Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

    My cousin kills a man and I carry off his daughter.  Tragedy or farce?
        -Wild Thorns

This novel is part of something called the Emerging Voices Series and, from what I could find online, although the book is now over twenty-five years old and Sahar Khalifeh is in her fifties, she is indeed considered one of the important voices in Middle Eastern literature.  The action of Wild Thorns takes place just a few years after Israel occupied the West Bank, which is where Khalifeh lived when she wrote it.  The main character in the book is Usama, a young Palestinian returning to the territories after being fired from his job in the oil states.  Though his mother has high hopes that he will marry a lovely cousin, Usama has actually returned to his homeland on a mission, to blow up the buses which carry Palestinian day laborers to their jobs in Israel.

Usama is shocked by the changes he finds on his return, the indignities that people put up with, starting with the difficulty getting through the check points on the way into the territories, having to submit to searches and interrogations.  But he is most disturbed by how economically dependent Palestinians have become on Israel, both for jobs and for consumer goods.  He sees this as a kind of collaboration, which implicates everyone in the occupation.

Meanwhile, the hero of the book is really Adil, another young Palestinian, Usama's cousin, who has stayed at home, works at one of the well paying Israeli jobs in order to take care of his extended family, and wants no part of the coming violence.  But, inevitably, he too gets caught up in the sweep of events.  In the first instance, when he just happens to be on the scene when an Israeli soldier is attacked and stabbed, Adil carries the soldier's young daughter to safety.  But in the end, when Usama and his cronies attack the very bus convoy that Adil is riding in, he ends up grabbing a gun himself.

Though Ms Khalifeh is obviously sympathetic to the plight of her people, the novel is largely non-polemical.  Adil seems to be as much a victim of Usama's mindless terrorism as is the Israeli soldier.  Yet, Adil's final decision to take up arms makes a certain awful sense too.  Even someone as generally hostile to the Palestinian cause as I am can understand how even the most decent and reluctant of men would choose to fight with his own people when push came to shove.  But, of course, this is the evil logic of terror, to make everyone take sides, to turn even the peace loving into killers.  It is this that makes the events of the novel as tragic as they are inexorable.

The real tragedy though is that Adil's life, however distasteful to Usama and his ilk, offers a constructive alternative to terror and violence.  In Khalifeh's portrayal of modern Palestine one can't help noticing that though the occupation by Israel is fairly brutal, it is Israel that is keeping the Palestinians alive.  It is hard to imagine how the people would survive without the paychecks and commodities that come from Israel.  And it must always be remembered that Israel, though we  refer to it as the Jewish State, is first and foremost a democracy.  From a wiser Palestinian perspective, particularly thirty years ago, this would be seen as Israel's great strength but also as its fatal weakness, a strength because it has given Israel the only productive and growing economy in the region, a weakness because simple laws of demographics suggest that at least the Jewishness of Israel, if not the state itself, is doomed.  Particularly prior to the fall of the Iron Curtain, with the huge influx of Eastern European Jewish immigrants it unleashed, the declining birthrates of Jews in Israel, combined with the prodigious birthrate of Palestinians, would have seen Palestinians become a majority in Israel perhaps as early as this decade.  In a very real sense, Israel was saved by the demise of the USSR, but even this is likely to be only temporary.  Had the Palestinians had sense enough to choose civil rights instead of demanding statehood, they would have achieved, or would be on the verge of achieving, with the ballot what they have unable to achieve with the gun.   They would control the future of Israel.

Instead of following Adil's path though, they chose Usama's--and the end of that road is not very inviting.  World opinion will not long tolerate repression when it is directed against an internal population.  Palestinians, had they opted for full civil rights and political participation in Israel, would be able to make inarguably legitimate moral claims and to demand simple justice.  Theirs would be a compelling cause which Jewish Israelis would have to contend with, peacefully, even at the cost of Jews becoming a minority and Muslim political parties taking control of government.  On the other hand, the world is not long bothered by the routine barbarities of war, especially between neighbors.  By opting for statehood, the Palestinians have, I believe foolishly, chosen to become national rivals with a much more powerful, more technologically advanced, more economically robust, and quite hostile state.

You don't need to be Nostradamus to see what's coming.  Palestine will be a state soon : if necessary, the Israelis will declare it a state themselves, for it is in their interest, more even than it is in the Palestinians.  Some provocation or another will then trigger a war, and, in a war, Israel will have a free hand to slaughter "the enemy" where they would never be allowed to take such lethal action against an internal "minority."  The Palestine that remains will be destroyed, depopulated, and demoralized.  Statehood will have exacted an even more horrific cost in Palestinian lives than it has cost in the lives of all those Jews and other Westerners who have been targets of terror.

This may not be precisely the message that Sahar Khalifeh was trying to convey in Wild Thorns, but, suffice it to say that a quarter of a century later, Israel is a fully integrated member of the developed world, with an economy that actively participates in the high tech revolution.  It is an economic success story, and despite decades of violence, remains a vibrant democracy.  Meanwhile, Palestine is still an economic basketcase.  It subsists on the money that its people earn in Israel.  Politically, you would have to call authoritarian state ? a military dictatorship ?  And the Usamas and Adils continue to die, striking futile blows against an Israel which merely shakes them off and continues to thrive.  It's really quite depressing.


Grade: (B)


Book-related and General Links:
    -Women & Family Affairs Center (Board of Trustees)
    -INTERVIEW :  Renowned Palestinian writer  Saher Khalifeh : 'Men are not used to taking a  brave look at things that  might hurt their soul' (The Star, 26 November 1998)
    -Occupied Writing: An Introduction to Sahar Khalifeh (Nader Khalaf Uthman, Postcolonial Studies at Emory)
    -Arab World Writers : Sahar Khalifeh
    -PROFILE :  Sahar Khalifeh-a struggle to be heard (PlanetArabia)
    -PROFILE : Sahar Khalifeh (This Week in Palestine, September 1999)
    -PROFILE : Sahar Khalifeh (Dr. Bouthaina Shaaban. Macmag)
    -ESSAY : Publishing in the West: Problems and Prospects for Arab Women Writers (Amal Amireh, Al Jadid Magazine)
    -REVIEW : of Wild Thorns (Mohja Kahf, World Literature Today)
    -REVIEW : of Reconfigured Spheres: Feminist Explorations of Literary Space Edited by Margaret R. Higonnet and Joan Templeton (MaryEllen Higgins, Boston Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Palestinian Women of Gaza and the West Bank, ed. Suha Sabbagh (Rema Hammami, Journal of Palestinian Studies)

    -INFO : Fertile Memory (Athakira Al-Khasba)

    -TREVOR LEGASSICK  (Professor of Arabic Literature, Department of Near Eastern Studies, university of Michigan)

    -The Star : Jordan's political, economic and cultural weekly
    -Journal of Palestinian Studies
    -Al Jadid : A Review and Record of Arab Culture and Arts
    In Memoriam - Cleo Noel and George Curtis Moore: An Interview with Former NSA Analyst, James J Welsh (Joseph Alexander Norland, IsraPundit)
    -America's Unsettled Score With Yasser Arafat (Scott Johnson, June 18, 2002, Real Clear Politics)
    -Yasser Arafat - The Forgotten Terrorist (Thomas W. Murphy - USA In Review)
    -Backgrounder: REMEMBER KHARTOUM
    -Covering for Arafat the Killer (Sidney Zion, January/February 2001, THE ISRAEL REPORT)
    -New evidence Arafat killed U.S. diplomats: Nixon historian finds CIA report on Fatah link to 1973 murders (Joseph Farah, March 18, 2002,
    -Remember Cleo A. Noel, Jr.? (Robb Hensley, 10 April 2002,
    -REVIEW: of Assassination in Khartoum by David A. Korn (Daniel Pipes, American Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of The Palestinian People: A History by Baruch S. Kimmerling (Benny Morris, New Republic)