Where Do Dreams and Dreaming Go? A Palestinian Quaker in America
By May Mansoor Munn, edited by Ann Walton Sieber. Anemone Press, 2017. 165 pages. $15/Paperback
White and Black: Political Cartoons from Palestine.
By Mohammad Saba’aneh. Just World Books, 2017. 193 pages. $19.95/Paperback.
May Mansoor Munn and Mohammad Saba’aneh could hardly be more different in their ways of illustrating life in Palestine for a Western, or at least non-Palestinian, audience. May was born Quaker and raised in Jerusalem and Ramallah and moved to the United States to go to college in the 1950s. Mohammad, part of the Palestinian diaspora, was born in Kuwait and only visited Palestine until moving back in 2000, just in time for the second Intifada. They were born so far apart and lived in such different times in Palestine, that their stories are quite divergent.
May Mansoor Munn was born in the 1930s, and so remembers living in Jerusalem before apartheid, the beginnings of the Zionist state, and the massive forced migration of Palestinians. Mohammad Saba’aneh was born later and was part of that forced migration; all his memories of Palestine are of life in an occupied state.
The essays and fiction that appear in May’s collection have been previously published in periodicals; as a result, some information is repeated, but that actually helps it stick. The collection does not attempt to construct a timeline of Palestine in the twentieth century but rather shares through stories the heartbreaking changes. For instance, May recollects her family moving to Ramallah from their home in Jerusalem, newly built just before a nearby hotel was bombed by Zionists, and violence in Jerusalem became commonplace. She remembers walking into the meetinghouse in Ramallah and seeing no fewer than nine refugee families camped out among the pews. As an adult, all of her experiences are as a visiting expatriate. The volume’s two pieces of short fiction are a most wonderful surprise. (May also published a novel, Ladies of the Dance, based loosely on her aunt’s life as a hotelier.)
May shares her stories with a light touch as she runs memory’s hands over the shape her life has taken. She shares heartbreak, to be sure, but absent the heavy hand of blame and guilt. Her essays are simply a lovely way to hear about how it was to live in Palestine before the Intifadas, before the wall, before the failed Oslo Accord, before the extremely power-imbalanced violence of contemporary Palestine. Images of traditional embroidery appear throughout, with names like “bunches of grapes” and “the road to Egypt.” Memories of her mother’s cooking, of tea with cardamom, of flowers amid the rocky landscape, and of olive trees evoke a sweet childhood. And there are 15 pages of curiosity satisfying family photos at the end.
Mohammad’s cartoons are his way of telling his story, which is one of violence, anguish, loss, and trauma but also of precious connections, shared resilience, and intractable resistance. Extremely helpful is the Key to Symbols at the back of the book; readers unfamiliar with Palestinian culture should read it first. Among the important symbols that recur are (1) the key: right of return to their homes; (2) the cactus: tough, patient resilience; and (3) the olive tree: important source of income and relates to the established, dignified lifestyle before occupation. The Palestinian flag also appears often, as do striped checkpoint arms, chains, manacles, prison towers, and the wall.
I noted that women appear both with and without hijab in Mohammad’s images. They usually appear with children, sometimes on a scale much bigger than the other figures, and often making gestures of resistance.
His drawing style varies from caricatures with empty faces and blank eyes to a that of a woodcut to Cubist figures in the style of Picasso. Many of the cartoons are densely filled, while others feature single figures. Each cartoon has a caption, which helps a Western reader who might miss certain elements or clues in the drawings.
Despite the frightening reality in occupied Palestine, the cartoons are not overwhelming in their depiction of violence. We usually see the result of violence rather than its perpetration. Mohammad also uses the method of scale distortion to reveal the enormity of the Palestinian resistance against a bigger adversary, and in the face of a geopolitical reality that is extremely power imbalanced.
One thing that does not appear in these images is the Islamic fundamentalist terrorist. Although mosques and minarets appear, so do Crosses. Although men appear with covered heads, it is traditional garb. It is clear that the resistance that Mohammad depicts is for the survival of Palestine as a country, and for its citizens’ right to return to their homes and occupations. The cartoons are clearly about the occupation of Palestine and the apartheid that traumatizes its people, not about religious wars.
In addition to these titles, Friends may also be interested in A Passion for Learning, the self-published biography of Khalil Totah by his daughter, Joy Totah Hilden. Totah was the principal of the Friends Boys School in Ramallah for 27 years in the mid-twentieth century. (This book can be ordered on Amazon.)