Love in the time of the Nakba: Palestinian writer Suad Amiry speaks on her new novel

Michele Giorgio 19/07/2020
“I consider it my first novel, but it’s not fiction. It’s a true story, I just used fictional names and developed the characters a bit. A little love story between two teenagers. And the stories of ordinary, albeit very young, people here in Palestine also tell the story of our people.”

This is how Suad Amiry describes her latest book, The Story of an English Suit and a Jewish Cow (which has not yet appeared in English and is published in Italian as Storia di un abito inglese e di una mucca ebrea) just published in Italy by Mondadori.
We are only a few kilometers away from each other, but we can only talk on the phone. The new lockdown, declared by the Palestinian government to contain the second wave of the coronavirus in the West Bank, has isolated Ramallah, where the writer known for books translated into many languages such as Sharon and My Mother-in-Law, Menopausal Palestine: Women at the Edge, Nothing to Lose but Your Life and My Damascus.
“I was expected in Italy for the presentations (of the novel) and for some conferences, and the coronavirus blew it all up,” she says with regret.
I was born in Damascus, but my father was from Jaffa, and that city was a place full of powerful memories and so much significance for him and the rest of the family. Dad was only able to see it again after the war in 1967. I always had ties to Jaffa, and I knew that, sooner or later, I would write something about the city.
Then, by chance, two years ago, while I was there for a cultural initiative, a taxi driver told me about one of his relatives, his uncle’s wife, who as a child was left alone, without a family, and was adopted for some years by an elderly Jewish woman. And that’s where the love story came from, which was kept secret at the time: this woman fell in love with a 15-year-old when she was 13. That love began in 1947, and it was swept away the following year by the Nakba, our catastrophe, the exodus of Palestinians from the territory where Israel was founded in 1948. Those two young people are Subhi and Shams in the novel. I recount their relationship, simple, naive, happy, followed by the separation caused by the Nakba. Subhi ended up in Jordan with many other Palestinian refugees, while Shams managed to stay in Jaffa. They never see each other again.
Have you met the real Subhi?
Yes, in Amman. He is a unique person, with an extraordinary sense of humor. I was impressed. He told me that he still felt tied to the memory of Shams, the daughter of one of his father’s employees. He thought about her all these years, and never got over the trauma of the separation. Shams, on the other hand, seemed less emotionally affected when she told me about those days. She told me that it was only a relationship between kids, and that she had lived a life as a happily married woman and mother afterwards.
The English suit is a central element of the novel.
Subhi was a talented mechanic since he was a kid. He was able to repair a mechanical pump, and the owner, a big shot from Jaffa, very wealthy, rewarded him with an English-cut suit. This was a wonderful prize for Subhi, as he hoped to wear it to win over his girl for good. Then, that suit became a torment. Someone even accused him of stealing it—but luckily, he was fully exonerated. He still has a part of it today.
The lives of Shams and Subhi are marked by the political events in Palestine.
Indeed. While working on the novel, I went back to the debate from the years before 1948 among the various Palestinian political personalities. In the book, Subhi goes to a cafe in Jaffa that was famous at the time because it was frequented by intellectuals and politicians. The topics at the center of the discussions in that café are more or less the same as today: the land confiscations and acts of force by future Israelis are similar to those that are taking place now. The support that the Israelis of that time received (from other countries) closely resembles the current international situation. And the Palestinian leaders were divided on the strategy they should adopt: there were those who called for armed struggle, those who called for negotiation, those who called for international diplomacy. It is no different today if we look at the clash between (Palestinian) President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah and the Hamas movement in Gaza.
What conclusion can be drawn from that?
That then as now, with this or that Palestinian strategy, the Israelis in the end did everything they wanted to do, without the rest of the world committing to intervene in support of the Palestinians, who were left with nothing. Decades later, we are at the same point: without land, under occupation, and millions of Palestinians remain refugees, just as they were seventy years ago.
Even today, in Europe and in the United States, people still can’t understand that the Palestinians have been the victims of a colonization project. When I travel to Europe, they tell me about two narratives of the conflict, one Israeli and one Palestinian. This is frustrating, because the historical facts speak for themselves and are very clear, they leave no room for opposing versions and interpretations. We have been colonized. I hope that my novel will help the people who read it to better understand what happened to our people in 1948.
The plan for unilateral annexation of portions of the West Bank to Israel is a pressing issue today. It marks the de facto end of the two-state solution theorized with the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. Many are denouncing the creation of an apartheid system, and even in Israel, some more voices are being raised in support of a single state for Jews and Palestinians, with equal rights. Is that the solution?
I’ll say this: we would be fine with an independent sovereign Palestinian state in the occupied territories of 1967. And we would also be fine with a single state with equal rights for all. But let’s be honest, who do these Israeli voices really represent in their country? Do they have people behind them? I don’t think so. The point is that most Israelis, now as in the past, want the land of the Palestinians but without the Palestinians. And that is what will have to change before anything else does.