Suad Amiry’s stories of Palestinians give a new perspective on survival — laughing in the face of adversity.
This has been quite a fortnight for Indian women, and for some Indian men. Two young women have focussed national attention on the misuse of power, on sexual harassment at the workplace and on the challenges of pursuing cases of sexual assault.
We have also watched the game of competitive politics muddying an issue that should have remained firmly focused on issues of gender. Instead, helped largely by some sections of the media, it has deteriorated into a slanging match, of a kind that is all too familiar in this election season.
Amid all the heat and noise generated, what did we forget? Plenty. For one, we forgot that the issue was violence against women. We forgot, that it is not just these two women but thousands like them who can never speak up because the predators are in their homes, in their neighbourhoods, men they know and even trust. And we in the media forgot that going for the overkill on one case will do nothing to educate our readers and viewers about the reality of sexual violence that women confront.
In the midst of all this madness, it was a relief and inspiring to listen to a voice of sanity. To a woman who can tell you something about the insanity of living daily under the cloud of violence. About the ability of women to work around this state of madness. And about how, despite life’s grimness, you can have a sense of humour.
The woman I refer to is the remarkable Palestinian writer and architect, Suad Amiry. She was in India at the end of last month to release her new book, Golda slept here (published by Women Unlimited).
Amiry is an architect. Her organisation, Riwaq, has done amazing work in restoring and conserving heritage buildings in Palestine. These structures have been restored to create spaces for the local community who live in a perpetual state of siege. Riwaq has created over one hundred such “spaces for change”, as she calls them.
When you listen to Amiry, you get a new perspective on survival, on how to deal with adversity, on how to make people laugh even though what you narrate is heart-wrenchingly tragic.
Born in Damascus to a Syrian mother and Palestinian father, Amiry chose to make her home in Ramallah, on the West Bank. And in addition to her work as a restoration architect, she began to write about living in Palestine where, as she says, you have to forget about logic because “nothing makes sense”. Amiry says she also realised that Palestinians speak about their collective loss but hardly ever about personal loss. Her latest book records the stories of Palestinians who had owned and lived in beautiful homes in Jerusalem but who, like other Palestinians, were turned into refugees overnight in 1948 when Jerusalem was divided. Some of them moved to East Jerusalem, others further, to other cities, other countries.
In 1967, when the Israelis occupied East Jerusalem and made it, once again, one city, many of these Palestinians thought they would be entitled to recover their properties. Instead, they found their homes occupied by Israeli families. What hurt the most was that these families had no idea of the past, of the people who had designed and built these beautiful homes, who had lived in them for generations, and who had to abandon them not out of choice but because of the force of circumstances. As if that was not enough, under Israeli law, these Palestinian home owners were considered “absentee” landlords and therefore had no rights over their own property.
Of course, these stories are familiar from the Partition between India and Pakistan and in other parts of the world where forceful displacements of people have taken place. But the poignancy of the stories that Amiry recounts in her book are special because these are people who now live in the same city, they are not “absent” and yet the law will not acknowledge their presence. As architect Andoni Baramki, who built many beautiful buildings in Jerusalem tells the judge hearing his case for repossession of his home, “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.”
Indeed, nothing makes sense in Palestine. Except the lives of those who survive, who “lost the pillars for a sane life, a profound foundation called HOME,” as Amiry puts it. Yet who continue to fight and to hope. They have much to teach us.