Palestinian author Suad Amiry shatters stereotypes even as she makes her readers laugh and cry
Fifty and thereabouts is a delicate age for women. Delicate, not as in damsel-in-distress, but as in easily flying off the handle when it comes to unjust or ridiculous ideas of what a woman should and should not be. Most men would be well-advised not to cross a 50-something woman.
But why should these issues impinge on a discussion about an author, architect and lifelong associate of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO)? Not just because Suad Amiry, an architect by training, discovered the author in her at 50, but because her latest book, released this past week in New Delhi by Women Unlimited, is titled “Menopausal Palestine”.
Its irreverent title is only a representative sampling of Amiry's refreshing take on an international crisis that has broken hearts and wrecked lives for half a century, a troubled legacy that has become a part of the world's political landscape. If laughter could kill, Amiry's books should have ended the Israeli occupation of contested territories by now.
Her first book, “Sharon and my Mother-in-Law”, provided readers in western countries the real — read non-stereotypical — face of Palestinian life under occupation. Now, with “Menopausal Palestine”, this unusual voice from West Asia is available to Indian readers too.
Amiry, in India for the launch, explains that while she is parodying the situation with her cheeky title, it is also true that menopause is a time of reflection on one's achievements and goals, as well as a time of insecurity. At the same time, “there is a positive side too, a certainty, more confidence,” she points out. “It's the same with the PLO. They lost their popularity, lost their beauty. So they are reflecting, where did we go wrong, what should we have done,” she says, referring to the PLO's massive election defeat to the hardline Hamas party.
The vote and what it stood for troubled Amiry enough to do some introspection. “We grew up with the PLO,” she says. “It was a very secular society. I personally grew up in a very secular family. All that is happening in Iraq or Palestine is very recent. But let's not forget, 33 per cent of the vote went to Hamas. That means 66 per cent are still against it!”
When she got together with her friends in ‘CRIME' (Committee of Ramallah Independent Menopausal Enterprise — yes, really!) to record their stories, she realised that none of these women friends who have dedicated their lives to the Palestine cause were ‘fully' Palestinian. Most were of mixed parentage: some were part Arab — Amiry herself is half Syrian — while one is American and one Israeli!
“These are not Palestinian women, they are women for Palestine,” she states. “So what I am trying to say is in the Arab world, and particularly Palestine, things have changed over the last 20 years.”
The PLO has always been a secular organisation, she emphasises, saying she “never dreamt” Hamas would one day come to power.
Calling the present situation “a time of division,” she points out how for the generation of the '50s and '60s, there were issues of a wider nature that exercised young people: “Women's rights, poverty, equity, the environment…. I grew up to care about these issues. To defend Vietnam or South Africa you don't need to be Hindu or Muslim.”
With the hardline conservatism emanating from the world's sole remaining superpower, issues of identity have been skewed. “My identity is like a book,” she notes. “One day I am a sister, one day a mother, one day an Arab… It depends on the context.”
In the current political scenario, she is seen as a Muslim and constantly told she is not “a typical Palestinian woman”. Worse, “you are defined as a Sunni or as a Shiite or Kurdish.” As for stereotypes, people fall for the ploys of politicians who wish to divide, and start living the roles doled out, she says.
In the West, many Muslim women have taken to wearing the hijab as a way of declaring their identity. “Yes but this has come as a reaction. Challenge her if her mother or grandmother ever wore the hijab. It's a reinvention, a reconstruction of a tradition. It's not an image that existed before.” If these women really wanted to turn to old traditions they would be wearing embroidered dresses, says Amiry.
As for becoming an author at 50, Amiry says, “It's great. This book has changed my life, it gave me an opportunity to go around the world and talk about Palestine.”
Life under occupation is preventing “three and a half million Palestinians from living a normal life.” What the media should do, instead of looking for heroes, is to cover the stories of “people who want to act, to make music.” Because the crux, as Amiry puts it, is, “We don't want to be heroes. We want the right to live.”