June 2007

Colleen Mondor

nonfiction

Homes of the Heart: A Ramallah Chronicle by Farouq Wadi

Invaders don’t read history. What point would there be, after all, in reading anything that ran counter to their desire to invade, to expand and settle?

Farouq Wadi, a novelist and short story writer, was born in Palestine in 1949. He returned to Ramallah, the twin city of his hometown, al-Bireh, in early 1995 and late 1996 after having left while still a teenager. To some degree, Homes of the Heart: A Ramallah Chronicle is an account of any adult returning to the place of their youth, filled with recollections of how things were and mild shock at its current appearance. As we all know, however, Ramallah has changed more dramatically then most cities in the world during the past decades and continues to find itself at the center of multiple violent conflicts.

Wadi is a hopeful traveler though, the sort of memoirist who knows things are going to be different and is not constantly surprised by how much smaller things seem, or how buildings have aged in his absence. He has much more serious business to get down to, seeing the places of his youth while also commenting on the forbidding presence of the Israeli military in unfamiliar locations. He is surprised to find the old Health Department where, “my eyes had stung from drops and my cuts from iodine” is now the location of an Israeli military post. Standing there, wondering what had become of the Friends’ School which was once nearby, he finds himself forced to retreat, “in the face of a machine gun ready to target anything that moved, amid a darkness of which I already formed part.”

Interestingly, even though he has left it all behind, it is Ramallah and al-Bireh that Wadi has written about and dreamed about in his decades of exile. Thus his awkward return; his discovery of just how transformed the post-war, internecine conflicted region has become, troubles Wadi to no end. He had foolishly hoped for a happy reunion, perhaps even for revelations about who he is and how his long absence from home transformed him in unknown ways. Instead there are only quiet discoveries such as this:

Amid my mixed feelings of losing Jerusalem and longing for Ramallah, I tried to chat with the taxi driver. Perhaps he might share some of my sorrows and joys.

Since when,” I asked, “have we got to Qalandia without passing through Jerusalem?”

“Since they opened this road,” he said sarcastically, without giving any date. “We follow the roads they map out for us,” he added sadly. “It’s been that way for a long time now.”

With them. For them. We travel our cities on roads they’ve built for us.

And yet Wadi still sees himself as Palestinian. The answer to this strange relationship with place is found only a couple of pages later however, after he arrives at the Lighthouse Square, center of Ramallah since the landlocked lighthouse was built in 1923. "God! How had the town grown so old? How had it lost its memory, withholding from its son all warmth of welcome? Why had we fled from our exiles? Was it just to return to a homeland so like the exile itself?"

A “homeland so like the exile itself.” What is it like when you are in exile from a country that does not exist? How can it be to recall a place that is daily transformed from what it was, claimed and reclaimed by succeeding groups and armies? How can you go home when your home has a name only known to those who lived there -- when it lives on only because of collective will and not official sanction? I wonder perhaps if this is what it felt like to be a Native American in the 19th century -- looking for a place that is disappearing from maps and encyclopedias; looking for a country that it is only known by name.

In the midst of his visit, Wadi delves into the history of Ramallah and al-Bireh, providing readers with fascinating glimpses of the people and nations who have been involved in the area’s formation. He writes of people from thousands of years ago as if they were old friends or dear family and gives the book a measure of warmth which balances his disappointment over modern times. He is never harshly partisan when writing about Israel, although he does exhibit a strong frustration when referring to Israeli settlements. This argument will be familiar to anyone well versed in Israeli-Palestinian relations and Wadi handles it adeptly.

The book does not make any political conclusions at all, but it’s not meant to. It is simply a story about one man and his connection to the place of his birth. In that regard it is both timeless and borderless -- it is a story anyone with a love of country would both enjoy and understand.

Homes of the Heart: A Ramallah Chronicle by Farouq Wadi
Translated by Dina Bosio and Christopher Tingley
Interlink
ISBN: 1566566622
109 pages