The 40th anniversary of the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip was marked by Palestinians earlier this month. As yet, there is no peaceful solution in sight over the disputes between Palestinians and Israelis about land, justice, economics, security, violence, water, and about who the Almighty God has chosen to live on the Holy Land.
All of this comes to mind and provides the backdrop for reading Farouq Wadi’s Homes of the Heart: A Ramallah Chronicle, first published in 1997. The unnamed narrator of this book (billed as an “autobiographical novel”) grew up in the West Bank town of Ramallah. At the conclusion of the 1967 Six-Day War, his father sent him away to finish his high school education elsewhere. He was supposed to return one year later, yet did not return for decades. This return is documented through an elegant new translation into English by Dina Bosio and Christopher Tingley.
Elegant, though it often is, Homes of the Heart is inconsistent as a memoir. Its chapters are short and often broken up into veritable snippets. The story meanders as the unnamed narrator, a writer much like Wadi, meanders around Ramallah on foot. The sights of structures as he remembers them versus how they are now causes him to ruminate on his childhood, his schooling, his friends, his teachers, his family, their neighbors, and the complex history of and relationship between the twin towns of Ramallah and al-Bireh. His reminiscences read as singular short reports rather than one engaging narrative. Still, moments shine, as in the narrator’s forced comparisons between the Ramallah he remembers, the one he loves, longs for, and used in his fiction, to the Ramallah he now sees. What the narrator finds very quickly is that everywhere it seems is “quite different from what I’d stored up in my memory.”
This different is heartbreakingly illustrated in the story of a spring on al-Taweel mountain. The water from the mountain spring would flow down and water the fig and quince trees:
For many years, in spring the mountainside was covered with wild thyme, and would welcome the birds, which were good for hunting. Young children, of whom I was one, would go and race among the wildflowers growing on the slope around the rocks.
In the mid-1960s there was a much-discussed rumor that the mountain was to be sold to some Arab businessmen and turned into a tourist attraction, touting the place’s beauty and fresh air. When the narrator returns decades later, he is informed that the spring’s water has been polluted: “And imagine, too, the pain and heartache I felt when I looked up and saw a Jewish settlement had been built on the summit of the mountain, crushing, together, my memories, and the flowers, and all the quince trees that would never grow again.” The name of the settlement is Psagot. The narrator admits he didn’t bother to find out what the Hebrew word meant because he didn’t want to let go of the pain he felt. “I wanted my memory to remain vigilant, able to free al-Taweel Mountain from the concrete claws of the Jewish Psagot.” It turns out that Psagot is the Hebrew word for “summit.”
Despite his sadness here, the narrator is neither naive nor a zealot of any kind. He is a considerate observer of daily life. Though he does not come out and say it, it is clear he wants his memory of Ramallah to remain vigilant and able to free Ramallah from the Israeli Occupation, and by extensions Palestine, too.
Of course, even the concept of Palestine is murky to some of those who would call it home. The narrator was visited by his aunt from al-Bireh while he was living in Beirut. He asked her how old she was. She told him she didn’t know, and to collect a pen and paper: “I lived 11 years under Turkish rule, 31 years under the British mandate, 19 years under the Jordanian regime, 11 years under the Jewish occupation. Add all those together.” He does, and then realizes she never once mentioned Palestine.
These finely-crafted examples are among the few sections here that rise above mere reporting. Most episodes simply record the narrator’s astonishment at the changes he sees coupled with scattered memories. The narrator’s family is mentioned as they were in his childhood. But, other than the episode with the aunt, their lives after 1967 are not so much as hinted at. So the reader is left wondering what happened to them. Was the narrator ever reunited with his parents? Did the narrator get married and start a family? If so, what did they think about his return to Ramallah? What did he tell his wife and children about the Ramallah of his youth? What did he hope to gain by returning? Did the narrator get news of his soldier brother at the camp in the Khalil mountains and manage to contact his brothers in Kuwait, as his father had instructed upon sending him out of the West Bank to finish his high school education?
For the most part, it’s as if the narrator’s life ended in 1967. And I understand that in a way it did. His life outside Ramallah is only mentioned a handful of times. But without a broader personal context, Homes of the Heart lacks enough insight or perspective to be a good memoir. Nor does the narrator have enough desire to be a protagonist that drives a good novel. What we are left with is something that is not inconsequential but is ultimately unsatisfying. This is highly unfortunate because the subject is clearly close to Wadi’s heart, and the world outside the Middle East could use more, deeply-rendered, stories about the lives of the people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and of those who were exiled.