Memory, home and belonging in “A Curious Land”

A Curious Land: Stories from Home by Susan Muaddi Darraj, University of Massachusetts Press (2015)

The tantalizing news, almost a year before its publication, that Susan Muaddi Darraj’s A Curious Land had won the Grace Paley Prize for short fiction and was shortlisted for the Pressgang Prize suggested that patient readers would be well rewarded.

The predictions weren’t wrong. In this collection of interlinked short stories, centered on the village of Tel al-Hilou, near the West Bank city of Ramallah, Muaddi Darraj presents us with both a richly enjoyable tale spanning a century of Palestinian history and a nuanced meditation on the meaning of memory, home, longing and belonging.

For readers who find comparisons useful in thinking about books, two spring to mind. The first — somewhat obvious given the century-long span and focus on the interwoven tales of a single town — is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s global classic A Hundred Years of Solitude.

Where Garcia Marquez implies mysterious grandiosity and magical realism, Muaddi Darraj, however, works on a more human, domestic scale — one might say a more “female” approach — and of individual lives and loves.

In this, Muaddi Darraj’s work is also reminiscent of Louise Erdrich’s acclaimed novels of Native American life. In addition to Erdrich’s multivoiced style, A Curious Land shares her ability to paint warmly affectionate, carefully critical and subtly political portraits of life in communities subject to oppression and marginalization — but where people are refusing to be defined by their experiences of suffering.

Domestic realism

A Curious Land begins in 1916 with a group of Bedouin refugees fleeing the violence and famine which wreaked havoc across the Levant during the First World War.

Although many of the characters encountered in this first story are subsequently never mentioned again, the way they are presented is key to how Palestine is seen and conceptualized. The borders which rigidly divide the modern Middle East are meaningless; this small band of survivors passes from the Jordanian town of al-Salt (closely linked to Nablus through trade and familial connections since the 18th century), across the Galilee and into what is now Lebanon.

The members of the group, although bound by family ties, are also from diverse origins: one mentions a European slave in her ancestry, another lays claim to Roma blood in explaining her gypsy-like skills in healing. This is an image of “Palestinian-ness” which is generous and inclusive.

And while Muaddi Darraj pays tribute to the classic literature of Palestinian identity in the Mahmoud Darwish-like image of men who “love the land as they would love a woman,” the foregrounding of strong, yet eminently human, female characters gives the stories a rootedness and domestic realism lacking in much writing by men.

This isn’t to say that the characters of either gender are perfect; Muaddi Darraj’s greatest skill is perhaps her ability to create portraits of flawed, ordinary humans — few of them out-and-out heroes or villains — with whom the reader can feel joy, pain and empathy.

There is no idealization, either, of Palestinian history or culture. The actual village of Tel al-Hilou, with its ancient homes and deeply rooted community, is depicted as at the core of its people’s identity. But its customs and beliefs are double-edged — at times a source of strength to its inhabitants, but also confining and constraining.

Abu Sufayan, who is first introduced as a young escapee from the Ottoman army, pleas for sulha (a truce and agreed resolution) after a boy in the village is accidentally killed by another child. In doing so, he marks himself a traitor to his fellow villagers as well as a literary symbol of the tension between differing social values. This symbolism continues throughout the book, into his later stages of life.

As the length of time between stories shortens and the body of knowledge about the people of Tel al-Hilou and their loves, jealousies, ambitions and failures builds up, we witness the ways in which ideas about tradition can be wielded for personal interest. Friendships, religion and children all take their places at the center of small, everyday conflicts.

Web of relationships

This speeding up of the interlinked stories has another effect of bringing about a sense of increasing confinement as the outlines of the space in which the tales take place slowly shrink. They shift from the broad sweep of the Ottoman Levant to the Mandate period where — despite the arrogance and violence of British troops — Abu Sufayan can still visit Jerusalem; to the current situation of many West Bank towns, hemmed in by Israeli walls and settlements.

The only way in which it seems that the village’s offspring can escape the effects of the occupation is to leave. But, whether from Guatemala or the United States, these stories of diaspora existence reinforce the sense that even those who leave Tel al-Hilou physically remain bound up in its web of relationships, emotions and cause-and-effect.

A final impact of Muaddi Darraj’s choice to write the book in short stories is the sense of contingency within the unfolding narratives. There are few definite endings or neat resolutions — or if there are, we hear about them tangentially, decades later, as an aside.

This device emphasizes the internal contradiction of West Bank Palestinian life: the combination of connections to land and history with the unpredictable changes imposed from the outside by one form of empire and colonialism or another.

Despite the various messages its stories contain, however, A Curious Land is first and foremost a deeply satisfying and enjoyable work of literature (despite a few minor historical infelicities).

On the one hand, it puts Muaddi Darraj alongside women writers on Palestine who have given us profoundly human stories which transcend easy narratives of nation and nationalism. And on the other, it places her with other hybrid-American authors of African, Latin American, Jewish and other heritages who ensure that our understandings of notions of identity and home remain diverse and complex.

Sarah Irving is author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-editor of A Bird is not a Stone.