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Wild Thorns (Interlink World Fiction) Paperback – September 1, 2003
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From Kirkus Reviews
Wild Thorns ($12.95 paperback original; Jan.; 208 pp.; 1-56656-336-4). An earnest Arabic novel, first published in 1976, that dramatizes the reactions of Palestinian nationalists to Israeli occupation of the West Bank, an action that has turned many of their countrymen into nomads dutifully commuting to alien territory to work ( . . . the people had become soft, been brainwashed with lies and Israeli cash). Khalifehs initial focus on Usama, a young Palestinian returned home to find his relatives compromised in this way, yields to more diffused depictions of several other characters with whom he finds himself conspiring to blow up buses transporting day-workers. The conspiracy raises havoc with the storys formal unity but does enable it to portray credibly a troubling spectrum of understandably extreme responses to disenfranchisement and oppression. -- Copyright ©2000, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
'An impressive narrative of life in the West Bank in which simple profundities are asserted powerfully and poetically.' Morning Star --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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The way Sahar Khalifeh presented the changes in the Palestinian society during the first few years of the occupation was very illuminating and original. Here we see a highly polarized society, the Palestinians working abroad in the oil states, the Palestinians working "inside", the "intellectuals", the upper and middle classes, of whom, some "collaborated" and others refused to. Tremendous tensions described in a very real and human way, with little attempt to support one group of Palestinians over another.
Adil, is by far the most sympathetic character in the novel. He works tirelessly to support his family; he does however resent his father, and gets drunk to wash it all away. A classic war of the classes, the father fights by talking to western media, would never approve of his son working "inside" yet he does not approve of Usama or his youngest son breaking the laws of the Israeli occupation. Adil, the son, works diligently to improve the condition of fellow laborers and fights for their rights within the Israeli law.
Sahar Khalifeh does a wonderful job describing in very vivid language the everyday life of a neighborhood. Scenes from the markets, cafes, street vendors, hustle bustle and fear. Scenes of small dwellings bursting at the seams and then add a curfew on top of that. There are also the scenes of the polarization disappearing and the whole neighborhood shouting slogans in unison. There is also Usama's mother, an endearing old woman who has her own dreams for her son; dreams that have nothing to do with occupation or politics.
We are treated to 2 accounts of experience in an Israeli jail. Basil, Adil's younger brother is welcomed by the members of the resistance and accepted into their ranks. A friend of Adil, who also ended up in prison, was also eventually welcome. His cell was very different though. Ruled by another Adil, a socialist, who administered justice and education but lacked in sympathy, warmth and understanding; not like the real Adil.
The real Adil is portrayed simply as a good human being, who helped fellow Palestinians in real and tangible ways. Adil was selfless, generous, modest and genuinely caring, that was his only agenda. But at times, we think Adel is the way he is, out of hopelessness, he knows Palestine is lost, no longer worth fighting for, but he can make the lives of those around him less unbearable. And he gets drunk to wash it all away. I am not sure if that is the Adil that Sahar Khalifeh set out to create, but he certainly comes across like that.
While this clearly is a partisan, pro Palestinian and anti occupation novel, it is not a propaganda piece; and it is certainly worthy of reading and savoring. Sahar Khalifeh signals hope for peace, reconciliation, and coexistence in the novel. Several reference to the class struggle overtaking the racial divide and even more promising tales of humans reaching out across the divide. There is the tale of the two Israeli soldiers weeping as they see a five year old boy reunite with his father for the first time ever and there is Adil lifting up the young Israeli girl who had just witnessed the stabbing of her father, an army officer.
Wild Thorns is well worth reading. The translation comes across well. It does not sound stale like many translations of Arabic literature can be.
The tale is already twenty-six years old, set just a few years into the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Written by a Palestinian, about Palestinians, it is sympathetic to them, but it's not a propaganda piece. We get only rare glimpses of Israelis in this book, but when they do appear, they are shown in the same humane light that shines on the main characters. When a five year old Syrian boy meets his imprisoned father for the first time, the Israeli guards turn away with tears in their eyes. This is not the only scene in which someone on one side of the conflict responds compassionately to the suffering of someone on the other side.
Parents and grandparents want their boys and young men to study and become professionals with good incomes, and they hope for their daughters to marry successful daughters. Men struggle to feed their families and to negotiate a little self respect in spite of the compromises they find themselves making. Other men (and boys) alternate between pride, fear, and shame as they try to respond to the humiliations and oppression of their people with costly courage.
One of the great functions of literature is to let the reader walk in another's shoes. That is what I had in mind when I chose to read this book. I have not been disappointed.