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Ibrahim Fawal : On the Hills of God

Publishing history

The novel opens in the fictitious town of Ardallah (it means Land of God), thirty miles north-west of Jerusalem and fifteen miles east of Jaffa. It seems a somewhat idyllic town and gets a lot of tourists. Our hero is Yousif Safi, aged seventeen, still at school at the start of the novel. He is an only child. His father is the local doctor and has made a fair amount of money from his medical business and property speculation but, though he is now having a fancy villa built, he has used his money to help his community and is trying to raise funds to build a hospital. He has also been very active in promoting his town.

However it is June 1947, Palestine’s last summer of happiness as the opening sentence tells us. Dr Safi is on good terms with the British though his son is somewhat disapproving, as he blames the British for bringing about Zionism. Yousif is very concerned that war will break out and, if he does, he will abandon his education – his father wants him to be a doctor while he wants to be a lawyer.

In something of a cliché, Yousif, whose family is Christian has two friends, Amin, a Muslim and Isaac, a Jew. All families get on well together. Like Yousif, the other boys do not want to follow in their father’s footsteps. Unlike the others, Yousif has a girlfriend, Salwa or , rather, he is friendly with her but would like to be friendlier.

One weekend, when tourists tend to come from the cities, they see a group of men and women carrying a lot of stuff. They assume they are ordinary tourists and are heading into the hills to have sex, carrying blankets. However Yousif soon works out that this is not the case not least because there is an unequal number of men and women. He realises that they are surveying and that their motive is nefarious, not least because they are speaking Yiddish. The boys follow them but before they get too far, Amin falls and breaks his arm so they have to take him home. Instead of calling on Dr Safi, his family calls on the local bone mender, who makes a mess of the job.

Meanwhile, Basim, Yousif’s cousin, who had been expelled for fighting both the British and Zionists but allowed back on the promise of good behaviour, confirms that there are Jewish spies scouting out the land so they could seize them when the British left. We take their maps,” Basim replied, “and we interrogate each and every one separately.

And what do you do with them afterwards?”
“We beat them,” Basim said. “Some we shoot.

Yousif is now getting more and more interested in politics. However he is shocked (as are all Arabs) when the UN votes on partition of Palestine and, thanks to the US threatening countries that they would cut off aid – even for countries such as France and the Philippines , previously opposed to partition, – if they did not vote in favour of partition (done so that Truman could win the Jewish vote in the forthcoming election), the UN votes in favour of partition.

The Arabs are furious though some say it will never come to pass. We get detailed discussions of British treachery by both Yousif’s cousin and Yousif’s teacher. That one word explains it all. Both Britain and France were colonial powers and they wanted to subjugate other peoples to their will. and Anyway, what’s interesting is that while Britain was telling the Arabs one thing and the Jews another, she was conspiring with France behind the scenes to triple-cross both.

Things soon start happening, particularly violence on all sides. The Jews in Ardallah are driven out and we hear that something similar is happening in many places, with both sides victims and aggressors. However, it soon becomes clear that the Jews are far better armed than the Palestinians.

As for Yousif, he is keen to do his bit but is more concerned when he learns that Salwa’s parents plan to marry her off to someone else, against her will.

From this point we follow the build-up to the departure of the British occupiers and the aftermath, with the Jews, attacking both throughout the country but particularly around Jerusalem and the town of Kastal, which was a key town on the outskirts of Jerusalem. We hear about known events such as the Deir Yassin massacre and fictitious events such as a plane bombing the town.

In Ardallah, things are not going well. Most of the people want the hospital fund held but not owned by Yousif’s father to be used to purchase weapons. He refuses. This issue drags on for a long time and becomes a bit boring for the reader. Yousif, of course, supports his father. He is also reluctant to join the fighters, favouring a more pacifist approach, feeling that the Arabs and Jews should sit down and discuss the issue and come to some agreement, in retrospect a very naive if not downright stupid approach. Indeed, we see a series of aggressive moves, with the Palestinian opposition led by Yousif’s cousin, Basim. Yousif himself is still as much obsessed with Salwa as with Palestine. To Yousif, the two fights went hand in hand: each was about protecting one’s own.

But inevitably things start happening and there are a series of incidents, involving our locals and the British and/or Zionists. Yousif reluctantly takes up arms to defend his town. However as the teacher points out, they are not just fighting the Jews, they are also fighting the great powers. What can King Abdullah do when his government’s entire budget comes from Britain? The salaries of his soldiers, his post office clerks, his teachers, his cabinet—all these salaries come in a package of twenty-five million pounds a year. And don’t forget his army. All his guns and all his ammunition come from Britain. Even his top officers and the head of the army himself are British. Without this subsidy, the king will be running his kingdom on empty and The Mandate is over—but not Colonialism. Or even the Crusades. So-called-Israel will be the new European outpost. And once the Zionists reach Ardallah in force, the outcome is inevitable.

While Fawal tells his story well he does at times seem to drag it out. The issue with the hospital fund and the Yousif-Salwa relationship could easily have been cut though it is sensible to show the gradual domination of the Jews, the limited resistance of the Palestinians and the role of the West, particularly the US and UK. As with other Palestinian novels we can only sympathise with the Palestinians.

First published in 1998 by New South Books