How’s the situation? As two Palestinian friends gather over a tea or a water pipe in the West Bank or Gaza, it’s a question that often punctuates the litany of social pleasantries central to Arab custom and marks the beginning of deeper conversation.
The “situation” is the way a young man uncomfortably scratches a foot across the ground when the talk turns to finding work. The situation is a mother listening to a daughter in the shower, wondering just how much water is left the tank atop the house. The situation is a tremor in one’s hands at the approach of an Israeli patrol.
But the situation is also the excitement at receiving a “permission,” as it is known, the paperwork required to cross the menacing concrete separation wall that divides Israel from the West Bank, to see family, catch a movie, or to pray. It’s eight high school students clambering into a four-door Hyundai, whipping around narrow roads and screaming in celebration at passing the tawjihi, or college entrance exam. It’s the ululating happiness of a Palestinian wedding.
The situation, you see, is complicated.
Which makes it a terribly difficult thing to write about. And while Rich Wiles sets off to write a book that is “a vehicle through which Palestinians themselves tell their own stories,” his own ideological screeching too often contends with the subtler messages of those whose stories he aims to tell in Behind the Wall: Life, Love, and Struggle in Palestine.
Across roughly three-dozen vignettes, Wiles touches on nearly all of the elements that constitute ordinary Palestinian life both in Bethlehem, where Wiles works at a Palestinian nonprofit organization, and in the wider West Bank. The book offers a picture of ordinary Palestinians that is both expansive and vivid. The tale of two young lovers on either side of the wall – within sight of one another due to fortunate topography but out of touch because of the wall’s brutal geographic intervention – is poignant. When Wiles follows a few Palestinians through a sewage pipe in an attempt to sneak into Israel for work, their desperation is palpable.
The book manages to address Palestinians’ deep frustrations in creative ways. When he discusses the importance of distance learning in higher education, an educator raises the issue of seemingly arbitrary road closures enacted by the Israeli military, which prevent students from attending classes for days at a time. Through such tales, Wiles is able to bring the reader in contact with the Palestinian experience in uncommon ways.
But by cleaving so tightly to Palestinian life, the book also reproduces some Palestinian prejudice wholesale. Make no mistake: the treatment of Palestinians at the hand of Israeli soldiers can be unbelievably inhumane. But because ordinary Israelis are prohibited from traveling into the Palestinian territory, there are some Palestinians who have never met an Israeli out of military uniform.
And just as Palestinian life encompasses far more than the militant images broadcast during times of unrest, so, too, are Israelis more than callous military occupiers. But the Israelis that appear in “Behind the Wall” are always indifferent, if not gleeful, perpetrators of wanton violence. In a book that so deeply explores the diverse heart of the Palestinian experience, such a simplistic portrayal of the Israeli one is disappointing.
This speaks to a broader issue with the construction of “Behind the Wall.” Without a wider context to inform these stories, those unfamiliar with Palestinian culture and politics may find the book’s development disjointed. It is as if Wiles gathered up all the complex emotional currents that make up the Palestinian experience – a persistent sense of dispossession stemming from their exile after the wars of 1948 and 1967, the horrors of a callous military occupation, the wry humor and simple joys that survive even in adversity – and then spouted them at the reader in four- to six-page blasts.
Wiles’ ideological protests yip at the heels of most chapters. For example, many if not most Palestinians would adhere to Wiles’ ironclad statements about the sanctity of the right of return, the ability for Palestinian refugees to return to their lands in the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel. But Wiles’s repeated attention to the issue is so clumsy that it soon grows tiresome.
It is not that political issues should, or could, be swept out of any telling of Palestinian life. When young Mohammad contemplates the Israeli settlement now sitting atop his father’s ancestral village and then runs his fingers through the earth, asking, “Is this my land? Is this my soil? Are these my stones?” the political implications are clear.
In so much of the seemingly unending back and forth between Israelis and Palestinians, it is the tone of the discussion that belies the possibility of dialogue. The earnestness of Mohammad’s questions situates their asking in a human context, a place accessible to all.
But for most of “Behind the Wall,” the reader must fight to get there.
David Grant is an intern at the Monitor.