Palestinian writer Rabai Al-Madhoun was born in Al-Majdal, Ashkelon in 1945. Along with his parents he was displaced during the 1948 ethnic cleansing of their homeland and spent his childhood in the Khan Younis Palestinian refugee camp in the Gaza Strip; he is now settled in London.
Such background information is important because the writer tells the story of Walid Dahman, a Palestinian writer who is going home to Gaza after living in Britain for nearly four decades. This mirrors his own story, giving the book a semi-autobiographical feel which comes across in his words; we live every moment as he combines fact and fiction.
Walid returns to Gaza with his new British passport which, finally, allows him to travel; he is excited to see his mother and the family and friends he left behind. On the flight from London, he meets Dana, an Israeli actress on her way back to Tel Aviv; they soon discover the differences in their ideas and perspectives of the land they both call home. Al-Madhoun takes us on Walid's journey from London, to Ben Gurion Airport, to the Beit Hanoun/Erez Crossing, and into Gaza, along with all of the complications, nostalgia, suffering and reunions involved.
The author has chosen the novel within a novel format, with his character Walid going to Gaza to do some research for his story about an accountant in Germany who returns to Gaza to look for the woman he fell in love with 30 years earlier. Although he didn't marry her their paths cross when both find themselves single again. This gives the book more depth as Walid rediscovers Gaza through the eyes of his character as well as his own.
The portrayal of a Palestinian's experience at the Israeli-controlled Beit Hanoun crossing is one of the best parts of the book. I felt I was there with Walid, under the smouldering sun; I could feel, smell and see the entire scene. He portrays what it is really like for people, not only Palestinians, trying to enter the Gaza Strip, and this is something that news articles cannot convey. I especially like the fact that he disproves the theory held by many people that it is easier when you have a foreign, especially a US or British, passport; Al-Madhoun shows us that ultimately, everyone suffers and all are treated equally badly. The so-called "VIP" treatment is nothing but a delusion.
Although in literary terms I found the book to have many layers, to be beautifully written and to have vibrant, descriptive prose, the open-ending was disappointing. Sadly, many of the sub-plots were neither fully-fleshed out nor given closure. However, in all fairness, perhaps the open ending is symbolic of the Palestinian situation, not least the "peace process" which always gives people hope, but leaves them frustrated.
This book addresses the situation in Palestine, and gives us some insight into the lives of Palestinians in the diaspora, as well as those still in occupied Palestine; the injustice, oppression and tragedies are all there. It is a good introduction for those wanting to learn more about what the Palestinians are experiencing, before looking for a more in-depth contextualisation of the conflict.