Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation

Edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman. HarperCollins, 2017. 434 pages. $16.99/paperback; $9.99/eBook.

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This is a book I came to with an open (or should I say blank) mind. As a nonobservant Jew mystified by—but not well-versed in—the intractable rhetoric and endless turmoil of the Middle East, I wondered if it wasn’t time for me to be “woke” about the Palestinian situation. I hoped to gain a better sense of how life has been lived in the occupied territories on the fiftieth anniversary of the Six-Day War and the occupation.

Also, as an essayist myself and a fan of many of the authors represented, the book’s concept interested me. What happens when you invite a variety of talented authors to pay a quick visit to a beleaguered part of the world and write about their impressions in whatever fashion they choose? Would the execution live up to the promise? Could 26 different writers from different countries each find something new to say about the same situation?

It’s also a book I wanted to love. The premise behind this enterprise is not only politically correct but dear to any writer’s heart: that the best way to evoke interest and compassion for the unknown “other” is to reveal the lives of individuals that transcend their particularity to resonate as universal. Or, as Colum McCann puts it in his essay “Two Stories, So Many Stories,” in which he writes of time spent with two families—one Palestinian, one Israeli—who had both lost children to violence: “stories can pry open our rib cages and twist our hearts backwards a notch.” He adds, “In telling our stories we oppose the awful cruelties of the ties and present to the world the profoundest evidence of being alive.”

There is nothing in this book that is not well-written, and each of the 26 pieces engaged my interest. Observing life in the occupied territories, people such as Geraldine Brooks, Anita Desai, Hari Kunzru, Mario Vargas Llosa, Jacqueline Woodson, along with coeditors Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, write convincingly and passionately about the daily lives of men, women, and children who are barraged by seemingly senseless and endless obstacles to domestic life, shopping, education, jobs, and travel. I learned about families locked in their homes and forbidden from walking down their own streets; of shepherds arrested for grazing their flocks; of midnight tunneling by Israeli soldiers through apartments in which Palestinians live; of limited water supplies, electricity shortages, endless red tape around work and building permits; of relationships thwarted, travel restricted, and families losing land they had cultivated and lived on for generations.

The essayists joined Palestinians as they awoke at 4:00 a.m to wait in lines for hours to get to their (mostly menial) jobs in Israel or as they dealt with two-hour car rides that should have taken 20 minutes without roadblocks and checkpoints. They heard of young children detained and mistreated in Israeli holding centers, intellects dying for lack of education, olive trees dying for lack of water, and people dying for lack of medical attention.

I learned much that horrified and infuriated me, also much that inspired me. The heroes of the book are survivors, truth-tellers, resisters, and idealists. They are parents of murdered children, both Israeli and Arab, forming grassroots groups to prevent future violence; former Israeli soldiers uniting to speak out, against the grain, about the injustices they were called upon to perpetuate in the line of duty; Israeli activists risking arrest to bear witness to their neighbors’ suffering; artists and musicians who fight against all odds to have their voices heard.

The stories are heartbreakingly realistic and politically acute, and, although I’ve never visited Israel, they began to feel strangely familiar to me. In “Bloated Time and the Death of Meaning” Ala Hlehel, one of the few Palestinians represented in the book, spoke of the occupation as a machine, calling it “a complex, octopus-like regime that functions to exhaust those who are subject to it. It is a regime based on repression under the cover of administrative legitimacy, the courts, and legal authority.” Why did it all sound so familiar?

Then I read in Dave Eggers’s piece, “Prison Visit” about “the countless ways the Occupation makes life less than human for millions of Palestinians and, it’s worth noting, for the Israelis who have to enforce the occupation.” Residents of Gaza, he said, referred to their home as an “open-air prison”—and things began to fall into place in my mind. It occurred to me that, as a member of the Quaker worship group at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Westchester County, N.Y., I too am exposed to the struggle of people to survive—physically, emotionally, spiritually—under the most degrading of circumstances.

This “foreign” Israeli–Palestinian story reminded me of the U.S. prison system. Both confine and restrict the movements of their subjects, while giving them continual awareness of the pleasures and rewards of life outside their boundaries. Both are punitive, treating the “other” as sub-human. Both justify their behemoth-like structures with highfalutin political and religious rhetoric. Both disempower people by subjecting them to innumerable rules and regulations that are haphazardly enforced. Both are framed in ways to make them palatable to the average citizen. And neither stand up well to careful, thoughtful consideration.

This is why the book is successful, yet it also points to a few flaws. There is a bit too much repetition here: too many of the stories begin to sound alike; too many of the brief journeys of the authors cover the same ground; many of the fresh impressions start feeling stale. I’m convinced the book would have been just as impactful—and probably more cogent—at 250 or 300 pages as it did at 400 pages. I agree with other critics who have pointed to the superficiality implicit in a point-and-click first impression exercise that does not require in-depth understanding.

Still I admire and applaud this effort, and I hope to see more like it. The world needs these stories and stories like them; but most of all, it needs people willing to read them.

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