April 2006

Sarah Statz

nonfiction

Sharon and My Mother-in-Law: Ramallah Diaries by Suad Amiry

For a story that took twenty years to live and write, it is a tribute to Suad Amiry’s narrative skill and the force of her personality that Sharon and My Mother-in-Law reads as quickly as it does.

Amiry’s quick pacing is even more astonishing because the narrative, told through diary entries and e-mail correspondence, primarily describes a life spent waiting: waiting for the Israeli occupation of Ramallah and other Palestinian territories to end. Waiting for the correct documentation to arrive to allow passage through numerous security checkpoints. And, perhaps most vividly, waiting out a military curfew while being stuck in the house with her mother-in-law.

Amiry, an architect and the founder of the Centre for Architectural Conservation (RIWAQ), arranges her story into two segments: her life in Ramallah from 1981 to 2000, when she first moved to the city and, in her own words, “lived, worked, fell in love, married and acquired a mother-in-law,” all while experiencing firsthand the events and effects of the first Palestinian Intifada (Uprising). The second half of the book is shorter but also more tightly focused, and covers the years 2001 through 2004, after the eruption of the Second Intifada, during which Israeli military curfews were even more stringently enforced and barriers between Israeli and Palestinian territories constructed.

While this is a powerful and personal account of a Palestinian life lived under occupation, it does not provide historical information or context. I know a bit about the history of and events in the Middle East, but halfway through the book I had to admit defeat and consult Wikipedia and newspaper searches for information about (most embarrassingly) the region’s geography, the history of the city of Ramallah (captured by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War, governed for three decades by the Israeli Civil Administration, transferred to the administration of the Palestinian Authority in 1995, re-occupied by the Israeli army in 2002), and the current state of the region and the Separation Wall. I realize these are shortcomings in my own education, but at the very least the inclusion of a map might have aided in my understanding of Amiry’s numerous comings and goings in the region. Further, if Amiry’s vignettes were purposefully arranged in any kind of thematic or stylistic order, I couldn’t discern it, which made reading her story a bit random at times.

Geography and history aside, editorial structure aside, there can be no argument that Sharon and My Mother-in-Law is a compelling read. Living a life torn between the twin urges to cooperate and ease one’s way in the world, or to defy and feel a bit of personal satisfaction, does not seem easy, but Amiry has evidently managed to do so. She also seems to have survived with her sense of humor intact: she relates the experiences of getting her dog Nura a Jerusalem passport (when she herself is unable to acquire one); the soap-operatic events in her neighborhood, which she refers to as The Bold and Not-So-Beautiful; and of course, trying to get her mother-in-law out of harm’s way. This last episode is the most simultaneously horrific and humorous: in six pages of dialogue, Amiry recounts trying to get her mother-in-law out of her home (which, in its proximity to Arafat’s compound, was effectively in a war zone), while her mother-in-law asks if she should pack her purple dress or water the plants.

Anyone who’s ever dealt with senior citizens or in-laws, even if they haven’t had to do it under military occupation, will recognize and appreciate the brilliance of those six pages. Amiry tells a personal story, using personal forms of communication, but she also provides flashes of the universal. Pretty impressive stuff, and entirely what one would expect from a woman who got through a Jerusalem checkpoint by flashing her dog’s passport and informing a soldier that “I am the driver of this Jerusalem dog.”

Sharon and My Mother-in-Law: Ramallah Diaries by Suad Amiry
Pantheon Books
ISBN: 0375423796
207 pages