For most of us in the west, our filtered news of the Middle East is, more often than not, rife with contention, violence, and tragedy. Laughter would certainly be a rare reaction to the decades-long Palestinian/Israeli conflict, and yet Palestinian author Suad Amiry manages to “step out of the frame and observe the senselessness of the moment” in order to capture the “absurdity of my life and the lives of others” in her award-winning debut memoir, complete with giggles and guffaws. Her ability to generate laughter most recently had her center stage – billed as a “comedian”! – for a public performance in Washington, DC earlier this month.
By training, Amiry is a PhD-ed architect and founder of Riwaq Centre for Architectural Conservation in Ramallah, Palestine where she currently lives. By experience, she is a refugee, an activist, a peace negotiator. Only by accident, she is also a writer.
Amiry’s authorly life began virtually – as late night emails to “intimate friends” during the Israeli occupation of her Ramallah neighborhood from November 2001 to September 2002: “Writing was an attempt to release the tension caused and compounded by Ariel Sharon and my mother-in-law.” Those sanity-searching missives went selectively viral among relatives and friends of friends, morphed into a manuscript (some of the lost content retrieved from friends’ in-boxes), and soon Amiry was awarded the 2004 Viareggio-Versilia Prize, one of Italy’s top literary awards.
Amiry’s winning memoir is an intimate read, comprised of her “personal war diaries” from 1981 to 2004. Born in Damascus, Syria, and raised in Amman, Jordan, by Palestinian parents forced to flee their home in Jaffa in 1948 with the creation of Israel, Amiry returns to an occupied Palestine she knows only through her parents’ recollections and a few childhood memories. She arrives in 1981 to teach at Birzeit University. She falls in love, marries, and settles in Ramallah, trying to live an everyday life in spite of being caught in the crossfire (politically and literally) of a perennial war zone.
In Amiry’s world of constant checkpoints, changing borders, and unpredictable curfews, grocery shopping is a race against time while whole days can get lost waiting for an Israeli government-issued gas mask. Amiry’s dog can easily get an identity card to move freely in and out of Jerusalem, while Amiry struggles for seven epic years to get her own identity card which will allow her to legally live with her own husband in their Ramallah home. Amiry and that husband get taken into official custody because of a staring contest Amiry won’t concede against an irate Israeli soldier. Amiry decides last-minute that she cannot have her mother-in-law’s missing front door replaced because the blacksmith’s tools might look too much like weapons to the patrolling Israeli soldiers whose “colleagues blew open [the door] three days previously.”
Throughout the quickly-paced 200 pages, Amiry’s stories are of the ‘you can’t make this stuff up’-variety, so ludicrous that only her irreverent humor – even as it is sometimes mixed with tears – can make you feel her desperation, her anger, her own unwilling complicity with the all-too-often appalling challenges of day-to-day life. Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that Amiry’s own book, translated into 11 languages and available all over the world, has more global freedom that its author, not to mention the majority of her Palestinian neighbors.
Readers: Young Adult, Adult
Published: 2003, 2005 (United States)