We’re all familiar with that clichéd response to an outlandishly bizarre incident: “Truth is stranger than fiction,” thank you Mark Twain. I always want to add — but fiction helps define that truth and also encourages us to pay attention to it.
Two novels did just that for me, one with a keen lens focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the other on the Syrian civil war. I picked each up anticipating good stories, and indeed they are immersive and engaging. What surprised me was how the characters, who brought me into the world of the ordinary person, powerfully shed light on what it’s like to live in the midst of these conflicts. For so long I’ve merely glanced at news reports and registered the fighting, bombs, death and displacement but not the people.
The other day, a New York Times headline reported Palestinian militants launching rockets into Israel, and Israel responding with airstrikes. I read the full article, whereas I would have skipped it had I not been so affected by Sadness Is a White Bird. Rothman-Zecher tells a story about friendship that defines the deep pain and anger at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian divide. The three friends are inseparable: Jonathan, a 17-year-old “green-eyed Jewish boy from Pennsylvania” whose family returns to Israel, and the twins Nimreen and Laif, Palestinian college students. They meet when their mothers visit one another in an Arab village. They, like their children, want to be together even though their heritage says they should hate one another. Jonathan, Nimreen and Laif fall into spending Friday nights together on the beach and taking day trips. They share poetry, laughter and intense discussions. They even imagine a future together. Still, the historic conflict of the region sits like a woolly mammoth in the center of their lives. “Everything is politics,” Nimreen tells the hopeful Jonathan, who is drafted into the Israeli Defense Force after high school. He must monitor the occupied Palestinian territories, and he wrestles with his conscience to a heartbreaking end. Rothman-Zecher is an American-Israeli author who lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio. He was born in Jerusalem.
Khaled Khalifa writes with lyric intensity. His new novel, Death Is Hard Work, tells the story of a father’s request to be buried beside his sister and the journey his children take to honor it. He dies in Damascus, and while his ancestral village of Anabiya is only a few kilometers away, it takes his children three days to transport his shrouded corpse through the many checkpoints. Also, the alarming and incomprehensible troubles they encounter hold them back, such as when regime authorities arrest the dead body and jail the children for their father’s revolutionary allegiance. The protagonist is Bolbol, who initiates the journey; his older brother is Hussein, who drives the minibus; and their sister is Fatima, who sits beside the body in quiet dread. The three work hard to be civil with one another, having been estranged for years, and their individual stories fill the journey with rich storytelling. In the end, close to Anabiya, they are rescued by cousins at a checkpoint of Islamic extremists. The novel’s last sentence speaks an incomprehensible truth of what’s happening to the Syrian people: “[Bobol] walked to his bedroom, slipped into bed, and felt like a large rat returning to its cold burrow: a superfluous being, easily discarded.” Acclaimed Syrian author Khaled Khalifa lives in Damascus. According to his biography on the book’s dust jacket, he remains despite the danger.