BOOKMARK: Suad Amiry talks about her new book “Golda Slept Here”, which traces the relationship of Palestinian families with their lost homes
It is always rewarding to pay close attention to the names of Suad Amiry’s books. The Palestine-based author of Sharon and My Mother-in-Law, Menopausal Palestine and Nothing to Lose but Your Life has now come up with Golda Slept Here. Golda refers to Golda Meir, a former prime minister of Israel, who famously said of Palestinians, “It was not as though…we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.”
Paradoxically, she lived in an erstwhile Arab house in Jerusalem, whose history too she tried to erase. Golda Slept Here tells the story of this and other such houses, of those who lived in them, and of what happened to them when one people gained a homeland and another lost theirs.
The trigger for the book, published by Women Unlimited as part of its Arabesque series, was a peaceful demonstration five years ago of Arab Palestinians from East Jerusalem, who had lost their homes in West Jerusalem after the 1948 Nakba. Roughly 20 owners, including Suad, decided to pay homage to their homes by standing in front of them, just looking at them. “When we used to stop at these homes, I would look up at the Israeli families, and see them looking from behind the curtains, looking down or going away. They never came out. That experience really moved me,” she says. Although her parents too had to leave their home in 1948, and she inherited their trauma, Suad avoided writing about it till now, “like a patient avoids a psychologist”.
An architect by training, Suad is the founder-director of RIWAQ: the Centre for Architectural Conservation, which aims to protect cultural heritage in Palestine’s villages, and make conservation beneficial to communities. “I built new buildings, but I have decided that it is better to protect what we have. I don’t need to be egocentric, it’s important that I protect my history. I don’t deal with celebrities in my architectural work, I don’t build villas for people, it is very much about normal people. In my writing too I deal with normal people,” she says.
While in Nothing To Lose But Your Life Suad journeys illegally with Murad, a Palestinian labourer, into Israel, in Golda Slept Here she focuses on a motley set of characters. Apart from Huda Imam, who led the aforementioned protest and who the author calls the “Joan of Arc of Palestinian memory”, the book features Andoni Baramki, a Palestinian architect who built several houses in West Jerusalem, and Suad herself. Through these characters, the book makes the important journey from the political to the personal. “Palestine has been abstracted by politicians. Everyone is talking about negotiations, settlements, the right of return. But at the same time occupation is about forbidding people from living. It is preventing people from having a normal life,” she says.
All of these characters have one thing in common: an unhealthy obsession with loss. Huda goes to her house every two weeks to pick fruit from the garden. “Every other week, the Israeli owner calls the police. Every other week, the police come and arrest Huda, throw her into jail for one night, and interrogate her the next morning. She looks at them and says, ‘just tell me where did I go wrong? If your father planted a tree, wouldn’t you go and pick up the fruit of the tree?’”
In 1948, a house Andoni Baramki built in West Jerusalem and loved very much ended up on the Israeli side, while he ended up in East Jerusalem, then a part of Jordan. “Between 1948 and 1967, Baramki used to go very slowly on a very high building on the West Bank and look at his house on Saturdays, when the Israeli army went away. For 20 years, he was watching his house from that roof. You would think he was watching a woman on the other side.” When Israel annexed East Jerusalem on the first day, even under curfew, he wanted to go and see his beloved home. “Everybody in his family thought he was absolutely crazy,” says Suad.
Suad also writes about how Israel still continues to see Palestinians as a non-existent people. She mocks the Israeli nomenclature which treats Palestinians as ‘absentees’, and also the absurd new building regulations, designed to marginalise them further. But her characteristic humour is underwritten by a deep sorrow for Palestine. She says, “The most difficult thing about being Palestinian is the obsession of being Palestinian. We always talk about Palestine being occupied by Israelis. It is heartbreaking, but the most difficult thing for me is how Palestine occupies me. If you ask me what is your dream in life, it’s to forget for one hour that I am Palestinian.”