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Shaw Dallal : Scattered Like Seeds

This novel is clearly autobiographical. Indeed, its genesis confirms it. Dallal went to the United States after moving to Kuwait and met and married an American woman. His father-in-law prepared a genealogy of his family for his grandchildren. Dallal decided to do the same for his side of the family. Allegedly his secretary saw it and suggested that it would make a good novel so he turned it into a novel.

Our hero is called Thafer Ayoub Allam. (Thafer is the Arabic for Victor). One of his earliest memories was when British soldiers appeared at their house in Palestine. Dallal’s father was a committed revolutionary but only Dallal, his mother and baby sister were at home at the time. The soldiers searched the place for weapons, finding only a wooden gun that his father has made for him. He will meet the soldier who took the wooden gun later in his life. Her asked his mother why they came. She replied Because the British are wicked. They don’t fear God, dear. They want to give our country to the Jews. His father later comments They want our land. They want to drive us out of the country. Our people will be scattered like seeds, far and wide. It’s a matter of life and death for us.

His family had been driven out of Jerusalem because of the nearby Deir Yassin massacre. Jewish trucks carried the dead victims to Jerusalem’s Jewish quarter, not far from the Allam home, and put them on display. The Jews threaten the same fate to those that did not leave at once.. The family moved to Tulkarm.

In 1949, when Thafer was fourteen, the family decided he would be better off with his cousin in Kuwait and he makes a long and complicated journey by bus to Kuwait, then barely more than a village. From there, with some, help, he goes to Cornell, arriving with twenty dollars in his pocket. People are very kind to him and he succeeds, becoming a successful lawyer and nuclear engineer. He marries an Irish-American widow and they have three children – she already had a child from her previous marriage.

Everything is going well in the United States when, in 1972, his wife sadly dies. At this point he is offered the job of chief legal counsel for the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries, OAPEC, in Kuwait. This reminds him of his heritage and his stay there when young. Why do I want to go to the Middle East? It’s an almost irresistible impulse. He recalls the horrors that the Palestinians suffered and wonders, perhaps, if this job, could offer some redemption. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants began to come to Palestine, to take over Palestinian property and to settle on Palestinian land. Israeli officials disclaimed responsibility for the exodus of Palestinians and embarked on a public relations campaign claiming that the exodus was voluntary

His children support him. One wants to join him but it is decided that they should first finish US high school.

So off he goes. He is met at Beirut airport by two friends of his brother. However, instead of staying at a fancy hotel, they take him to their home in the Sabra refugee camp, which is uncomfortable but gives him an idea of how many Palestinians are forced to live. He also disagrees with the friends of his brother, as they insist that the real enemy is the United States.
They also insist that he should take up the fight for Palestinian freedom. He is naturally not very enthusiastic.

The tone changes as he becomes Senior Legal Adviser to the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries, OAPEC. We now get involved in geopolitics, particularly the relationship between the Arab states and the United Sates and Israel and, to a lesser extent the Soviet Union as well as the relationships between the various Arab states. There is a lot of infighting within the organisation as well as between the various Arab member states, and, Thafer, as legal adviser, is often called on to adjudicate. There are two key issues that take place in his early days and it is fascinating to follow the cultural and political issues at play.

On a personal note we see him start an affair with a colleague and his children arrive for a visit, with two planning on staying. However he tries to visit his mother on the West Bank and is humiliated and is refused entry.

In his discussions with his Arab colleagues, family members and others he meets, he tries to defend the United States but, now that he is back in Arab territory, he becomes much more aware of his origins.

He says that people in the US know very little about people in the Arab world, and are not particularly interested Most Americans, including Jews, with whom I have had discussions about the conflict have no idea what the American Israeli Political Action Committee is. Most know nothing at all of the rights of our people. Some don’t even know who the Palestinians are or what their grievances and their struggle are all about. Most of them, particularly the Jews, are under the impression that the Palestinians left Palestine voluntarily, at the urging of the Arab states. He goes to comment on the stranglehold Zionist and Jewish organisations have over the US media and US politicians and, thence, over the people of the US.

However a colleague comments Arab governments are as guilty as Israel. They’re heartless; they have no compassion. All of them, including our own government. Did you know that there’s an Arab League resolution that forbids any of its members who are host to Palestinians to resettle the Palestinians permanently?”

Things get decidedly complicated at the OAPEC, not least because the rules require senior staff to be nationals of a member country and Thafer is a US national.

This is an interesting book for two reasons. Firstly, unlike the heroes of other Palestinian novels, our hero is not adamantly anti-US. Indeed he has had a successful marriage and a successful career in the US so is very sympathetic to the country that welcomed him. However, during the course of the book, his views modify somewhat and, while he does try to defend the US, often blaming ignorance rather than malice for its treatment of the Arabs, he does accept the role of the pro-Israel lobby in the US and agrees that the US has not behaved fairly to the country of his birth.

The other interesting aspect of this book is the discussions we get within the inner sanctums of the OAPEC. Their final ruling in this book – The council considers that the United States is a more dangerous enemy than Israel – shows there is no love lost between the Arabs and the US but also interesting are the various inter-Arab exchanges.

Dallal is not a novelist by profession but he shows that he can write an interesting novel.

Publishing history

First published in 1998 by Syracuse University Press