Reviewed by Ian Lipke
To say I have read the book does it no justice unless I tell something of the tragedies that immerse themselves in the very soul, and in the darkest moments, sprinkle bright sunshine in the pages. This is a book whose tentacles source every emotion. It’s a comforting book and a tragic one. It is a story of hope in a wasteland where man spends his days thinking and plotting to kill more of the enemy, indistinguishable other than as Israeli or Palestinian. It is a terrible indictment of black deeds and an occasional deliverer of hope to the dispossessed. Throughout is death’s determination to take human life as it pleases. It does not discriminate on the grounds of nationhood, age or gender.
This book seems to have two foci, yet it doesn’t seem planned that way. One part ends and, without our immediately realizing it, we are in an aspect of the same story with a change of players. Somehow this blip in the atmosphere works. The book is told from a Palestine viewpoint. It begins with Palestinian boys, out buying weapons for use by their own side. They plan to pay for them with hashish. They find themselves in a lot of trouble when a patrol they meet near one of the controlled routes across the border plans to kill them. There is no reason for this contemplation of murder. It’s just what you do. The boys’ escape is gut-wrenching, sickening when one fails to survive.
Violence is the ever-dwelling companion, in homes and streets, in parks, and alleys serving as playgrounds, one moment alive, then the telltale sound of the drone overhead preparing to drop its deadly load. Day follows day when Israeli troops do their utmost to cause a Palestinian flare-up and consequent punishment for not holding one’s peace. Yet into such an environment creeps love in the forms of Fathi and Farida. This is a love that melds two tormented souls whose goal of having a child becomes increasingly unlikely. Saving enough money to pay for a desperate search for medical help, and then forced to wait months for permission to travel to Cairo and thence to Montreal to consult a paediatric specialist, they are astounded to discover that the uncle who was supposed to meet them at the airport in Canada, does not turn up. Stranded, with little English, in bleak Montreal, they are taken in by a kindly Canadian. The attempt to gain answers to Farida’s lack of success in falling pregnant is unresolved, and they are required to return home. Back at home, a miracle happens and in November 2005 Hamada, a son is born.
The Gaza strip and other geographical areas in dispute is the land where Hamada has his opportunity to develop into a man. He grows strong with an insatiable desire to match Kelly Slater at surfing. His zest for life appeared limitless. But fate takes what is most promising and precious. Hamada is killed in an air strike that flattens his bedroom, one incident in a continuing war of retribution. Just a day or two earlier the Palestinian position had been put by Fathi, Hamada’s father, when he gave the reason for Israel’s actions, “Because for men who believe God only loves them it’s easy to kill” (105). Hamad’s death tips his father’s mind into a single-minded determination to kill Israelis. His death soon follows, and the second part of the novel sneaks into our consciousness as though it had been there from the outset.
New characters emerge in the forms of Adnan and Linah. Adnan, a Palestinian, pursues an impossible love for an Israeli soldier Linah, while she in turn, returns his love. Constant in both stories is the terror that the Palestinians feel under the Israelis and the deep suspicion characteristic of both sides. Guns and explosives are in plentiful supply and are used as regularly as you or I might throw a ball in a bowling alley. But what is more important is not the killing weapons so much as the intransigence of the leaders on both sides, the unwillingness to seek a responsible solution. The love of Adnan and Linah points the way to lasting peace, but this is not allowed to develop. Linah is sent behind her own lines as a punishment for not hating enough, for not causing large numbers of Palestinians to lose their tempers and be punished.
The author rends our hearts with his beautiful prose. It is spare but scores a heavy hit upon our vulnerabilities. We would like to reach out to these doomed people, but realise our ways will benefit no one as the killing of one by the other says more about the people than anything. It tells, more sickeningly than anything I know, that civilization has failed in this area of the world. One wants a Great Flood to wash their prejudices to Hades and force a rebuilding based on love and respect.
A couple of positive indicators are there if we observe and think from a different perspective. Love is not absent from this terrible place. Passions promoting evil are given free rein, but the love of particular couples leaves a residue of hope that all the enmity has not extinguished. The love affair between Adnan and Linah blossoms amid suspicion and hate while Adnan’s friend Ali is simultaneously dealt a devastating blow. Tragedy walks, not hand in hand with love, but hovers, awaiting the situation where it can take away hopes of a better life ahead.
Another very powerful indicator of hope for the people of Palestine is the balanced telling of the story. The writer is by no means pro-Jewish. He records the terrible price Israel inflicts on the Palestinian territories, including the flattening and ‘scorched earth’ destruction of formerly held territory. All around is hatred and niggling hostility, yet the writing is not maudlin. It reports; the reportage describes horrible things but uplifts despite that. Morsi’s characters recognize their weaknesses even if they do nothing to make a bad scene better.
The streets outside were on fire. Lives were bursting with rage. I felt my own bitterness mixed with the feelings of having been deceived…The fighting was bringing out the worst character in ourselves. The diabolical, boorish and vengeful. The scavenger beast that feeds on the soul-shredding affair between Us and Them” (265).
Love is not the saviour of the warring sides in this book. Love is a casualty of human hatred and the desire to inflict destruction. Logically we should be expecting a book steeped in hatred or crouching in hurt. That doesn’t happen. The author is better than that. The Palace of Angels is a shattering book. Prepare to be captivated.
By Mohammed Massoud Morsi
Wild Dingo Press