Under my byline

Free to laugh

Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 23 January 2010

OVERLEAF 64

“Paris, Summer 1967”, the section is titled, and in it the youthful Reem leaves to study in “everybody’s dream city”, where she believes she will be free in a way that is impossible at home. No sooner does she arrive, however, than the 1967 Six-Day War breaks out between Israel and its Arab neighbours. “It took a day in Paris,” Reem recounts, “for me to realise one never really leaves home.”

Her boyfriend of several years, Sami, of whom her father greatly disapproves, has found his way to Milan; the two decide to marry at last. Reem writes home to tell her father — and “in no time I found him right there on my doorstep, in Paris”. They fight, father and daughter, “for a few long days”, and finally the father goes home defeated.

Reading this, I laughed out loud, almost with relief. Now I can hardly explain why. The words were not funny, but the telescoping of sentiment and timescale (she wrote, pouf, he appeared) made them seem so, and perhaps I was lulled by the fact that the father and Sami have already had an angry but near-comic encounter before, so one imagines the venom has been drawn.

Not so. In the next para, Reem receives a photograph from home. It shows her parents and brother dressed in black and looking miserable. It is to declare “the death of the daughter they once had”.

It is a severe shock. And I took this little story fragment as a metaphor for the book as whole. Menopausal Palestine: Women at the Edge is a collection of short coming-of-age narratives from real life — of 10 women, all involved in one way or other with the Palestine liberation movement in its secular, non-Hamas phase from the 1960s to the 1990s, not all of them Palestinian by birth, but all Palestinian by choice, and all close friends of Suad Amiry, the collector and narrator of their stories.

In addition, these women are now all either menopausal or on the brink of that new state, or non-state. They have a supper club called CRIME (Committee of Ramallah Independent Menopausal Enterprise), and celebrate their freedom from youth raucously over a meal at a nice restaurant (with the sleek bodyguards of other diners outside). The meal is the closing scene, a way for Amiry to show us these tremendous yet quite ordinary women as they are in the present time.

There is comedy here — how could a group of loud, confident, expensively dressed, menopausal women around a dining table not be funny? — and Amiry uses its potential generously though with a light touch. This is not deep political farce with a core of bitterness, which is the sort we are by and large used to. The core of Amiry’s tales of others is open, welcoming, secular in the best sense of the word; secular in the way Leftist activism once was, before religion trumped ideology. The language in translation (ironed out by Ritu Menon of Women Unlimited, the feminist publisher which is now celebrating its 25th anniversary) is a little artless, but the fierce and free characters, the plain telling and the clear structure turn that flaw into a gift.

Amiry is amusing in person, too, especially when she tells stories of life under Israeli occupation. How staring fixedly at a soldier spooked him and got her in trouble, how she nonplussed security staff at Tel Aviv airport by telling them she went “dancing” in London, how she visits Jerusalem on her dog Nura’s Israeli passport (with Amiry’s photo on it).

Language is always warped by oppressors — note the Israeli “separation fence”, which imprisons and dehumanises the Palestinians, and, as Amiry says, the barbaric, careless way in which Israelis use Arabic — but here is the antidote: generosity, universality, clarity and humour. To see it is intensely reassuring; and then one wonders, uncomfortably: just how are our own government and majority seen in Kashmir, Nagaland, Maoist-land? Do they laugh at us? What jokes do they tell?

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Menopausal Palestine: Women at the Edge
Suad Amiry
Women Unlimited
pp xviii + 162

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Other books by Suad Amiry include Sharon and My Mother-in-Law: Ramallah Diaries (2003), If this is Life (2005), No Sex in the City (2007) and Murad, Murad (2009). Not all are in English yet; here is the list on the website of her Italian publishers, Feltrinelli. Amiry is also an architect, director of the Riwaq Centre for Architectural Conservation in Ramallah.

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