“A Curious Land” by Susan Muaddi Darraj is a collection of short stories about the inhabitants of Tel Al-Hilou, which is a small Palestinian village in the West Bank. Spanning generations, and continents, the stories explore aspects of the Palestinian narrative through the lived experiences of characters in the book.
Darraj writes nine different stories set in different periods of Palestinian history. The book opens with a tale of a group of Bedouin refugees fleeing violence during the 1916 famine which wreaked havoc across the Levant during the First World War. It ends with a story set in 1998 about Adlah, the daughter of one of the heroines of the 1987 Intifada, who returns to Tel Al-Hilou from her comfortable home in America.
Though there are no apparent connections between the multiple stories and the different characters in them, other than their ties to Tel Al-Hilou, they are masterfully linked as the tales intertwine and overlap in unexpected ways over the course of several generations.
Memory and belonging is a central theme in all the stories and although the characters introduced at the beginning are subsequently never mentioned again, they appear occasionally to emphasize the historical ties between Palestinians of different generations living in different continents. The figure of Abu Sufyan, a wise village elder who rescues a boy in the second story in the book set in 1936, connects the different stories expertly.
We are reintroduced to the boy, Ridwan, in the sixth story, as a grandad struggling to come to terms with the fact that he had accidently shot and killed a boy from Tel Al-Hilou when he was just a young lad and rescued from tribal vengeance and retribution by Abu Sufyan. Ridwan’s strained relationship with his son, Sufi, provides one of the most moving tales in the collection.
Readers will find many of the stories extremely moving and encounter characters that speak to us all about the challenges of life that we all face. They will also come away with an image of Palestine that is historically rich and powerful.
Palestine is conceptualised as one territory, transcending colonial borders. The borders that rigidly divide the modern Middle East are shown to be meaningless as characters in the book pass through Jordan, across the Galilee and into Lebanon.
The members of the different families are also eclectic and diverse in origins. Though most of the characters in the book are Palestinian Christians, they are given names that are commonly perceived to be Muslim in origin.
Also the customary use of Islamic terminology gives an impression of harmony and inclusivity between the different religions practiced in Palestine. One comes away feeling that the subculture of Tel Al-Hilou was an amicable marriage between the different faiths and cultures of Palestine.
Darraj has written an excellent book that humanises the Palestinian narrative. Although the politics and injustices of the occupation is at the heart of the Palestinian narrative, the history of repression under the British Mandate, Zionism, war and the Arab betrayal of the Palestinian cause is presented as simply the backdrop for the real human stories about family, relationships, love and the struggle to keep alive the powerful memories of Palestine.