Book Box | Six books and three podcasts to help you understand the Israel-Palestine conflict
A list to help you wrap your head around the recent Hamas attack and the subsequent escalation of the long-simmering tension in West Asia
“There are planes in the sky all the time, day and night, so you can't forget for even a moment, what's going on”, my friend Ava says.
“Today we started cleaning up the bomb shelters, which haven't been used since 1973, in the Yom Kippur war.” she writes, posting live updates on her social media. I met Ava at a writer's workshop, and we have kept in touch since.
I take Ava’s story with me, to my storytelling class. We talk about The Diary of Anne Frank and O Jerusalem!, two books on the struggles of the Jews, that many of us have read. And Mossad: The Greatest Missions of the Israeli Secret Service. We were enthralled by these, by the tales of Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, and a recent favourite series by Daniel D'Silva, featuring Gabriel Allon, Israeli art restorer by day and Mossad agent by night. These stories have brought Israel to life for so many readers and we have followed this fledging country, even rooted for it.
And yet the cracks have been there. If you knew where to look.
For me, they appeared first in the writings of Edward Said, a Palestinian American, whose work, including Orientalism and The Question of Palestine, forever changed my perspective.
In 2015, at the Jaipur Literary Festival, I heard journalist Gideon Levy, an Israeli columnist for the Haaretz newspaper, talk about the brutal tyranny of the Gaza occupation. He spoke of innocent people denied medical aid, of a woman giving birth in a car and her baby dying because she was refused passage to a hospital, at the Israeli checkpoint. Reporting on these stories and writing his book The Punishment of Gaza, made him one of the most hated men in Israel, he said, because most Israelis didn’t want to know about the crimes committed on their behalf.
Today, as the Israel-Hamas war rages on, here are six seminal books, everything from history to memoir to poetry and graphic novel, and also three podcasts, to better understand this conflict.
Book 1 of 6: The Question of Palestine by Edward Said
“One of the features of a small non-European people is that it is not wealthy in documents, nor in histories, autobiographies, chronicles, and the like”, says Edward Said. There are very few Palestinian narratives that set out the story from antiquity from the Palestinian point of view. Said undertakes to tell the larger Palestinian story in his book The Question of Palestine. Published in 1979, this brilliant book is dated in some respects, and it doesn’t cover later history and military developments. Yet it interrogates many presumptions and gives us the vocabulary to voice areas of unease. It's seminal, the first of its kind of analysis and totally worth reading.
Book 2 of 6: This is Not a Border: Reportage and Reflection from the Palestine Festival of Literature, by Chinua Achebe, JM Coetzee, Michael Ondaatje and others
This collection of prose and poems, from the writers at PalFest, the Palestine Festival of Literature, is incredibly moving. In one of the features, Pakistani author Mohammed Hanif talks about the experience of conducting a writing workshop in Palestine.
“In our writing exercises an F16 would appear outside an apartment window, a woman baking a cake would get shot in the head by a stray bullet, an olive grove would get sprayed with acid. They weren’t trying their hands at magical realism. They were writing about their family lives. In most writing exercises a family elder was humiliated, sometimes stripped, and sometimes slapped by the Israeli kid soldiers as the family watched. They wanted to write and get published. Their stories started out about love and sibling rivalry but bullets would start flying. Or someone would get slapped by a kid soldier”, he says.
In this collection, Pankaj Mishra writes about the ideological convergence of India and Israel. Susan Abulhawa, author of Mornings in Jenin tells the story of her displacement. Saud Amiry, Palestinian architect and author of books that include Sharon and My Mother-in-law: Ramallah Diaries has a moving story too.
Of all these poignant pieces, the writing from Omar Robert Hamilton, co-founder and festival director of the Palestine Festival of Literature, moves me the most. In this essay, Hamilton talks about what writers and storytellers can do to help - will the authors call out the injustice as they see it - what will Nobel prizewinning South African JM Coetzee, for instance, say about the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians? Here's a small extract from the essay:
“JM Coetzee strides up to the stage. The audience is overflowing, not even standing room at the back. The world holds its breath. Will he say it? In the moment nothing matters more. It is the final night of the festival. He has seen all we have to show him. Will he call it apartheid or not? Words are important here.”
Book 3 of 6: I Saw Ramallah by Mourid Barghouti
A Palestinian poet tells his story in this beautifully written, plaintive, poignant memoir, with a foreword by Edward Said himself. Written in Arabic, this book is translated into English by the Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif. Here’s a flavour for you:
“It is very hot on the bridge. A drop of sweat slides from my I forehead down to the frame of my spectacles, then the lens. A mist envelops what I see, what I expect, what I remember. The view here shimmers with scenes that span a lifetime; a lifetime spent trying to get here. Here I am, crossing the Jordan River. I hear the creak of the wood under my feet. On my left shoulder is a small bag. I walk westward in a normal manner--or rather, a manner that appears normal. Behind me the world, ahead of me my world.”
Book 4 of 6: Arabs and Israelis by Abdel Monem Said Aly, Shai Feldman and Khalīl Shiqāqī
The three authors of this book represent both the Arab and Israeli perspectives. They reportedly even served in armies that opposed each other. Abdel Monem Said Aly, Shai Feldman and Khalīl Shiqāqī, came together at the University of Brandeis to teach a new class, 'Conflict and Peacemaking in the Middle East', providing students with competing narratives of the Israeli, Palestine and Arab sides. The class led to this book, a scholarly and yet very accessible study of many dimensions – from geo-strategic interests to the human factor.
Book 5 of 6: Palestine by Joe Sacco
If you enjoyed the storytelling in Persepolis, this graphic novel by journalist Joe Sacco is the book for you. Palestine tells the story of two peoples in conflict, in vivid detail. Sacco also uses a lot of text, thus packing in a great deal of historical detail, while also retaining an immersive feel.
Book 6 of 6: Apeirogon by Colum McCann
This is a demanding novel, difficult to read the first time around. It’s also astoundingly good. Like Lincoln in the Bardo, it demands engagement even as it rewards you with the overwhelming experience of dazzlingly inventive storytelling.
The two central characters here are Rami Elhanan, an Israeli whose thirteen-year-old daughter was killed by suicide bombers and Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian, father of ten-year-old Abir who was shot after leaving a candy store. Both the bereaved parents seek comfort by trying to establish some sort of connection.
It is around this central premise that the novel takes shape. And what a shape. Instead of chapters, Apeirogon is told in tiny fragments, 1001 of them. A mosaic that melds literature, history, myth, memory, mathematics, religion, poetry, philosophy, birds, and so much more, like tiny pieces of a huge complex jigsaw puzzle that slowly build a picture of connections over time.
I've been listening to podcasts as well, and here are three recommendations.
Each of these three episodes is from a different podcast, and each uses a different lens, to tell the story of the Israel-Palestine conflict, through history, music and technology.
Empire podcast - William Dalrymple and Anita Anand do a stellar job of analysing the origins of the Israeli-Palestine conflict digging up relevant history- everything from Britain’s Balfour Declaration to Churchill’s shockingly racist sound bytes. It’s lively, erudite and insightful.
+972 - is the country code for Israel. It's also a podcast that features Palestinian and Israeli journalists and activists telling different stories. In this episode, listen about the Palestinian musician shattering taboos.
Occupied Thoughts - In this episode, author Antony Loewenstein looks at Israel’s occupation-enforcing technologies which form the subject of his book The Palestine Laboratory. He talks about how the Israeli state has perfected the architecture of control, developing sophisticated spying and surveillance technology that they now export around the world.
With this, it’s a wrap. Here’s wishing for peace, and for the understanding that art and storytelling try to bring.
Until next week, I wish you thought-provoking reading.
Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at email@example.com
The views expressed are personal