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Sahar Khalifeh : رواية (Wild Thorns)

Our hero is Usama al-Karmi. He had been working in the Gulf states but has lost his job and is returning to his family in the West Bank, though, as we shall find out, he has another reason for returning, besides the desire to see his family. again.His first eye-opener is at immigration/customs for entry to the West Bank, now, of course, occupied by Israel. The customs staff, many of whom are clearly not ethnically Middle Eastern, are brutal to the people coming in. People are abused, hit, strip-searched and forced to pay massive duties for bringing in many goods. Once Usama has passed through, he sees how much the surrounding area has changed, having been cleared of any vegetation which could conceal intruders and the lemon groves that used to be there have also gone.

In the communal taxi, he is shocked that people are smoking Israeli cigarettes and even more shocked when they tell him they eat Israeli rice, Israeli tahina and Israeli sugar. What had happened to these people? Was this what the occupation had done to them? Where was their will to resist, their steadfastness?

When he arrives (in Nablus), he is even more surprised. The place looked far less poverty-stricken. People are better dressed and they are buying more. There is more employment and wages are higher. Israeli-made goods were stacked in front of the shops, in the showroom windows, even on the pavements. Workers bought things greedily, ate well, dressed well. They stuffed their children.

When he sees his mother, he says to her What’s become of you all, of the country? They’ve stuffed you full and made you greedy. They’ve absorbed you. And I see no sign of shame in your eyes. His mother has only one concern – she wants him to get married.

He has met his cousin, Adil, who seems to be working flat out, including on the family farm, a family of nine and a father on a kidney machine to take care of, though he himself is not married. Usama’s mother suggest he help Adil on the farm. He has no intention of doing so, but when he visits it, he finds it essentially abandoned, with only an old man who knew Usama as a child but now seems to have dementia. Adil, as we find out, is working on an Israeli farm, though his family do not know this.

We learn that Usama is there to blow up buses carrying workers to Israeli farms but he is reluctant to carry out his mission, in case Adil is a passenger on a bus he attacks.

Adil is very critical of the situation: the only solution is emigration, which means working in Saudi Arabia, Libya and the Gulf. What’s the result of all this? Educated people leave the country, and only workers and peasants remain. And that’s exactly what Israel wants to happen. Usama tries to recruit him to the cause but he refuses, as he knows he is responsible for nine people.

While some are better off, others are not. A colleague of Adil loses his fingers on his right hand in a accident. They cannot even call an ambulance because he is only a casual worker. He knows that, unable to use his right hand, he will never be able to work again and will have to rely on charity to feed his family. One of his colleagues explains about the racism. Here there’s a big difference between Muhammad and Cohen: Muhammad gets the heavy work, Cohen the light. The Jewish workers have cafeterias with tables and chairs, but we sit on the ground to eat, in the sun or in the garage with the scrap metal and the oil and grease. and goes further on the situation in Israel: Tell him! Tell him how the people inside are suffering. Tell him how Israel’s blown up twenty thousand homes and four whole villages. Tell him how the detention camps are as full of young men as a cheap public bath’s full of cockroaches. Tell him what happened to al-Bahsh’s son and to al-Shakhshir and al-Huwari’s daughters, tell him how they were tortured after they participated in a demonstration against the occupation. But the worst thing is that all of us, every last one of us, are forced to work in their brothels just in order to live!’

We continue to see Usama’s disgust at what is going on and the sufferings of many of the people. As is well-known, the Israelis blow up a house where someone they do not like has lived, even though the other occupants are totally innocent and we see examples of that. We also see two of the characters go to prison which is, of course, unpleasant but whch also, of course, radicalises them more, Interestingly, in a large cell containing many of them, the Arabs organise their own justice and rules. One of the characters, a young man who is studying, gives up his studies on release. True revolutionaries don’t carry books. They carry weapons!

And Usama? We know that he wants to become a revolutionary, but faced with his mother, the need to earn a living and his commitment to his extended family, is it worth the risk for little reward. Should he, like many others, just buckle down and try to earn a living?

Khalifeh is clearly very much opposed to what is happening to her people and how they are exploited, victimised, abused and ill-treated by the Israelis. She is also clearly not happy with how many Palestinians just more or less accept it and do not resist but she does recognise that for many just getting by is a struggle. The Palestinians may, in some cases, be better off financially than they were in earlier times but is that a price worth paying if you lose your freedom? There is no easy answer.

Publishing history

First published in 1976 by Galileo Limited
First published in English in 1976 by Saqi
Translated by Trevor LeGassick and Elizabeth Fernea