Introduction

For a long time many authors have attempted to describe the horrific acts that have been happening in West Bank for years and damaged the area’s image to the outside world. Continuous bloody fights and conflicts have led to deaths of people of every age. Different people have attempted to describe the events. Some do well, while others deliver the information in a distorted manner that eventually leads to the misconception of the actual events that occurred in the region. However, while literature on this issue is mostly inaccurate and biased, Sahar Khalifeh’s book Wild thorns written at the time of the occupation and The End of Spring written at the time of the siege provide a clear picture of events during these two important periods in the history of Palestine. Khalifeh’s attempt is a brave one as it is not obscured by thoughtless euphemism. The author attempts to safeguard the image of her country. These two books take the reader on a journey through hitherto unknown land and circumstances and enable them to empathise with victims of both: the invasion and the siege.

Living Between Impossibility and Absurdity

Many people, especially those who have been victims of war, have described it as cruel, vicious, brutal, and wasteful. Sahar Khalifeh, however, looks at war from a unique perspective of war-absurdity. Wild Thorns is focused on war. Whether the war is between Palestinians and Israelis or within the Palestinian community itself, it remains an absurdity created by idealism and pragmatism. Set at the time of West Bank occupation, the book intertwines fiction with history. The book is about oppressed people, who device ways of surviving the hard times. Two main characters Usama and his cousin Adil have different priorities and, therefore, have different approaches to the same. The book is not strictly historical, but it provides real historical insight.  Usama, young idealist who has just returned from the Gulf, feels that his very existence is synonymous to independence. He feels that freedom of his people is much more important to him than family ties. He feels that if his cousin Adil was to die as a result of his fundamentalist activities, he would comfortably accept the loss. Adil, on the other hand, has become a pragmatist mainly because of necessity and responsibility to provide for his family. He, therefore, feels that placing food on the table is his main role in life and is independent of the occupation.

While the views on the best course of survival of two cousins differ, the difference exists even in their ideological representations. Usama is a microcosm of politically charged PLO fundamentalists, whose importance in the wake of 1967 defeat of Pan-Arabism and Nasser cannot be underscored. One can actually draw many parallels between Usama and Yasser Arafat. Historical facts are that Arafat studied in Egypt before working in the Gulf. Like Usama, he was out of his country for some years before returning home radicalised and ready to give all that he had for the revolution. The trans-border raids into areas controlled by the Israelis were worth the risk since any retaliation by Israeli forces was aimed against people and not against him. Like Usama, he felt that the lives of his countrymen were dispensable in the name of revolution.

Adil, on the other hand, is the exact opposite of Usama. Having a huge task of keeping a large extended family financially solvent in times of great scarcity, he is ready to work for Israelis as a labourer. He has become a pragmatist because it was the easiest way to make the ends meet and not because he felt attracted to the ideology. This is a position taken by many residents of the West Bank, who have a difficult life devoid of economic opportunities and crippled with high inflation and high Israeli taxation. The only way out of the quagmire is working for the Israelis. Usama and other extremists of course consider these traitors. What they do not consider is that these apparent collaborators would be as happy as he would be with an independent country and a means of survival for their families. These different attitudes create social cracks within the Palestinian society. Usama’s consistent donning of neat attire makes his countrymen feel that he is wealthy enough to be involved in the revolution. They resent the notion that they are not patriotic. It is just that they cannot spare the time and resources for PLO activities. Usama, for example, attacks a bread seller for selling Israeli-made bread. The seller responds, “Look friend, we’re not the first to work with them. While we were still wandering the streets of Nablus looking for bread to eat, your kind were running around Tel Aviv looking for companies to award you franchises so you could sell their products.”

To the bread seller, the affluent are compromised. They are ready to sell Palestinian people for Israeli pounds. The power they hold in the society is illegitimate, but with traditional institutions of authority heavily discredited, there is nobody to fill the void .Usama would definitely agree with the bread seller’s sentiments. He has little patience with his grandfather, a representative of societal elite before the occupation, who spends most of his time complaining to journalists. Usama feels not enough action is taken because those who should lead the revolution only talk. He also constantly reprimands Adil for his constant talk that is not supported with actions.

Founded in 1964, the PLO remained largely untainted before Arafat took over. This was mainly due to the moderate stance taken by initial leaders of the organisation. Usama represents the new generation of PLO activists who favour action to talking. The occupation itself brings out an aspect of absurdity. Palestinians were forced to pay heavy “liberty taxes”, which were used to finance continued occupation. Their food taxes were used to subsidize agricultural activities in Israel. The money they earned by hard work to pay for Histadrut was instead used for maintaining the wages of highly-paid Israelis. The absurdities are innumerable.

The author uses Adil and Zuhdi to highlight the issues that the situation presents. Adil realizes that the plight of workers goes beyond their nationalities. The lives of Jewish workers, he realizes, are not as easy as they appear to be to Palestinians. He thinks that they too face exploitation. The conflict is made clear by the fact that Adil becomes an eager participant in the fight between Zuhdi and Shlomo after he is unable to stop it. He is enraged that his efforts for the attainment of “Middle East peace” are dismissed with so much contempt and rudeness. Adil proves that his efforts for peace are beyond ethnic and political boundaries when he comforts the widow of an Israeli officer killed by Usama, his own cousin. It is also he, who tears up the epaulets worn by the officer as he loathes what they represent. Despite his efforts to attain peace and harmonious co-existence, he ends up paying for atrocities committed by Usama. The Israelis demolish the house that he worked tirelessly to keep.

The author portrays nationalism in a negative light. Throughout the story, nationalism is developed as the villain and not the hero. Nationalism makes Basil and Usama destroy their whole family. Adil’s death is caused by nationalism. Nationalism pathetically fails to offer the essential practical solutions to problems that appear on day-to-day basis. The author portrays nationalism as lacking foundation and serving as an absurd source of hope for the naïve and the gullible.

While failure of nationalism to achieve its intended purpose may be more manifested in the West Bank situation, nationalism has proven to have extremely high price, which many people have questioned to be worth to pay. Nationalism has contributed to destruction of lives and property worldwide.

What is conspicuously visible, however, is resigned solidarity. Solidarity, however, exists only at the local level as there are no more national networks other than PLO. Individuals tend to be cohesively bonded to each other. However, social fragmentation and mistrust caused by difference in economic and social strata runs deep. Members of different social classes dislike one another. The society is, however, less fragmented in terms of organization than it was during and immediately after the infamous Arab revolt. The‘revolutionaries’ have a deep contempt for people, who try to live normal lives in abnormal times.   

The initiators of the occupation intended it to have these effects. Israel was determined to supress any elements of nationalism. Their policies were not only intended to destroy Palestinian economy, but also to weaken local businesses hence increasing Palestinians’ dependence on Israeli goods and employment. Such dependence, as in the case of Adil, reduces one’s political activism. The house-demolition policy also had similar effects. If one was to host a PLO fighter for some time, this action would make them become homeless and, consequently, they would blame the PLO for their plight. The Israelis did not directly cause the fragmentation within the Palestinian society, but they were glad to benefit from it.

Broadly, Wild Thorns plausibly explains the apparent passive reaction of Palestinians during the early years of the occupation. The divisions that are presented in the book must be viewed taking into account the complexities presented by the situation. The forced dependence coupled with isolation from those holding radical views made most Palestinians become victims. Survival within this book comes down to overcoming the myriad of treacherous conflicts in areas occupied by the Israelis.In a way, all, including passive likes of Adil, fought Israel as they all made great effort to continue living in the area under occupation. Adil’s attempt to keep his family alive in a way opposed Israeli policy. Palestinians’ continued internal rivalry over what strategy to use in the struggle and leadership weakens people already weakened by a punitive occupation.  From this, the absurd undoubtedly becomes a natural outgrowth turning those expected to be friends into sworn enemies. The author indicates that Palestinians living in the occupied areas in 1972 created a strategy to survive where survival was nearly impossible. The novel is an eye-opener to the reader, who wonders what life was like in West Bank. However, the reader is left wondering why Khalifeh being the rumoured feminist created male protagonists. Could it be that it was men who were adversely affected by the occupation? Or is the novel a critique of the patriarchal nature of the Palestinian society that greatly marginalizes women?

The work of Khalifeh has been instrumental in the history of West Bank. It is an inspiration to many women oppressed in Palestine due to her academic and social achievement. Though some in the West Bank may consider her marriage to an Israeli a betrayal of her people and a failure to uphold the solidarity expected of the Palestinians, her books prove otherwise and leave little doubt that her heart is with her people.

Khalifeh’s personal life has a big influence on the plot of the book. Born in 1942 in the West Bank town of Nablus, Khalifeh grew up in an Islamic society that oppressed women and regarded them as inferior to men regardless of their achievement in education or career. She studied in the University of Birzeit, which was located on a territory occupied by the Israeli forces. She witnessed the Israeli treatment of Palestinians as second class citizens. The atrocities committed against native Palestinians prompted Khalifeh to write a book in which she brings out her feelings about the occupation. Khalifeh feels that the Palestinians are unfairly judged for their response to events beyond their immediate control. She, therefore, becomes the voice of the hitherto unheard Palestinians.

 
 

Struggle for Self Determination

In The End of Spring, an award winning book that won her the 2006 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, Khalifeh reviews yet another important era in the Palestinian history - the siege of Yasser Arafat’s headquarters in 2002. Khalifeh creates tender-hearted protagonists and goes ahead to dive into inner lives and consciences of men, women, and children involved in the struggle against the offenders. The characters are given life through Khalifeh’s constant use of native Palestinian colloquial language. The setting also plays a vital role in giving the book and the characters life since the author gives attention to the tiniest details of the natural environment, in which her characters live, struggle, and eventually die. The book provides an astounding insight into the lives of common Palestinians during this time of crisis.

The book features two step-brothers: one timid, awkward, and shy and the other - a popular outgoing college-age musician. The two live with their dictatorial father, who tolerates no dissenting opinion. The normal lives of these two brothers take a dramatic turn for the worse, as do those of many protagonists in the story, when the siege occurs. The arrest of the elder brother, the extrovert, for trumped-up charges leads to his joining the PLO as a way of getting even with his tormentors rather than agreeing with their ideals. The younger brother, who as is portrayed as being awkward, sentimental, and having artistic skills, is eager to join the side his brother joins as his brother is his mentor. The book sheds light on disruption of families’ normal lives by armed conflicts that have haunted the region for years. The emphasis is deliberately put on the role of women in the struggle. The notion that women play a larger role in the liberation struggle described in The End of Spring than in Wild Thorns may be explained by the fact that women in Palestine are more empowered than they were during times of occupation.The political situation has been ever volatile and correcting the situation is the least that inhabitants of this area can do.

Some critics have claimed that the book is hard to follow or even understand due to the method of narration adopted by the author. Some have gone even further to say that historical scenes that the author provides in the narration of her story act as a distraction from the plot. Regardless of these criticisms, the literary achievement of this book cannot be underscored. The fact that the book has won the author the Naguib Prize for Literature shows that many people now appreciate the greatness of this piece of work and treat it with respect it deserves.

The influence of history on the development of themes of these two books cannot be underscored. They effectively capture the neo-history of Palestine and, more specifically, the ever-present Israeli-Palestine conflict. The conflict, roots of which are deeply anchored in history and whose origins can be traced back to the Biblical times, has been the centre of all classes of Palestinians in all their lives. Victims of these conflicts are estimated to exceed 14500 from the year 1948 to 2009.The numbers continue to grow with each side blaming the opponent for the loss of lives and property incurred. Numerous peace initiatives have failed to deliver results as no side is willing to compromise their stand. In all this conflict, Palestine has arguably been by far the greater loser. This is because it lacks Israel’s economic and military power as well as Western support that Israel enjoys. Needless to say, Palestinian civilians are the ones who have been on the receiving end for the most of this conflict, which has in many cases culminated into actual fighting that has resulted in a lot of bloodshed.

To counter this, many young men have joined rebel groups at one point or another to try and free their country from the cruel grasp of Israel. The two novels describe young men in such a quest. The story of Palestinians’ quest for self-determination can be effectively compared to that of Sri Lanka’s Tamil community, which has been oppressed by Sinhalese community over the history. Just like the Palestine-Israel conflict that dates back to the earliest history, the Sri Lankan row is as old. International community has reacted the same way and has looked at the whole issue from a far. When they step in, they always tend to side with the oppressed group. In Palestine, most of the people have openly supported Israel, as in the case where the group fighting for self-determination for Tamil, Eeemile, has been proclaimed a terrorist group in over 32 countries of the world. Therefore, the author effectively shows that there was little hope that liberation for Palestinians was far away from their reach.

Like in most countries that seek independence, the main source of conflict is the issue of borders, mutual recognition, control over Jerusalem, security, and water rights. Analysts as well as the majority of opinion givers point out to the two-state solution as the best way to end this conflict once and for all. However, this option faces many challenges and has almost rendered it impossible to pull through. The Gaza Strip and West Bank area have been identified as the ideal location of the hypothetical State of Palestinians. The establishment of the pact has proved to be too hard to crack since deep divisions exist both externally and within the Israeli people and Palestinians themselves. The division within the Palestinian society has been captured within Wild Thorns and has been marked in the book as one of the greatest challenges to the achievement of the Palestinian cause. The fact that Palestinians could not agree on the best way to fight for their cause thus leading to their eminent defeat is reflected even today. This is because Palestinians cannot agree on the best solution that would cater for the achievement of their common goal. The author wishes to shun the disunity among her people that has historically led to their continuous failure to achieve independence.

Major players in this conflict have been the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). Important mediators in the negotiation process have been the Quartet of the Middle East, the United Nations, and the Arab League. The occupation by Israel inevitably led to the formation of the PLO. According to the United Nations definition, occupied territories are areas that were seized by the Israeli forces from Jordan Egypt and Syria. Key territories among the occupied ones were the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and the Sinai Peninsula. Of these, the Gaza Strip and West Bank have been alternatively referred to as the occupied Palestinian territories. The occupation has, therefore, been correctly referred to as the Israeli Occupation of Palestine.

The primary source of the conflict since the occupation has been East Jerusalem, which the United Nation General Assembly, the United Nations General Council, and the International Court of Justice recognize as part of the West Bank and thus a part of the occupied areas. This position does not auger very well with the Israel as it considers the whole Jerusalem a part of its sovereign state and its administrative capital and is, therefore, unwilling to give it away under any given circumstance. The annexation of Eastern Jerusalem to Israel in 1982, years after returning the occupied territories to their respective states, remains unrecognized by any other country 30 years down the line.

Yasser Arafat, the founder of the PLO and subsequent leader of Palestine has been one of the greatest nationalists in Palestine and has been an inspiration to many young Palestinians, including various protagonists in the two books. Usama’s life is portrayed as being parallel to that of Arafat in his studies, career, and ideals. It is, therefore, not surprising that Usama was so motivated to have solidarity with Arafat and join his cause. Many young men turned to activism in the occupation days and joined the PLO. As the third chairman of the People’s Liberation Army, he led the PLO between February 1969 and October 2004. This was a period of heightened animosity between Israel and Palestine and, therefore, Arafat was considered by many Palestinians as their saviour. He led PLO during the hardest times and was responsible for recruiting thousands of young activists into the PLO. As the president of the Palestinian National Authority he fought for what he referred to as self-determination throughout his life.

Arafat has highly controversial legacy both within Palestine and outside its borders. In the Arab world, many people whether concurring with his ideology or opposing it, remember him as a freedom fighter who fought for the common good. The same legacy is held by many nationalists as shown in the Wild Thorns. The leader is left with a choice whether to admire Usama and his colleagues for their selflessness and willingness to sacrifice life for the common good or whether to condemn them for their apparent thoughtlessness and disregard for the sanctity of human life.

The Israelis, on the other hand, viewed Arafat as a terrorist, as they perceived other ‘freedom fighters’ from Palestine whom they frequently blamed for widespread bombings and other terror activities inside and outside Palestine during the occupation. Khalifeh’s characters such as Usama are modelled based on the activities of Arafat and his compatriots. The atrocities committed by Israeli forces in literation left many Palestinians divided on whether the PLO is to be blamed for the same. The reader is left in the same situation undecided whether to blame Israeli forces or nationalistic PLO for the problems that Palestinians went through. This question still lingers in most human rights groups, as well as among observers of the unfolding of the events in the Israeli-Palestine region. The question on who to believe has been revisited many times and everyone has their way to determine who should be right. Those who support Israel blame all faults on the Palestinians, while the reverse is also true. However, it would be easy to pick the right side if one took his time to critically analyse historical events. Sahar Khalifeh’s books have shed a lot of light that helps the reader to understand the events better and make an informed conclusion about which side is oppressive.

The events described in The End of Spring, however, leave little doubt on who is to blame for the woes of the Palestinian people. The arrest of its protagonist is totally unprovoked and, as many other young Palestinians, he is harassed for his nationality. The harassment and discrimination that he undergoes, prompts him to retaliate, and the only way he can do this is by joining the PLO. This has been the case for generations that the conflict has been lasting. Frustrated and harassed young men have joined the PLO not because of ideological similarity with the group, but rather as a result of constant harassments and frustration. The disunity brought out in both Wild Thorns and The End of Spring is an accurate account of the division of Palestinian society that has seen them fail to think and act as one throughout years of crisis, and that continues to characterize Palestinian society even today.

The author also describes the way of life in pre-occupational Palestine and thus reveals traditional figures of authority such as the elders. She also uses vivid description of the environment to bring out a healthy, natural, and unpolluted land in the years preceding the occupation. The author, therefore, portrays Israel as agent of negative change. The economic sabotage on Palestine is described in the Wild Thorns. The author also brings out the struggles that Palestinians went through to keep their society and families alive in the times of crisis. The author’s failure to use specific timelines in two books is intended to make the reader fill in the blanks. The reader can effectively identify the timeline from author’s description of the events in the story. It is imperative that one realizes the hand of the author in the modelling of characters.

A widely proclaimed feminist, Khalifeh brings out the roles of women in the continuous struggle portraying them in The End of Spring as the sanity behind irrational men. The role of women in the fight against Israeli occupation and subsequent domination cannot be underscored. Women kept their families alive while their men were away fighting against enemies, passed on information and weapons to the fighters, and gave the land the glamour lost by the conflict. In both books, the author portrays women as such. The portrayal in The End of Spring, however, is more powerful as her female characters exude beauty, power, confidence, and an aura normally absent in female characters. The fact that Khalifeh is married to an Israeli not only brings out the softer side of Israeli forces and brings out the fact that problems faced by Palestinians may be a shared responsibility of both Palestinians and Israelis. This softer portrayal of issues may be due to her marriage and may be the only deviation from historical fact in her books. It is possible that being related to Israel by marriage, Khalifeh feels some allegiance to the country. In spite of this, the book gets as close to detail and historical facts as any can get. The omniscient style of narration gets the reader to see what was going on in the characters’ minds thus providing an extremely close contact with the setting of the book. This is further reinforced by the author’s attention to detail.

Conclusion

Like artists, authors are the mirror of the society. They bring out the happenings that occur on daily basis to the attention of the members of the society. To achieve this, they use hypothetical characters who act as a microcosm of the society. Khalifeh decides to use young people from her native Palestine to show to the world the plight of Palestinians over the years from the time of occupation and in their later lives. The reader is carried to the scenes of the book in Palestine and is finally able to appreciate the difficulties that the Palestinians have faced in their constant struggle for independence. The reader is, therefore, able to appreciate the resilience of these Palestinians and identify themselves with reactions taken by the Palestinians. Wild Thorns and The End of Spring go far in achieving the intended purposes. The appeal is open to all peace- loving people of the world. The residents of West Bank are completely unable to solve their problems and it will take the intervention of the world to save the region. They are masterpieces of our time and must, therefore, be considered as such. Khalifeh’s hope for a peaceful Middle East, immortalised in feelings of Usama’s cousin Adil, remain only a dream.

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