Though for generations Suad Amiry’s family lived in historical Palestine, her toy Manchester terrier enjoys more political rights than her owner. Granted a coveted Jerusalemite passport by her Israeli veterinarian in a settlement nearby Ramallah, Amiry’s dog Nura is allowed to travel from Ramallah to Jerusalem, though Amiry’s West Bank I.D. forbids her from doing so. But because Amiry is Palestinian, and has lived a significant amount of her life under Israeli occupation and has developed the creativity such an existence demands, Amiry has been able to use this to her advantage.
In her tragically funny book Sharon and my Mother-in-Law, Amiry recalls how she was able to cross the Jerusalem checkpoint by giving an Israeli soldier the very rational explanation that Nura, unable to drive a car, needs Amiry to drive her to Jerusalem. Satisfied with this logic, the soldier waves her through, and Amiry narrates, “All it takes is a bit of humour, I thought to myself, as Nura and I passed the same soldier as we drove back to Ramallah that afternoon.”
It is this absurdist humor that makes Amiry’s stories so thoroughly Palestinian. Dealt with absurd circumstances, Palestinians make their lives livable by extracting as much humor out of their situations as possible. Like when Amiry’s husband Salim gets arrested during curfew not because he was breaking curfew, but because Amiry was refusing a soldier’s orders to stop staring at him, she can only find the sheer hilarity of the situation. Though Salim and his cousin are initially upset by Amiry’s battle of the wills with the young soldier, they later crack up, conjuring scenarios of Salim going to court under the charge of having a wife who refused to stop staring at a soldier.
Of course, only a powerless population pushed to the edge can laugh at the power dynamics when there is little else they can do to remedy their situation. In the book’s preface, Amiry mentions the importance of being able “to step out of the frame and observe the senselessness of the moment,” and that it is “a valuable self-defence mechanism against the Israeli occupation of our lives and souls.” It is a skill necessary to keep sane when one is helpless to stop the madness around her.
Amiry recounts much madness, especially during the Israeli invasion of Ramallah in 2002, when the usually vibrant city was under curfew for an entire month. Chaos in the grocery store when the curfew would be broken for a precious brief window of time during which the entire city would be seeking to restock on essential needs. Ramallah’s streets, torn up by Israeli tanks and bulldozers, becoming unrecognizable because of all the dust and rubble.
But naturally, stepping out of the moment during times of increased stress and pressure can only be employed so often or can only go so far. Amiry becomes frustrated with her mother-in-law, who lives next to the Palestinian Authority headquarters where Israeli forces were deployed during the siege, and where the late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat was under virtual arrest for the last two years of his life. Amiry risks her well-being by retrieving her mother-in-law from the center of the invasion, and can spare little patience for her confused mother-in-law, who was forced out of her family’s home during the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from their land of what is now Israel.
Her mother-in-law Um Salim’s fretting over what clothes to pack causes Amiry, anxious to get Um Salim to safety, to have a minor meltdown. Um Salim insists on bringing her jewelry, and Amiry says “ ‘Never mind, just leave it. We’ll come back and get it.’” Her mother-in-law replies, “ ‘That’s what we said in 1948 when we left our house in Jaffa.’”
Amiry’s readers are given a glimpse of the tremendous weight of history that the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem carry. Many of them are displaced peoples, and live under continual threat of further displacement while Israel continues its colonization of the 22 percent of what is left of historical Palestine. And the reader is also sympathetic to the 91-year-old Um Salim, who is frustrating yet at the same time remarkably calm given her history as a refugee and the scariness of possibly being forced from her home again.
It is understandable that Um Salim can only obsess over whether her marmalade will be ok. It is too much to worry about anything more significant while once again her city is under siege, and it is uncertain what tomorrow will bring. The tension between Amiry and Um Salim that arises during the claustrophobia of curfew, though it could have benefited from further development, is one of the most compelling parts of the book. It is not too far a jump for the reader to speculate how conflict have mushroomed between husbands and wives, and parents and their children, while entire family units are stuck inside modestly sized homes for a whole month.
Sharon and my Mother-in-Law is no literary masterpiece (sometimes the superfluous use of exclamation points became distracting), and might not be a timeless work of art (it doesn’t pretend to be either). But the resilient and witty Amiry eloquently captures the regular absurdity of life under occupation, and her snapshots of life in Ramallah are all the more richer because of her feminist bent and her criticism of the ills within Palestinian society as well. The book’s popularity is not suprising, as Amiry provides what few authors writing about Palestine do — the human stories that news reports don’t, portraying the nuance of life under occupation, and all through magnetic narration.
Currently living and working in Ramallah, Maureen Clare Murphy is Arts, Music, and Culture Editor for The Electronic Intifada.
Just published in Britain, Sharon and my Mother-in-Law has been translated into 11 languages, was a bestseller in France, was awarded the prestigious Viareggio prize in Italy, and will be available in the U.S. October 2005.