Publisher: Bloomsbury USA (2007),
Paperback, 384 pages
Book Review by Danielle T
When I think of home, I feel happy and content. I do not feel an intense sadness or longing, or an intense feeling that my current home is not my real home. My ability to live quietly in the 'burbs has never been challenged by a government, an army or a liberation movement. I read this book, a true story, and remembered how privileged I am.
This book tells the story of two people and their connection to one house in Ramla, in modern day Israel. As we follow the parallel stories of Bashir and Dalia, we see developments in Israel through two perspectives: that of the Palestinian refugee, and that of the Israeli settler.
Bashir's father built a house in Ramla for his wife and young family. His extended family had been an important part of the Ramla community for centuries. Bashir was six years old when Israeli troops forced his family to leave their house, and their town, in 1948. His family joined many other Palestinian refugees in Ramallah, on the West Bank. The lemon tree that Bashir’s father had planted in the back garden, its scent and its promise, becomes a painful memory for Bashir’s family, a symbol of the life they were forced to leave.
Dalia's family are Bulgarian Jews. During World War Two, the Jews in Bulgaria received an eleventh hour reprieve from an order to deport them to Treblinka. The reprieve was miraculous and exceptional: it came about through ordinary people petitioning the government, and the willingness of the Bulgarian Orthodox Priest to speak up against the treatment of the Jewish people.
Dalia is a baby when her family leave Europe after the war to come to Israel, seeking a safe haven. They find this safe haven in an attractive "abandoned" Arab house in Ramla. Dalia sees the horrible imprint of the Holocaust in the lives around her. She is a university student at the time of the 1967 six day war, and responds to the Israeli victory against the Arabs with joy and with wonder. She is also a bit perplexed : why did God decide to save the Jews from annihilation this time?
Bashir and his family are devasted at the defeat of the Arab forces in 1967. He becomes part of a Palestinian movement to "liberate" all of old Palestine and guarantee the right of return of Palestinian families to their homes. He is jailed many times over the years for alleged links to terrorist activities, including a bombing in a Jerusalem supermarket.
In 1967 many Palestinian Arabs are able, for the first time, to travel from the West Bank into Israel to visit their old homes. Bashir travels to Ramla with this hope, not knowing who will be living in his family's old house, and not knowing whether they will welcome him in for a visit.
After walking in circles in the heat, Bashir realised that he had found the house. He heard a voice from somewhere deep inside himself: This is your home.
When Bashir knocks at his old door Dalia is home alone. She is not certain whether to open the door to the stranger, and then not sure whether to allow him into the house when he explains the reason for his visit. But Dalia’s decision to show Bashir through the house opens up the possibility of friendship between her and Bashir, and between their families. This friendship is remarkable: Bashir and Dalia cultivate it even though they each become aware that if their worldviews were to be fully unwrapped, they would face each other as enemies.
Later, Dalia visits Bashir and his family in Ramallah. The hospitality shown to Dalia is overwhelming. During the visit Bashir reveals his belief that only Jews who arrived in Israel before 1917 have a right to stay in the country. Dalia is unnerved.
What am I doing here? she thought. What is the point of continuing this conversation?
Still, she had noticed something: Bashir had never repeated the threats of the Palestinian nationalists to one day take all of Palestine by force. He had never said, We will take your house from you- and Dalia had avoided asking him his intentions or his political affiliations. Each had chosen to reside within the contradiction: They were enemies, and they were friends. Therefore, Dalia believed, they had reason to keep on talking; the conversation itself was worth protecting.
There is a lot of history in this book. This history highlights how complex the conflict in Israel is, and how difficult (and ongoing) will be the struggle to achieve peace. It also makes you realise that many many family stories are woven through the big political picture. The stamp of history on each family, and on each person, is very individual. The way in which each family, and each person, responds to their situation is also very individual.
Many years after their first encounter, Bashir and Dalia cooperate to create Open House, a preschool for Palestinian children. This preschool is run out of the house in Ramla. Bashir and Dalia's story is full of grace. It shows how a person can extend amazing grace to another person and their family through the simple (but not always easy) gift of conversation and hospitality. And it then shows how this generosity and perseverance can spill over and benefit a community. It shows a small light of hope, against a very bleak political backdrop. This book is very inspiring, and very sad.