The author, Ben Ehrenreich introduces readers to his book “The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine” with this sharp observation: “The world is made not only of earth and flesh and fire, but of the stories that we tell”. With these comments Ehrenreich makes his intentions clear that through the stories of Palestinian resistance “the narratives.... will conjure up a [new] universe and determine its contours”.
While it would be stretching the realms of metaphysical possibility to suggest Ehrenreich can conjure up magic in Palestine, the American novelist has weaved stories from the West Bank in prose that are as beautiful as any found in a best-selling novel to speak about Palestinian resistance and of the people who “decline to consent to their own eradication”.
By any measure, “The Way to the Spring” is gripping. Ehrenreich opens the eyes of the readers to the daily acts of resistance carried out by Palestinians, their suffering and humiliation under the brutal Israeli occupation. The book is centred on Nabi Saleh, a Palestinian town in the occupied West Bank, whose out-of-bounds spring – the spring of the book’s title – is the focus of its inhabitants’ dogged protests.
Ehrenreich writes beautifully about his time spent with residents of the village, in particular Bassem Tamimi, who is a central character in the book. The “heroic village” Ehrenreich tells his reader is a “semi-magical place that would fight and fight and never despair no matter the odds and the losses”. He accompanies them on marches, getting tear-gassed regularly during the non-violent weekly Friday protests against Israeli settlers and soldiers who obstruct them from their land.
During the weeks and months he spends in Nabi Saleh Ehrenreich gets to meet nearly everyone in the town and relays some of their stories; from grandparents who were expelled by the Israelis in 1948, to fathers that were jailed more times than they could remember and nine-year-old children resisting their eradication by extreme settlers.
Ehrenreich’s narrative is extremely intimate when he truly immerses into the everyday struggle of Palestinians by telling personal stories in uncovering the human cost of a life of resistance. Readers are introduced to families struggling to live as “normal” with the emotional scars of having lost loved ones including young children, to Israeli bullets, in a style that is unique to this book. Ehrenreich, during these poignant encounters is at his best; conjuring up “new contours” on the Palestinian narrative.
The book motors through various towns and villages in the West Bank. Ehrenreich, it seems, is conscious of not wanting to linger for too long with any one character or any one part of Palestine. He seems to have a lot to say and not enough time and space in the book to say it. Propelled by his own curiosity over the extent of the obscenity of the occupation, readers are rushed through the different layers of Israeli occupation and the Palestinians who resist it.
Ehrenreich introduces readers to new characters throughout his journey. In Hebron he meets activists from Youth Against Settlements. They describe the daily ordeal of resisting Israeli occupation. But Hebron is like no other town in Palestine, Ehrenreich tells us: “Planet Hebron is far away. The fact that you can drive there, or take a bus, only makes things more confusing... if Hebron was on a mountain or deep a canyon, it wouldn’t feel so odd.”
Ehrenreich spends quite some time in “planet” Hebron to explain the crude nature of the Israeli occupation. He writes about the markets that have been turned into ghost towns and encounters with Israeli soldiers disillusioned by the oppression they are ordered to inflict on the Palestinians. Ehrenreich depicts the routine cruelty of the occupation by making powerful observations. He tells us that the people of Hebron use the word “normal” frequently and then lists all the different practices that have become a daily occurrence. Screaming residents because soldiers are beating them are “normal” he writes; so is “being shot or having Molotov cocktail thrown at your house; or soldiers firing tear gas on children”. These are just some of the many dangers that are normal for Palestinians.
Ehrenreich’s travels to and from the Palestinian towns “interludes” to describe the mechanics and architecture of the occupation. He travels through notorious Qalandia checkpoint which he calls the “humiliation machine” erected by the Israelis as part of a “complex and sophisticated mechanism for the production of human despair”.
Bookshelves on Palestine are filled with volumes that are polemical. “The Way to the Spring”, however, is not one of those. Ehrenreich’s skill as a novelist shines through the 369 pages he has written. He weaves history and politics into story telling that powerfully describes the “grinding, ever escalating and humiliating life under Israeli occupation”.