“On the first day of their journey, they walked for twenty long hours. On the second, they walked from eight in the morning until three the next morning. No matter how carefully they tried to ration their water supplies, they were running out quickly, and the food was completely gone. Fear of dehydration was at the back of everyone’s minds, coupled with constant hunger pangs as they walked along.”
For those familiar with stories of Palestine, such tales of journeying onwards, without food or water, with few belongings but the clothes on their backs and any precious items they could salvage, conjure up vivid images of the Nakba of 1948. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians streamed across borders with their hearts filled with fear, only to reach neighbouring states reluctant to help these newly-displaced refugees.
Yet this is not 1940s Palestine, but rather 2014 on the border of Macedonia. With a rag-tag group of Somalians, a Bangladeshi and men of various Arab nationalities, Khaled Abdul Ghani Al-Lubani found himself walking from Saloneek, the name given to Thessaloniki “by Arab refugees due to the impossibility of pronouncing it in Arabic.” Having already undertaken numerous treacherous attempts to reach Greece in a boat that “haemorrhaged a line of dark diesel fuel into the crisp blue Mediterranean Sea,” and being repeatedly detained by Turkish and Greek authorities alike, Khaled was just one of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who walked the so-called “Balkan Route” in the hope of reaching Europe.
Nicknamed Marco, after the 14th century Venetian explorer Marco Polo whose tales so fascinated him as a young boy, Khaled was raised in Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus. The grandson of a Palestinian from Al-Mujaydil outside Nazareth, Khaled never imagined that having spent his whole life in Yarmouk he, like his grandfather before him, would become a refugee. It is the injustice of this cruel twist of fate, that condemns generation after generation to a lifetime of “queueing at a never ending charity-line, waiting for their right to return, preparing for a meal that would never be served,” that is explored in Ramzy Baroud’s “The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story”.
Book Review: A story of Palestinians without Palestine
Bringing together a collection of first-hand accounts by Palestinians from all corners of the globe, each of which was the result of in-depth interviews conducted by the author, “The Last Earth” paints a moving description of exile and displacement. Each chapter winds its way between tales that span generations; of elderly Palestinians born in Mandate Palestine and condemned to a nomadic life, of third-generation Palestinians born in Melbourne in the early 1990s and even a young American from Hopewell, Virginia, who found himself caught in the two Gaza Wars of 2012 and 2014. In bringing together such an eclectic mix of characters, Baroud explores what it means to be a refugee, demonstrating that beyond the initial, desperate act of fleeing war and persecution, it also represents what Viktor Frankl has termed a “search for meaning”. In the absence of normality, each character’s story is simultaneously a search for love, for a sense of belonging, for a home and the safety that comes from being surrounded by one’s family. By relaying the “experience of not fitting in to the world one is born into, or liking the game one is forced to play,” each story is brought to life for a readership that has most likely never experienced displacement and dispossession. Baroud does so to devastating effect, leaving the reader to reflect on the suffering endured by those whose only crime was to be born in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
Yet, despite the book’s largely contemporary focus, readers looking for those more recognisable images of Palestine that have been invoked in literature and art across the decades, will not be disappointed. Several chapters of the book conjure a world of orange groves and sprawling orchards, of a quiet existence lived by the fellahin until war destroyed all they had known. The tale of Ahmad Al-Haaj, relayed in chapter two, is a case in point. Nicknamed Abu Sandal because of his privileged position as “the only child in his entire village to ever enjoy the comfort of a pair of shoes”, Ahmad’s story tells of the lost world of his father Khaleel, of days in British Mandate schools and of being sent away by his mother, aged 15, in the hope of preserving some members of the family amidst the chaos of the Nakba. Baroud’s eloquent and almost poetic language leaves each description rich with character, and though at times some descriptions slip into overly-nostalgic tropes more befitting of 1960s Palestinian nationalism, the whole effect is of a book striking in its lucidity.
Intricately weaving narratives that took place across time and space into one beautiful collection, “The Last Earth” brings together stories of everyday Palestinians and places them in the broader context of what it means to be a refugee, to live in exile, or to long for a lost homeland. With UNHCR estimating there are currently 65 million forcibly displaced people and 22.5 million refugees worldwide, “The Last Earth” is a timely reminder that the on-going Nakba faced by Palestinians is just one example, albeit a striking one, of a human condition suffered by too many.