Suad Amiry is a Palestinian architect whose sense of irony matches her reverence for buildings and her pain at the disappearance of the Palestine of her youth — the loss of houses and villages and of Palestinian families she knew.
In her first book, Sharon and My Mother-in-Law (2003) during the 10-month siege of Ramallah in 2002, Suad Amiry presented an account of living under Israeli occupation in Ramallah. She writes as I imagine she speaks — smart, witty, never leaving the frustration of barricades, curfews, and checkpoints far from her ironic dialogue. Even in the dire political circumstances of her refugee status, she includes the irony of her family’s situation. She considers that she is trapped under a double Occupation in Ramallah: that of the Israelis outside her house and that of her mother-in-law inside the house. The book was an immediate success, translated into 19 languages, the last one in Arabic. The book was a bestseller in France, and was awarded in 2004 the prestigious Viareggio Prize in Italy.
My favorite scene in this book occurs as the Israeli tanks are rolling into Ramallah. Suad is trying to get her mother-in-law packed and to safety in her own house in another part of Ramallah. But her 92-year-old mother-in-law Um Salim is slow to move, fretting over what clothes to pack, what jewelry she will need. Her slowness causes Amiry to have a minor meltdown. When Um Salim insists on packing up her jewelry, Amiry says “ ‘Never mind, just leave it. We’ll come back and get it.’” Her mother-in-law replies, “ ‘That’s what we said in 1948 when we left our house in Jaffa.’”
In her new book, however, the balance is more tragic, less comic. But she remains more a storyteller than a writer. One can imagine her dictating the books, bringing her characters to light as quickly as she talks, spiced with the laughter that peppers her speech. Since publishing her first gem of a story, another decade of occupation has passed. Thus in Golda Slept Here her wit is a bit strained. While her sassy tone is diminished in the new book, her love for the buildings and the villages of Palestine are more foregrounded. The absence of old Palestine is more important than the sitcom irony of struggling with the soldiers. The constant presence of the soldiers brandishing their AK-47s, the checkpoints and the tricky passports that forbid travel to the houses and villages of the grandparents have taken much of the brightness out of the sky –and out of the narrative. Throughout the West Bank farmland is stolen by illegal settlers month after month, so that now Palestinians end up buying milk from the very settlers who are raising cows on the land of the farmers who are without vegetables, grain, and yes, even milk.
In an interview with an Italian reviewer, Amiry explained her primary reason for writing Golda Slept Here:
“The idea of this book is to talk about the personal and psychological losses of individuals in Palestine. In general people have been writing about Palestine as a political conflict and this work of mine tries to climb down from the political level into the communal level, telling a story of a nation, a group, and finally to the personal narrative. For me it is about the houses…” (Trans from Italian).
For Suad Amiry it has always been about the houses. In 1991 Suad founded RIWAQ: the Center for Architectural Conservation, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and restoring Palestinian buildings, which received the Aga Khan prize for Architectural Restoration. As Director of RIWAQ, Amiry harnessed her boundless energy with the skills of students, architects, archaeologists, and historians. RIWAQ embarked on a Registry of Historic Buildings, a thirteen-year project (1994-2007) resulting in the publication of three volumes that include detailed histories, maps, and photos of approximately 420 villages in sixteen districts across the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Gaza. In the past decade Amiry’s powerful vision has evolved from merely preserving Palestine’s cultural heritage to providing skill-building training for residents, and community economic development for neighborhoods, villages, and municipalities. Slowly both historic buildings and public spaces have been rehabilitated into community activity hubs–saving the Palestine of today for the free Palestine of the future.
Within the pages of Golda, the reader can feel the grief and loss of the pre-1948 Jerusalem in the creation of RIWAQ, but the trauma of each individual is shown even more in the characters in the novel. Amiry shows us her parents’ generation, the refugees who thought they would be returning to their home in Jaffa in a few weeks, as the Israelis had assured them in 1948. They packed lightly, as though going on a short vacation. Her mother-in-law Umm Salim (from Sharon and My Mother in Law) makes another appearance, and Amiry’s mentor, the predominant architect of Palestine, Andoni Baramki, is the master of the intellectual and emotional views of the destruction of Palestinian homes and villages. The renowned Baramki makes a list of the material losses of his life, from the whole of Palestine to his mother’s crochet box. His wife’s books, his children’s toys, family photo albums are all gone. Amiry creates a scene between Andoni Baramki, his very expensive Israeli lawyer, and the Israeli judge that could be a script for the Marx brothers.
Courtroom October 1968
“Your Honour, thanks to the judgment of the Court, now that the occupier of Architect Andoni’s house has been evicted, my client is seeking a court ruling that would allow him to go home.”
Andoni liked the use of the word ‘occupier’ with reference to the Israeli squatter. If he succeeded in getting this small occupier out of his house, perhaps he could eventually get the big Occupier out of his country.
. . . .
“Here are the blueprints for the house, and here are the house keys,” said Andoni, pulling out the bunch of keys he had carried in his pocket for the past twenty years How much simpler could it be? It only needs your consent, Sir.”
“Well, Mr. Baramki, I wish it were that simple, but unfortunately, it is not. There is a small detail you seem to have missed. You are an absentee,” the judge declared after a pause.
“Absentee,” Andoni looked questioningly at his lawyer, who remained silent.
“You are an absentee landlord and consequently your home is absentee property.” Realizing the absurdity of what he had just said, the Judge avoided looking at Andoni.
“Absent? Absent? How can I be absent?”
“An absentee,” the judge corrected him.
“How can I be an absentee when I am standing right in front of your Honor?”
Sensing Andoni’s anger, the judge added, “It’s nothing personal, Mr. Baramki; there are hundreds of thousands of Arabs who are considered absentees, just like you. All Palestinian refugees, whether present or absent, are considered absentees,” explained the judge.
“Sir, the Palestinians are ‘absentees’ only because you do not allow them to be present. And those of us who are present are considered absent. We can never win.”
“Sir. Why is that when it comes to paying taxes to the Israeli government, you do not consider us absentees, but when it comes to getting our property back, we are considered absentees?”
“Well, Mr. Baramki, I am afraid that is the law. (49-52)
Suad’s cousin Huda is another character filled with the stubbornness of a Palestinian attached to her father’s home, her family’s land. From her teenage years, she goes to the old house in West Jerusalem and wanders through the garden like a ghost, a witness to the theft. Suad thinks of her as “the Joan of Arc of Palestinian Memory,” because even in adulthood, Huda continues to deal with this trauma and to face it literally in person. That image drives her to knock on the door of the family house, the house of the occupying family, every week, insistent on witnessing the Israeli presence and her family’s absence. Huda explains her actions to Suda:
“One day I entered out house and found the Israeli family that had just bought the ground floor of our villa from Kaplan. I had the satisfaction of telling them that this was my family house. Meanwhile I started loading some of the floor tiles that the contractor had put aside to reuse into the trunk of my car. All I remember is that Mrs. Blumberg and I started screaming at each other, and then shoving each other until we found ourselves on the floor. Since that day the house war between the Blumberg family and me has never ceased.
“Now whenever Yo’av spots me or my car, he calls the police and blocks my way with his father’s car until they arrive. So now I have learned to park far away so that I can run before the police arrive.” (102-03)
Huda’s narrative continues until the unlucky day when she is caught and tossed into prison for a few days for trespassing. I share in Suad’s frustration with not having witnessed the final scene of Huda’s story, in which the Israeli police arrive, handcuff her, and toss her in the back of the police van.
Perhaps it is because of Huda’s prideful strength that finally after years of refusing to cast eyes upon her family home, Suad shares the desire to visit the elegant house in Jaffa, to assert her ownership if only for a moment. After sharing her parents’ heart-breaking devastation at seeing their villa occupied by Israelis, Suad vowed to continue visiting the house as often as possible, until the house is no longer occupied, as a constant reminder of whose house it is. She admits, “That vow has since become an obsession. An obsession that over the years has become as heavy as life itself.”