Palestinian writer Suad Amiry says if you do not want anger to drive you insane, you have to see the absurdity of the situation.
When Suad Amiry has dinner with 15 of her closest women friends once every two or three months in a restaurant in Ramallah, waiters compete for a chance to serve them. While the women make heads turn with their unrestrained laughter, the lucky waiter hovering around the table is able to eavesdrop on their equally unrestrained chatter about their sex lives, husbands, mothers-in-law and such other deeply fascinating topics.
They call themselves CRIME (Committee of Independent Ramallah Menopausal Enterprise) and belong to what Amiry refers to as “my menopausal PLO generation” – women activists who were in a state of shock and depression in 2006 when Hamas defeated the Palestine Liberation Organisation and religious fundamentalism scored over the leftist cause. Amiry has featured the (heavily disguised) life stories of 10 of these women in “Menopausal Palestine”, published for the very first time in English by Women Unlimited and Kali for Women, India's oldest feminist publishing house which turned 25 this year.
This book, Amiry's third, was first published in an Italian translation by Feltrinelli. Alberto Rollo of Feltrinelli nearly had a fit when he heard Amiry's preferred title. “If you put menopause on the cover nobody will buy it,” he told her. The title in Italian was “No Sex in the City”. Publisher Ritu Menon of Women Unlimited was, of course, only too keen to retain the original title.
Menon had had her eye on Amiry ever since a common friend Maria Nadotti gave her Amiry's first and hugely successful book “Sharon and my Mother-in-Law”, which kept her in splits all through. The book was translated into 20 languages and set Amiry, who is an architect by profession, on the literary path. It was born as a series of emails that she sent out to friends in 2001-02 when Ariel Sharon despatched the Israeli army to lay siege to Ramallah and virtually imprison Yasser Arafat in his own residence. Amiry spent tense hours getting her mother-in-law, who lived opposite Arafat's compound, out of harm's way and into her own home. She was closeted in with the strong-willed 91-year-old for 41 days, which “seemed like 41 years”, she recalls mirthfully. “After the Israeli occupation, this was the second occupation.”
Humour forever twinkles at the edges of Suad Amiry's demeanour. This woman whose name means “everlasting happiness” and who lives in a country of constant sorrow, does not allow the fear and humiliation of the Israeli occupation to defeat her. If you want to retain your humanity, if you do not want anger to drive you insane, she says, you have to see the absurdity of the situation. Start speaking to her and it won't be long before she comes up with yet another side-splitting anecdote about an encounter with a soldier at a checkpoint.
Barricades, security checks and body searches are part of life in Palestine. “The most annoying thing about life in Palestine is isolation and lack of movement,” she says. “We have no control over time and space. Distance has a different meaning; we don't count by the number of kilometres (but) by the number of checkpoints.” A 40-km drive could take up to three hours. A worker crossing the border on foot could take 18 precarious hours to cover 25 km. The West Bank alone has 570 checkpoints.
The crude stereotypes of Palestine that the media peddles to the world are of martyrs and suicide bombers, burqas and bloodshed. I ask Amiry to describe a typical day in her life and she begins a narration that would sound familiar to most urban middle-class people: waking up at 7.30 a.m. to have two cups of tea, stepping outside to fetch the daily Al Aiyam with her dog Noora trotting behind her, retrieving the paper from wherever the delivery boy might have thrown it (up a tree, crashing through a window) while her dog does a “noo-noo” in the garden…
Ramallah is, she says, “the most normal city in all of Palestine”. And cosmopolitan, too. On the streets you could hear English, Spanish or Portuguese being spoken; you might see a girl in a mini skirt walking with her brother who has a “full Moslem beard”, a woman with dyed punk hair next to another in a burqa. There is a perpetual feast of cultural events: it could be a Korean film fest, a Dutch film fest, Eve Ensler's famous play “The Vagina Monologues”, music concerts, art exhibitions, you name it.
It is this pluralism that Amiry and her menopausal friends fear might get eroded by narrow nationalistic forces. “Menopausal Palestine” brilliantly brings out the history of a people through deeply moving, personal accounts. One realises that none of Amiry's friends share the same race, religion or nationality, but are united by a secular outlook. Amiry says she is as much Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Christian as she is Muslim. She is not shy of saying: “This is my identity. This is who I am.”