To impart narratives of displacement, it is important to listen to the echoes of such trajectories. Ramzy Baroud’s latest book, The Last Earth: a Palestinian story, propels this dimension immediately to the fore. The reader takes a step back to listen, imagine and realise the immense contradictions, where life is in a constant struggle with death in order to survive, and where displacement has forced Palestinians to keep “moving in one straight line” while their implosion as a result of colonial violence took them elsewhere.
All too often, Palestine is overshadowed by impositions which have reduced devastatingly the spaces for Palestinian voices not only to claim their narratives, but also to disseminate them, as is their natural right. Baroud has created that space, so much so that reading this book requires an amount of unlearning, of shedding the facades which claim to represent Palestine while hiding its testimony.
The Last Earth… is poignant on many levels. Based upon in-depth interviews with Palestinians, it paints the history which is regularly concealed. There is not one single page which does not elicit profound questions about Palestine and one’s relationship to Palestine, through ancestral ties to the land, or affinity. Baroud exposes the land and the people, vulnerable and resilient, for an understanding of what Palestine is, and who Palestinians are, enticing the reader into a deeper relationship with memory, and prompting many questions as stories unravel and people flow into other people’s recollections.
At the end of each narration, one cannot help but wonder about all the stories which are still waiting to be told. The chapter titled Spirit of the Orchard is one such example which compels the reader to ponder the memory of people mentioned by Umm Marwan, whose brother Salim disappeared while making his way through an orchard seeking to escape from Israeli atrocities. It is an instant realisation that one can only ponder about a disappearance and that an equally valid narrative is lost to speculation of what actually happened.
There is a correlation between the way the narratives linger and those that remain untold fester in one’s mind after reading the book. Primarily, one faces the realisation that the trauma of a displaced population would not have been experienced had it not been for the complicity that allowed the colonisation of Palestine by Zionists. Palestine would have been defined by other stories that might or might not have been rendered visible. Israel’s colonial violence dispelled that possibility and Palestinians are recognised primarily by a metaphor of displacement that goes beyond the physical manifestation of the altered landscape.
The displacement has occurred on several levels with narratives, as can be seen in the book. Umm Marwan’s story, particularly its meticulous detail and the disappearance of Salim, will have an engrossed reader attempting to imagine the untold, while surrendering to degrees of frustration. The tragedy of the untold is a major feature of Palestinian displacement, matching the refugee status, for example, which was absorbed without choice as featured in Ahmad Al-Hajj’s story, where the theme of land features consistently. It is not only the settlements that are altering the landscape, but also Palestinians being coerced to sell some of their land in order to buy rifles to protect their village.
Beit Daras is ravaged, yet there is no surrender from the Palestinians. The displaced survivors contemplate their forced predicament in relation to land: “The first generation were assigned the ‘refugee’ title and were forced to keep it until most of them died in exile.” It is a simple observation, yet one that is overlooked in the haste to communicate displacement as a common phenomenon that eliminates individual experiences. For the people portrayed in this book, displacement is more than a defining term; it is the place where memory is sheltered and protected, where living and looking back intertwine.
Such a profound emotion is captured in Letters to Heba, where Ali Abumghasib, whose family was ethnically cleansed in the 1948 Nakba, embarks upon a memory journey by writing letters to his daughter, whose whereabouts are unknown. A refugee in Syria, Heba’s father writes of his life as a resistance fighter, of his efforts to provide for his family both in terms of basic needs and safety, while dedicating his life to the Palestinian cause. The recollections are interspersed by musings that are heart-rending: “I have no photo of you. If I did, I would put them by my bedside so that your image would be the first thing I see when I wake up and the last before I fall asleep.”
Among the realisations that the book imparts is the difference between the detached, structured references about Palestine, and the experience of Palestinians. It is through such narratives that the reader understands the difference between choice, and a choice that is cloistered and limited to survival or death. For Samir, we are told that he had “resolved that a short life in the mountain, even shielded by guns and bullets, was more liberating, and more dignified, than a long life in prison and military checkpoints.” How does one choose when one is left with no choice?
There is a difference also between the routine documenting of Israelis murdering Palestinians, and the incisive reality of being confronted by a dying child, as in Hana Al-Shalabi’s recollections in Death Notice. Through her eyes, we cannot help but process an image from a mortally wounded boy to a wound in the back of his head, revealed only as he died at Hana’s feet. It hurts to amalgamate the wound and the boy’s useless plea to Hana, because, we are told, “she froze, and he fell on his face and died.” Hana’s life is altered forever as she is later persecuted by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, subjected to humiliating treatment and torture, and finally forced into exile.
Baroud’s telling of these Palestinian stories dispels many illusions which can be assimilated even by the staunchest supporter of Palestine. For non-Palestinians, the book offers a lot of possibilities for introspection. Have we wasted time attempting to define Palestinians when they have defined themselves? How much of ourselves have we imposed upon a people who need their space without having to face the degradation of begging for it, thus forcing yet another displacement upon what has been already experienced?
There is no way that anyone can read this book and, upon reaching the end, not realise how much it has changed them. Within the first few pages, empathy becomes outdated as the truth of feeling takes over. It is not just the humanity which the book imparts, or the ability to relate to slivers of more intimate details shared by the Palestinians interviewed for this book. It is a simple but profound truth that emanates throughout; this book communicates with the heart. Just as we would not choose to obliterate our hearts from our lives, we should extend the same tenacity to uphold and protect a flourishing space for Palestinian narratives to thrive and triumph.