When will all this pain end? This is perhaps the harshest phrase in the novel The Woman from Tantoura by Egyptian writer Radwa Ashour. It is a question that is repeated daily by more than 14 million Palestinians across the world for more than a century. Since the end of the first World War, Palestine and the region have been subjected to Western colonisation, starting with illegal Jewish immigration to implement the colonial project and cultivate a Zionist entity alien to the region to serve imperial interests, then the occurrence of the Nakba in 1948 and the displacement of almost a million Palestinians from their homes, the demolition of more than 500 cities and villages, ending with the occupation of the whole of historic Palestine and the imposition of unjust policies aimed at stifling the lives of Palestinians and the displacement of those who remain.
The Woman from Tantoura is named after the village of Tantoura located on the Palestinian coast, south of Haifa. This village was subjected to a terrible massacre by Zionist gangs and the novel deals with this massacre as a starting point and follows the life of a family uprooted from the village and finally settling in Lebanon to live a life as refugees. It provides an understanding of the Nakba and forced displacement of Palestinians and what it means for a person to lose their homeland and become a refugee. It also provides insight into Palestine, its history, its villages and cities, about the torments of its people and their steadfastness, about its songs, heritage and trees and about the story of its people in precise detail.
The novel is based on the storytelling of fictional characters, shedding light on a family from the village of Tantura, who were uprooted from their land after the Nakba. Ruqayyah, a 13-year-old girl, describes the daily life of a dreamy little girl who does not know what the future holds. She lives near the sea and breathes its scent morning and evening. She depicts life in the village and its simplicity, and the changes that were happening.
Elsewhere in Palestine, Zionist gangs begin to destroy villages and cities and displace residents. Then it’s Tantura’s turn. Ruqayyah remembers how they took the children with their mothers like a herd of sheep. Men were removed separately. She recalls screaming when she saw the body of her cousin among a pile of corpses, only to then see the bodies of her father and brother. Her family’s journey of displacement has now begun.
They move to nearby Fureidis, then to Hebron, then Syria and finally settle in Sidon, southern Lebanon.
Ruqayyah recalls how her mother repeatedly could not accept what her eyes had seen and spent her life telling people that her husband had been arrested and her two children fled to Egypt.
The book outlines the family’s life, Ruqayyah’s marriage and life as a mother, highlighting the Palestinian experience in Lebanon and Israel’s 1982 invasion of the country and the massacres it carried out in Sabra and Shatilla. It documents their feeling of betrayal as Arab countries and the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) did little to protect them.
Language used throughout the book allows readers to connect to Ruqayyah, becoming attached to her and feeling her struggles. This we learn is part of her son’s effort to relay the stories of Palestinians and preserve their history. But for her the memories are painful.