Reading the Middle East

By N. S. MorrisJanuary 8, 2016

Reading the Middle East
ISRAEL IS NOT QUITE the size of New Jersey. The occupied West Bank is slightly smaller than Delaware. And the Gaza Strip is a bit more than twice the size of Washington, DC. Yet this region occupies an outsized place in the world’s imagination, and the appetite for books about it seems insatiable, with several new titles appearing in English every few months. A quick internet search turns up dozens of book lists with hundreds of titles published in the past decade on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Or should I say the Palestine-Israel conflict? Or the Zionist-Palestinian conflict? Any writer of nonfiction who wades into this region understands the hazard each word choice constitutes, potentially signaling a hidden bias, or at least a hint as to the whether the author subscribes to one narrative or another of these two peoples locked in a territorial war, frequently described as “intractable.”

For this reason, many worthy personal memoirs written by Palestinians and Israelis — or by Jews and Arabs from other countries — reach no great mass of unaligned readers, and are often overlooked by critics. Academics and political insiders analyzing the situation are often addressing those already in-the-know, who have long ago formed their fundamental views on the conflict.

But beyond how an author navigates partisan quicksand when writing about the Middle East lies another, more intriguing question: How can a writer add something new to this ever-growing literary archive and attract the uninitiated reader? How does one contribute something different and compelling about a conflict that has been examined from myriad angles over decades? How to satisfy both the Middle East mavens and the curious, caring readers who are so intimidated by the history — and the ferocity of the emotions attached to it — that they simply avoid nonfiction books about the region altogether?

Increasingly, a writer needs an access point, a micro-focus, a close-up lens — even a gimmick: one small story through which larger historical truths can be elucidated anew.

This past year both Wall Street Journal reporter Dion Nissenbaum and USC Annenberg journalism professor Sandy Tolan each published their own site-specific tales to further enlighten us on the epic story of Jews and Arabs in what used to be British Mandatory Palestine. In A Street Divided: Stories from Jerusalem’s Alley of God Nissenbaum offers a close-up of Assael Street in the Jerusalem neighborhood Abu Tor, one of a few “mixed” residential areas in the city. The street was forged from part of the no-man’s-land border area the 1948 ceasefire delineated between Jordan and the newly formed state of Israel after what Israelis call the War of Independence, and Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe in Arabic. Since Israel’s 1967 takeover of East Jerusalem, Assael Street (Hebrew translation: made by God) has been at times a model of co-existence and, during tenser times, a magnifier of the tribal divisions and cultural clashes that plague the region.

In his introduction to A Street Divided Nissenbaum feels the need to address his Jewish-sounding name by telling the reader his father was Jewish, his mother Catholic, he was raised without religion, and has since 2010 “embraced” Islam after meeting a Pakistani-Texan doctor whom he later married. He asks the reader to not dwell on whether he terms an area “disputed” or “occupied,” nor to look to this book for a road map to “solve” the conflict. The stories he tells are instead a “snapshot of a small street that was, is, and may always be the front line for one of the world’s most intractable conflicts.” (There it is again, that word intractable.) Those stories include how international diplomacy was required to return a stray horse to its owner, and at another time to let a group of nuns from a French hospital at the edge of no-man’s-land recover a set of dentures that a patient had dropped over the line. The book recounts an almost Romeo-and-Juliet tale of cross-cultural childhood friendship, and various incidents of aggression and kindness that defy easy black-and-white, good-or-bad, perpetrator-victim interpretations of history and politics. Nissenbaum’s themes are the classics of hope and despair, which exist on each side. The book shines a light on a few ordinary people caught in the fray.

Sandy Tolan, a radio journalist and writer of research-based creative nonfiction, opens his Children of the Stone: The Power of Music in a Hard Land with a caveat. His narrative of a former stone-throwing Palestinian youth who grew up to found a music conservatory in the West Bank city of Ramallah is “inherently about one people’s tragedies,” he writes. “Readers should not expect the traditional journalistic approach — that is, the parallel narratives of Palestinians and Israelis.” Tolan instead provides more than 100 pages of research notes to back up his choice of words. He exposes the day-to-day indignities of life under Israeli occupation, and recounts the political backdrop to the personal journey of Ramzi Hussein Aburedwan, as he learns the viola and ultimately founds Al Kamandjati (The Violinist) music school. Along the way, Children of the Stone also provides an insider glimpse into the relationship between conductor Daniel Barenboim and late Palestinian academic Edward Said, and the evolution of their West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, made up of musicians from Israel and several Arab and Muslim countries.

In his 2006 book The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, Tolan also chose a single access point through which to tell the region’s complicated history. In it, he sensitively describes the tough friendship between Dalia Eshkenazi Landau, the daughter of Romanian Jewish immigrants who settled in Ramla, and Palestinian Bashir Khairi, who in 1967 knocked on her door to look at the house his family lost when it was forced to flee in 1948. Also meticulously researched, with 65 pages of notes, Tolan uses the beloved backyard lemon tree to drive home the shared humanity of the successive inhabitants of one home.

In all three cases, this “micro Middle East” approach works well. Another who used the technique is Budapest-based British journalist Adam LeBor, whose 2006 City of Oranges: An Intimate History of Arabs and Jews in Jaffa, introduces us to a few key Jewish and Palestinian residents of the ancient port city just south of Tel Aviv, the prism through which he tells the region’s history.

Nissenbaum is not the first to use a street — as opposed to a house as in Tolan’s The Lemon Tree or a town as in LeBor’s City of Oranges — as the microcosm through which to tell a story of war. Two decades ago, Barbara Demick published Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood, which emerged from her reporting for the Philadelphia Inquirer during the 1992–1995 Bosnian War. In bringing to life the personalities and travails of residents on one street, Demick offered an entry point to understanding a conflict that readers of that era also found tragic and impenetrable. The book was recently reissued with a coda telling what became of the main characters in the 20 years since.

Demick’s in-depth rendering of a few key characters behind the news headlines was inspired by her professor at Yale, John Hersey, who pioneered the form in his seminal 1946 Hiroshima, a classic of literary journalism. Later, as bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times in both Seoul and Beijing, Demick again adapted the technique by choosing a few individuals among the nearly 200 North Korean exiles she had interviewed, in order to recreate life in the city of Chongjin. The result, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Award and won the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. It was the first major book about North Korea about regular people, not policy, and raised the curtain on a place rarely seen by the American reader.

Writers on the Middle East face the opposite challenge: finding yet another curtain to peer behind in a place of which we see quite a bit. In 2014, Yossi Klein Halevi employed this character-driven approach in his Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation. Klein Halevi, a former journalist and an American immigrant to Israel, focuses on seven members of Israel’s 55th Brigade, which took Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War. One became an anti-Zionist who was later imprisoned. Several of the paratroopers became leaders in the West Bank settler movement. Klein Halevi’s literary device is to view a moment in time — the 1967 capture of Jerusalem — as the turning point which spawned what he has called “two utopian fantasies”: the peace movement and the movement for Greater Israel, the two camps within Israel that since that fateful battle have tried to determine the long term outcome of the Six Day War.


It’s basic to journalism that one needs a fresh angle, and that telling the stories of ordinary people brings politics to life and humanizes complex policy questions. “Get facts and faces,” Vince Gonzales, head of graduate journalism programs at the University of Southern California, counsels his students. No surprise then that literary journalism comprises its own sub-genre, situated on the nonfiction spectrum between academic and other rhetorical writings, and memoir. Also called narrative nonfiction, it uses the tools of fiction to reconstruct true events in story-like fashion — complete with character, scene, and dialogue. Those who do it best can move a reader emotionally in ways that neither a daily news feature nor a screed arguing a particular political premise or historical point can.

In A Street Divided, for example, Nissenbaum introduces us to three generations of a Palestinian family, beginning with Hijazi Bazlamit, a shoemaker shot by a sniper in no-man’s-land during border tensions in 1951. Forty-five years later, the same family experienced another death when an Israeli soldier also killed Hijazi’s grandson Jawad, in this case after a rubber bullet hit his eye during a 1996 clash at the al-Aqsa mosque compound. We also meet the Jewish “beatnik” Hedva Harekhavi who describes herself as a “dreamer” “living a fairy tale” when she camped out in abandoned Arab homes after Israel’s 1967 victory.

For his part, Tolan exhibits novelistic flair and a tireless penchant for the telling detail. His approach to character is immersive, and his treatment of the politics swirling around its characters is comprehensive. He punctuates his nearly three-decade story with four italicized interludes narrating an episode in July 2013 when five Palestinian musicians were made to get off a bus at an Israeli military checkpoint while on the way from Ramallah to Jerusalem to play Beethoven at a church concert. Stranded, they are forced to use a smuggler’s rope ladder to climb with their instruments over the separation wall that now divides most of Jerusalem from the West Bank. The episode injects a small measure of suspense. We don’t learn until the last page of the more than 300-page book, whether they get to play Beethoven that evening or not.

Both authors keep themselves out of the story, their focus squarely on their chosen tales — Nissenbaum’s street in Jerusalem, and Tolan’s young protagonist coming of age through music. Leaning further toward memoir are the personal accounts of journalists and other writers, dozens of whom have also published in the past decade. Since the mid-1990s the journalistic injunction against writing oneself into the story has fallen by the wayside — frequently to good effect. Journalistic accounts are usually an amalgam of reportage, memoir, and personal essay that offer their narrators more flexibility than do the more rigorous, research-based nonfiction forms favored by Nissenbaum, Tolan, LeBor, Klein Halevi, and others.

In 2011, came This Burning Land: Lessons from the Front Lines of the Transformed Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, by Greg Myre, who reported for the Associated Press and The New York Times, together with his wife Jennifer Griffin, the Fox News correspondent. The couple takes the reader along as they dodge bullets during the al-Aqsa Intifada while juggling the demands of their two young daughters, both born while they were on assignment. In 2010, Martin Fletcher, former Israel correspondent for NBC News, published Walking Israel: A Personal Search for the Soul of a Nation. Fletcher, who is married to an Israeli and has lived in the country for some 30 years, sets out on foot down the Mediterranean coast from the border with Lebanon to the border with the Gaza Strip. Fletcher’s addition to a growing nonfiction sub-genre — the walking memoir — introduces the reader to a host of colorful inhabitants along that seaside route.

Further along the memoir side of the spectrum is Ambivalence: Adventures in Israel and Palestine, by Canadian poet and playwright Jonathan Garfinkel, which came out in 2007. Garkinkel’s quasi-comic, self-deprecating journey of discovery, from synagogue services in Toronto to a West Bank refugee camp, falls into another growth area in Middle East nonfiction: a secular Jew’s struggle to reconcile his or her own identity with that of Israel.

The biggest recent splash in that pond came two years ago when Haaretz newspaper columnist Ari Shavit published My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, in which he grapples with the displacement of indigenous Arabs that the creation of his country caused, while at the same time celebrating Israel’s accomplishments. Shavit’s contemplations quickly became a breakout hit among those American readers who have a hard time digesting the uncomfortable truths of Israel’s founding unless they are presented by an Israeli whose moral code can accommodate the Palestinian plight. Shavit exposes the unjust actions of some of his countrymen, past and present, but he views them as part of an existential struggle for Jewish survival. “If need be, I’ll stand by the damned. Because I know that if it wasn’t for them, I would not have been born,” he writes of the military personnel who in 1948 machine gunned more than 100 Arab civilians in the village of Lydda and expelled thousands more. “They did the dirty, filthy work that enables my people, myself, my daughter, and my sons to live.”

Another book-length personal essay is Jeffrey Goldberg’s 2007 Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. Goldberg, now a national correspondent for The Atlantic, unabashedly identifies as a “tribal” Jew as he recounts his attempts to maintain a friendship with a Palestinian whom he first met when he served in the Israeli army as a “counselor” in the Ketziot prison in the Negev desert. Goldberg poses the question that lies beneath so many of the narratives on Israel and Palestine: does one people’s emancipation necessarily negate the other’s? And he, too, has a hook, an angle, a metaphor — a prisoner and a guard across barbed wire — that offers a portal into the larger conundrum.

Which brings us back to the question of whether there are enough new insights to warrant a constant cascade of nonfiction titles from this troubled region. The answer, as proved by the publishing rate, must be “yes.” Each author applies his or her own unique lens, and each new wave of readers that discovers Israel and Palestine will keep the market humming. The very intractability of the conflict, the legitimate aspirations — and the violent acts — of human beings on both sides, provides ample material for the presses. One could argue that “micro” Middle East stories such as Nissenbaum’s and Tolan’s might not have made it to hardcover, but instead would have dwelled in the domain of vividly told magazine pieces, had they been about any other area of the world. But Israel-Palestine never seems to get tired. For the conflict addicts, checking out the latest offering may be like scratching an itch. It’s hard to resist an inexhaustible desire to go deeper and uncover more.

Those who routinely immerse themselves in the Israel-Palestine beat can count on a steady diet of books pegged to major news events. This past summer two came out on the 2014 war in Gaza, Mads Gilbert’s Night in Gaza and Max Blumenthal’s The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance, (both reviewed by Sandy Tolan for LARB in September). November saw Dan Ephron’s Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel, published to coincide with 20-year anniversary of the event which many believe marked the beginning of the end of prospects for peace. And US-Israel relations is a current hot topic, sparked by the chilliness between President Obama and Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and their rift over how to handle Iran’s nuclear program. In the past half year came Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide by former Israeli Ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, and more recently, Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama, by Democratic policy insider Dennis Ross.


Over the years, I have filled three fairly wide shelves with Middle East books and I’m a mere rookie at this game, not even trying to keep up with all the new titles. I would position myself somewhere between what I call the Middle East “addict” and the “compassionate-but-daunted” general reader — both of whom might find something of value in Nissenbaum’s and Tolan’s contributions to the bookshelf. There will be those in the former group who scrutinize every word of this essay for my leanings and perhaps write in to protest a subtle innuendo here or an oversight or omission there. To those in the latter group, I offer some advice: if you read only two nonfiction books ever about Israelis and Palestinians, they should be: A Tale of Love and Darkness, the exquisite memoir by acclaimed Israeli novelist Amos Oz, and Once Upon A Country: A Palestinian Life, the eloquent autobiography that Palestinian philosophy professor Sari Nusseibeh penned in response.

Then, feel free to turn your attention to China or Cuba. Or even Canada, which, incidentally, is nearly 400 times the size of Israel and the Palestinian territories and has about three times the population.


Other books mentioned in this essay:

The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan, City of Oranges by Adam LeBor, Logavina Street by Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick, Hiroshima by John Hersey, Like Dreamers by Yossi Klein Halevi, This Burning Land by Greg Myre and Jennifer Griffin, Walking Israel by Martin Fletcher, Ambivalence by Jonathan Garfinkel, My Promised Land by Ari Shavit, Prisoners by Jeffrey Goldberg, Night in Gaza by Mads Gilbert, The 51 Day War by Max Blumenthal, Killing a King by Dan Ephron, Ally by Michael Oren, Doomed to Succeed by Dennis Ross.


N.S. Morris is a California-based writer and former Middle East correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers (now McClatchy).

LARB Contributor

N. S. (Nomi) Morris is a writer and lecturer based in Ojai, California. She is a former Middle East Bureau Chief for Knight Ridder Newspapers (now McClatchy).


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