, and some small degree of defensiveness on the part of the author.” So writes Ben Ehrenreich, a journalist and novelist, in the (avoidable) introduction to his love letter to Palestine, “The Way to the Spring.”
I say avoidable because, as Ehrenreich acknowledges on the same page, the current debate about Israel-Palestine is virulently partisan. His exposition of the politics of storytelling (“choosing certain stories and not others means taking a side”) and the task of the writer (“to battle untruth”) is eloquent, though I fear more likely to deter than move those who have already made up their minds on the issue. His cause would be better served by letting his stories do the talking, for they are both heartbreaking and eye-opening.
The book begins with Bassem Tamimi, whom Ehrenreich met in 2011. Bassem is a resident of the village of Nabi Saleh in the West Bank, which had been holding weekly demonstrations against the Israeli occupation — protesting the grabbing of the village spring (its water supply) and the arrest and detention of villagers, as well as the death of one of them, a 13-year-old boy. The intimacy of Ehrenreich’s reporting domesticates the violence and injustice, thus rendering it more shocking: A fragment of a tear gas grenade and broken lawn furniture mingle beneath a fruiting mulberry tree in the garden. Children proudly show where an Israeli bullet scarred one of the rooms. Bassem’s wife, Nariman, reads Dan Brown in Arabic translation outside, at night, watching the brake lights of cars at the checkpoint down the hill.
The people of Nabi Saleh are among the few who still regularly protest and resist the occupation, and Ehrenreich accompanies them on marches, getting tear-gassed more times than I can count. But this is not the story he has come for, not the only one he is interested in. He spends enough time among the family of Bassem and others to realize that “the people of Nabi Saleh were crafting a narrative of their own struggle.” They needed “to see themselves a certain way.” And this is the heart of the book: the stories people tell themselves to survive.
Next we meet Hani Amer, whose farm lay on the route of the infamous wall. After a long struggle, Amer won the right to have his house and some of his land preserved but enclosed like a bubble with the wall divided into two loops. The Israeli Army built a gate that they opened for 15 minutes every 24 hours. Nonetheless, within the space, he has planted olive, fig, apple, peach and plum trees, vegetables of all kinds. “Instead of seeing the wall,” he says, “I try to see the garden.”
The narrative doesn’t linger for long with any one character. Like an overeager tour guide, Ehrenreich has too much to show us and too much to say. He pulls us back to Ramallah to see the incremental theft that is the process of a new settlement going up. Then to the refurbished muqata’a, the official residence of the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, to illustrate how the building works as a “palimpsest of 80 years of colonial and now neocolonial rule,” designed to create the impression of a state without the substance. Most disturbing is “planet Hebron,” where the list of abuses considered normal includes soldiers firing tear gas at schoolchildren to mark the beginning and end of each day of school.
We meet a new cast of characters in Hebron, and another in the Bedouin village of Umm al-Kheir, including the unforgettable vegetarian pastoralist Eid Suleiman al-Hathalin, who makes model bulldozers out of scrap and whose ambition is to have one of them exhibited at the Caterpillar company’s museum in Peoria, Ill. In between are set-piece “interludes” examining the mechanics of the occupation — the “humiliation machine” of the checkpoint at Qalandia, the apartment blocks of Rawabi, near Ramallah, not, as the promotional materials and newspaper reports would have you believe, a “city of hope,” but in fact a tangle of financial interests tying Palestinian elites to Israeli developers and Qatari financiers.
Ehrenreich’s vivid, lyrical, sometimes snarling prose overwhelms the attempt at formal structure, however. The reportage motors forward, propelled by Ehrenreich’s wonder at the outrageous curiosities of the occupation. In Umm al-Kheir the Israeli Army dispatches a platoon to confiscate a portable toilet and demolish a bread oven. In Hebron, a settler scales a wall and snares himself in barbed wire to request that his Palestinian neighbor remove a Palestinian flag. “The citizens of each city are trained from infancy to unsee the other city and its residents,” Ehrenreich writes, citing a work of science fiction.
The book is not a polemic, Ehrenreich says in the introduction. This is argument by way of anecdote. The French writer Jean Genet also wrote a passionate homage to Palestine (“Prisoner of Love”) and also pondered the question of how the battle for truth is waged: “It’s not enough just to write a few anecdotes,” he warned. “What one has to do is create and develop an image or a profusion of images.” In those terms, Ehrenreich’s haunting, poignant and memorable stories add up to a weighty contribution to the Palestinian side of the scales of history.
Ben Rawlence is the author of “Radio Congo” and “City of Thorns.”