Judging the MEMO Palestine Book Awards
A blog by Peter Clark
Twenty-five books published in the year all on Palestine! How do we select a shortlist, let alone a winner? Yet, remarkably, the panel of judges had no great difficulty in settling on a shortlist. And when selecting the winners there was no contention. We listened to each others' opinions and modified our own.
The books submitted were varied. Academic theses rewritten for publication, memoirs, fiction, a cookery book and even one narrative written in verse. The authors were Jewish, Arab and of other faiths and nationalities. Publishers were from both sides of the Atlantic. Some writers were old hands - Dervla Murphy and Raja Shehadeh. For many it was their first book. All, well almost all, were worth reading, and I learned something from each one.
It seems that there is a certain genre of writing that is emerging - the confessional memoir written by people who have been at the heart of the Jewish/Zionist enterprise. One is by Miko Peled, son of Matti Peled, the Isreali general who became an academic specialist on Arab culture, and a committed to the Palestinian cause, reminding me of Spike Milligan's lines,
Said the General of the army
'I think war is barmy'.
So he's thrown away his gun
And now he's having much more fun.
The son recalls in The General's Son how the Zionist certainties just fell apart when he dealt with Palestinians. He now lives in California. Another confessional by a US-based Jew, a rabbi no less, is Wrestling in the Daylight by Brant Rosen. This is intellectually a more sustained work. His case is based solidly on Jewish tradition, and he has also worked in reconciling Jewish and Palestinian communities in the United States.
Each of the academic books shed light on one aspect of the issue. Rashid Khalidi in Brokers of Deceit outlines with fluency - as participant and scholar - the sad duplicity of successive United States governments and their claims to be impartial. Khalidi examines several crises over the last thirty or so years to demonstrate his thesis.
Two academic books develop arguments that overlap. Shlomo Sand, an Israeli scholar, upset many Israeli academics a few years ago by claiming that the Zionist concept of nation was a bogus recent invention. He has followed this up with The Invention of the Land of Israel, an analysis of the Israeli commitment to 'the land', regardless of whoever actually lives there. And Nur Masalha, in The Zionist Bible has written about the context in which the Jews emerged in Palestine at the end of the second millennium BC, and about the tendentious history that has been extracted from the Old Testament. It is an important argument but the book is severely damaged by appalling proof-reading.
It seems sometimes that an academic book has to be, if not badly written, at least clogged with spurious jargon, as if the authors are talking to other academics. But, doctor, there is a world out here, outside the universities, that neither needs nor understands these obfuscating codes. Lori Allen in The Rise and Fall of Human Rights and Amahl Bishara in Back Storiews are both guilty. Both have great stories to tell - the former on the human rights 'industry', how it operates on the ground and interacts with global concerns. Of great interest is the portrayal of Palestinian activists. Amahl Bishara tells a comparable story - how the actual documentation is transmitted and filtered to the rest of the world.
Raja Shehadeh is a tried and talented writer. His Occupation Diaries follows other memoirs. It is a narrative of life under occupation, its frustrations, its humiliations, its pathos and absurdities. With Penny Johnson, he is co-editor of Seeking Palestine, a collection of essays by various hands that shed light on what it is to be Palestinian in the second decade of the twenty-first century - very different from the generation of 1948. Or 1967. Or of later decades. Palestinian identity is as strong as ever but, with the diaspora it is fragmented and diluted with other identities.
Ghazi Q Hassoun's memoir, Walking Out into the Sunshine, tells the story of a Palestinian scientist who has thrived in the United States: It mirrors one of the novels, The Almond Tree, by Michelle Cohen Corasanti, about another Palestinian scientist who achieves an international reputation. Another novel. The Wall by William Sutcliffe, is an imaginative tale of a young Israeli boy living in a West Bank settlement who strays beyond the security wall and discovers a new world in a Palestinian village.
And that is not all. Altogether a most fruitful harvest for the reader whether he or she is committed, curious or concerned.
Dr. Peter Clark OBE is a translator, writer and consultant. For thirty years he worked for the British Council in Jordan, Lebanon, Sudan, Yemen, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Syria. He has translated eight works by contemporary Arab writers including fiction by Muhammad al-Murr, Liana Badr and Ulfat Idilbi, as well as drama, poetry and history. He has written books on Marmaduke Pickthall and Wilfred Thesiger, and has written obituaries of Arab writers for The Guardian. His latest publications include a collection of writings on the Middle East - Coffeehouse Footnotes - and a book on Istanbul in the series "Cities of the Imagination". Peter is a Trustee of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction and a Contributing Editor of Banipal.