Nora Lester Murad’s young adult novel, Ida in the Middle (Crocodile Books, 2022), explores Palestinian identity and makes it relatable to a non-Palestinian audience. Ida, a young teenager, is born in the US to Palestinian parents. She is bullied and ostracised at her school because of her Palestinian heritage, while the Israeli narrative was protected by the school administration when some classmates formed a club called “Love the Holy Land”. Start a Muslim club, the Principal suggests. But Palestine is not a religious question. The ensuing protest by Ida’s parents to the school Principal results in Ida’s “diversity” scholarship to a private school, where Ida is chosen to participate in a very selective regional competition.
From a teenager who desired to hide herself in the classroom, Ida finds herself pressured to come up with a topic for a presentation. Murad’s narrative does not create Ida’s character as an outsider. The multicultural community, which is part of Ida’s reality, is well brought out and seamlessly woven with awareness of how isolation may not always be completely true. For Ida, however, navigating two parts of her identity in terms of her Palestinian heritage and her US life brought conflict and, at times, shame. Passing off as other nationalities was not as traumatic as being singled out as a Palestinian.
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Despite Ida’s attempts at assimilation, the book presents Ida’s conflict over her identity in an accessible manner. In between bouts of stress and insecurity stemming from school, the project and her identity, Ida finds herself magically living two different realities after eating olives from a jar sent by her Palestinian relatives to her family. The book shifts between Ida’s experiences had she been living in Palestine, and her reality in the US. Both resonate in terms of home, and yet home is portrayed to have a greater significance in terms of personal experience and collective memory.
Through Ida’s ventures in Palestine, young readers can learn about Zionist colonisation of Palestine during the Nakba. Murad’s descriptions of Palestinians’ lives under Israel’s colonial Occupation are in line with Palestinians’ assertions of the ongoing Nakba, as Israel perfects its methods of oppression to target Palestinians without drawing too much attention from the international community. Yet, it is the human experience that Murad portrays in the book. How home demolitions affect families, the raids at night in Palestinian villages, the interrogation of Palestinian minors, particularly males, and the bribes which Israeli soldiers blatantly offer to entice Palestinians into becoming collaborators.
In her actual life in the US, Ida makes an online friend, Layla, to help her with the project which she decides will be about Palestine’s history and current reality. Readers will see both worlds merge at times, and Ida navigating both realities with a new consciousness. Layla is also part of Ida’s Palestinian experience when she eats the magic olives – her friend’s home is demolished by Israel’s bulldozers. As the deadline for her presentation looms, Ida’s thoughts incorporate more and more awareness into the diversity around her. Her best friend’s family also bear scars similar to the ones Ida’s family and relatives endure, and the immigrant narrative is brought to the fold when Ms Duarte, her best friend’s mum, divulges the reason why they left El Salvador for the US.
Belonging, or the ambivalence of it, is a shared experience. Ida’s Palestinian experience as a result of eating the magic olives brings with it both acceptance and terrifying moments. While she experiences Palestinian narratives, traditions, social norms and family gatherings, Ida is also immersed in the realities of Israel’s colonial violence, and finds herself in the same predicaments as other Palestinians trying to evade the brutality of the Israeli Defence Forces.
Back in Boston, facing the day of the presentation, Ida presents a more determined character, one that has connected with her roots and is able to communicate them to an audience. Murad’s writing is engaging and emotional, making the Palestinian experience tangible to a young audience. A Jewish writer married to a Palestinian, Murad is meticulous in her narrations and her engagement with Palestinians is based on observation, not appropriation, which allows space for the Palestinian narrative to thrive.