Wild Thorns (1976 Club) – Sahar Kalifa, trans. in Dutch (De cactus) by Johan de Bakker, Richard de Leeuwen

In Wild Thorns, Sahar Kalifa wrote an engaging novel about some of the dilemmas facing the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. She gives us insight into the effects of the occupation on rich and poor, acceptance and resistance. I read this in Dutch, so I also have some comments and queries about the translation; if translators fail to translate sayings, readers miss some of the nuance

I have had this book on my shelf (in Dutch: De cactus) for several years and kept passing it over because I expected it to be too boringly political, written by a Palestinian man. For starters, the author is a woman, as I finally discovered when I went to mark it as ‘currently reading’ on Goodreads. And secondly, the political conversations are so well woven into the story and the conversations that it is not in the least painful to read them. Given that the main characters in the story are all men, it’s even more surprising that the author is a woman. Women have a very small role to play, but are constantly there in the background as wives and mothers, in the men’s thoughts and conversations. When they are worried about something and ask their friends for advice, they may well claim it’s their wives who are worried, not themselves. Men also swear by their wives in a turn of phrase that sometimes means exactly the same as ‘I’ll eat my hat if…’; they say ‘I’ll send my wife away if…’, but it’s also used as a kind of coaxing: ‘I’ll send my wife away if you don’t stay for a cup of coffee.’ And, of course, they miss their wives when they are in prison, for their cooking and their home remedies and their bodies.

Responsibility is a major theme: to your country, your family, your friends. That’s often in the form of people saying it’s not their responsibility that the country is in the situation it is, that they have no choice but to work for Israel or that a son has to go to work instead of finishing their schooling. I wonder if the same word is used in Arabic for both aspects of responsibility. In English, I would probably use ‘it’s not my fault’ rather than ‘it’s not my responsibility/I’m not responsible for something’.

The story

Usama al-Karmi, the son of an upper class family, is attempting to return to his own country, Palestine, after five years abroad. The process at the border is degrading because everyone has to strip naked and wait, holding a number in a hall before further interrogation. Women are subjected to internal searches. The guards are corrupt, brutal, racist and provocative and travellers have to repeatedly answer the same questions. 

Usama’s answers reveal what he has been doing for the past few years. He was working as an insurance company translator in one of the rich oil-producing countries, but was expelled through no fault of his own for political reasons, along with many other Palestinians. He visited Algeria and spent several months in Syria, where his uncle lives (under interrogation he first says he was there for two months, then six) and he met up with his mother because his father had recently died. When he was deported with 160 Palestinians, they were flown to Lisbon (why?), then he flew to Beirut (Lebanon) then Damascus (Syria) for three months where he started to prepare for his ‘magister exam’. He’s now returning from Amman in Jordan. The thing that strikes me is that migration between the Arabic countries is so easy, yet Usama is interrogated when he wants to return to his own country because of the Israeli occupation. Everyone has to pay import taxes for presents they are taking to their families.

Of course, I don’t expect this treatment when I go to England to see my family, nor when I return to our home in the Netherlands, but a watered-down version of this is causing a great deal of anger and distress in my community of British friends since Brexit and new EU import rules. Several have been incorrectly charged import duty and handling charges for gifts received from the UK, then had to fight with bureaucrats to get some compensation. British travel rules due to Covid have also prevented people from visiting family and, now that travel is possible for family reunification, it is currently ridiculously expensive due to the cost of compulsory Covid tests (£60 per person for the second-day test). The only people I know who have been to the UK in the past year and a half went after one of their parents died; too late. In any case, all this gives me a new perspective on these issues at the border, making it less abstract than it would once have been for me as a (now former) EU citizen.

To make things worse, Usama has had to wait two years before he could return to his country because his mother had to apply for family reunification status for him as if he were a refugee. He has longed for his return to the land of milk and honey as if it were his wedding night.

“He felt as though the West Bank had become as narrow as a bottleneck and that his spirit, that had been floating in the joint heavens of yearning and longing, had now fallen down from the highest heaven. In spite of the feverish, passionate fantasies that had kept him company throughout those dry, barren years. In spite of his dreams that had transported him to the bridge every night and across to the other bank and to the artistry of the heavens, spreading across the ravines and river valleys.”1 (my translation from the Dutch)

The people seem to be well fed and clothed, but under the surface and in the backstreets, the country is deteriorating. This is partly to do with a natural progression because now nobody wants to work as a servant or in a servile position; unschooled people can earn more working in Israeli factories, those with a little more education can work in offices.

At a family level, Um Usama (his mother) says that the economy is booming and trusts to God to find a solution to the problem of the occupation, much to his annoyance. Her brother, the head of the family has kidney disease, but holds court for foreign journalists. His cousin Nuwar is studying to be a teacher and is struggling to keep up with cleaning the large old family residence, but more importantly, worrying about her brother Adil. He is supposed to be taking care of the family land, but Nuwar wonders if he is up to something else. Usama promises to find out how Adil is spending his time.

We then follow Adil who, without telling his family, is working as a mechanic in Israel. This allows us to hear how the working class workmen feel. In the lorry to Tel Aviv they talk about their former Palestinian bosses who took them for granted. After the war, they cut wages because there was a plentiful labour supply. Yet we already know that the fields and orchards have been abandoned because people are paid more in Israel for shorter hours and without the indignity of being looked down upon by the ruling class. To add insult to injury, one of the workmen says his former boss told him he was a traitor for working in Israel. He had his own way of replying with an insult, helped by a surfeit of lentils.

Usama goes looking for Adil at the family’s farm, but finds the fields abandoned. The only person left is an old man, his friend’s father, who has aged considerably and no longer remembers him. The entire landscape shows signs of war and destruction.

“When the men had hidden in the plantation […], ‘they’ burnt them down. Now it was our turn. But the trees burned up from lack of water. The workers ran away and the soil died. I stayed here alone to allow the wound in the soil and the wound in my soul to heal.” 2 (my translation)

Superstitions and beliefs

Abu Sabir is severely injured at work. The Jewish supervisors refuse to provide him with first aid because the workers are not insured. He will now be unable to work. For some reason that was not entirely clear to me, the fact that his right hand is injured is repeatedly emphasised. I wonder if there is some cultural significance to this that I didn’t understand. As Adil drives the injured man home, fully expecting him to die from blood loss, Abu Sabir begs to be told the story of Abu Zayd al-Hilali, but education has made Adil forget the stories that of his childhood.

“If Um Badawi asks after me, tell her turn to God for advice and tell her to burn a piece of alum to expel the evil eye that has fallen upon your father. And if she has time, tell her to go to the Samaritans to ask them to make an amulet for him.” 3 (my translation)

“You disappear into the bottomless whirlpool of events. The days wash over you with trivialities like seaweed. Soft. Slimy. With a taste that makes you feel like throwing up. Turn the dial of the radio, hand, and wrap me in fables, tales of heroes and prophets. An entire people is drowning.” 4 (my translation)

Like a fairytale, the author often repeats the same elements, reminding us of what has already happened and how different people are living.

Adil is secretly working in Israel to try to support his family. When Usama warns him that the resistance is planning to attack the busses that take the cross-border workers, Adil reminds him that it’s all very well him ending up in prison as a terrorist and killing the workers, but it’s their families who will suffer. This is later shown to be true; this is a society based on ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’

“‘Who will feed the children and protect the women’s nakedness? And if the women are widowed, who will there be to marry them? And if they do get married, their husbands will throw their children out on the street. Then the boys will roam through the city, smoking cigarettes.’   ‘They smoke anyway, even if they do have a father. What’s the point of fathers, then? They bring up the younger generation badly and deform the heroic deeds of the resistance.’” 5 (my translation)

Adil and Usama grew up together and believed that the way to free Palestine was to become rich; the West only understands the language of money. Adil still believes it, but Usama has come to believe that the only solution is to incite revolution by the Palestinians themselves, who are being lulled into complacency by Israeli money and the improved standard of living.

“It’s not the economy that makes history. Material things are not the instigator, the driving force and the goal. What about principles and ideals? And ethics and values? And truth and justice? They had often disagreed with each other, but there was a common denominator that united them. The individual’s value only derives from the masses. That means that they agreed on one essential matter. The only difference was that they both believed they were on the side of the masses.” 6 (my translation)

When Adil takes Usama to meet Abu Sabir, the worker Zuhdi tells him how he had worked abroad in factories and been treated as an equal. He is considering emigration. Only in his own country is he looked down on by rich Palestinians who accused him of being a traitor for working for the Israelis, but rich people will never starve and what is more, they didn’t think it was betraying their country in the past, when they were setting up deals with the Israelis. Usama hears similar discussions when he goes to the workers’ cafe, hoping to bring Adil round to his way of thinking; Adil would make a good ally who could persuade many others to join the resistance. 

Tensions increase

The argument between the two men is very well written, with Adil accusing Usama of having missed the difficult times when people suffered from hunger, even landowners. But then the Palestinian freedom fighters attack and are repelled by the Israelis. We see something that seems incredibly familiar from the news in various hotspots around the world: the rebels attack, a ‘stay at home’ order is issued, the Jewish ‘defence force’ invades the streets with armoured vehicles and they are taunted by the children. The women have sent them outside because they are too rowdy, cooped up in the cramped quarters. The women barter supplies through the open windows because the market has been suspended.

The teenagers, who we earlier met putting the world to rights at the local general store, are now represented by Basil, chanting in favour of revolution, ‘We are the men of Abu Amaar’; this is Yasser Arafat, leader of the PLO, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. In 1976, Arafat was seen as a terrorist leader by many in the west. Later he became more conciliatory, was praised for his powers of negotiation and was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. When this novel was published, he was in Lebanon, after he and his troops had been ejected from Jordan. In fact, I am beginning to suspect that Usama’s travels mirror those of Arafat and that he may have been supporting him in some way. Presumably Palestinians at the time would have been acutely aware of those places; no wonder the border guards were so suspicious. Ironically, the things that Usama saw the Israeli’s do to people at the border are exactly the things that Palestinian forces were accused of doing when they set up roadblocks in Jordan.

As the Israeli forces take over the streets, Basil (Adil and Nawar’s younger brother) is in the same section of the prison as a teacher called Salih. The men spend all their time together in one room. In the morning there is time for education; for some it’s learning to read, for others they work on higher levels. In the afternoon they work and are paid in cheap cigarettes. In the evening, they talk. Salih tells them they should think of how to run their country once they are free. There are no farmers, craftsmen or small businessmen any more; all the men have become workers in Israel and there is no industry in Palestine. Oil money disappears into European banks and nothing changes at home.

After causing a fight at work and injuring an Israeli foreman, Adil’s friend Zuhdi is in another prison section in a completely different environment. Here the men are harder and start by ignoring him and treating him as a spy. Retribution for spying is something they take into their own hands and are merciless. It’s a hard life with tough justice, led by another Adil who follows the principles of socialism, dividing any food that families bring on visiting day equally between everyone. And they all share their stories. For one touching moment, everyone at the prison, including the guards, is united in a single moment of common humanity, but that moment is fleeting.

Arabic sayings and translation queries

When I was trying to find out a better way of phrasing the saying about sending your wife away, I came upon this excellent resource giving translations of Egyptian sayings and their meanings, but many are undoubtedly used throughout the Arabic world. In this list I found several phrases that were used in De cactus, translated literally. As I don’t read Arabic and have no access to the full English translation, I have no way of checking, but it seems as if the translator may have missed the significance of the sentence. Of course, it could have been intended as humour by the author, by personifying the literal meaning of a phrase. For instance, 

قليل البخت يلاقي العظم في الكرشة. (‘aliil il-baxt yilaa’i l-3aDm fil-kirša.) 
The unlucky person finds bones in his tripe dinner. (You can’t escape bad luck.) See also the variation قليل البخت يتكعبل في السديري (‘aliil il-baxt yitka3bil fis-sideiri), “The unlucky person trips over [his own] waistcoat/vest.” In Wild Thorns, Usama meets an old man at the neglected al-Karmi farm who is repeatedly described as tripping over his long coat. It seemed odd that the description was repeated, but if it was meant as a comment on his bad luck, then it makes more sense. I also seem to remember a comment about a tripe stew, but that was in a discussion of food, so may have been an actual reference to food.

اليد في الميّة مش زي اليد في النار. (il-iid fil-mayya miš zayy il-iid fin-naar.) 
The hand in water isn’t like the hand in fire. (Easier said than done; used to criticize someone removed from the situation at hand who is telling those involved how to deal with it.) This phrase was used by someone in prison, translated literally, and didn’t make sense to me when I read it; unfortunately I now can’t find it to see what the context was.

Another saying that I suspect is referenced several times is:

اللى مكتوب عالجبين لازم تشوفه العين. (illi maktuub 3al-gibiin laazim tšuufu l-3ein.) 
What is written on the brow will inevitably be seen by the eye. (One will inevitably meet one’s destiny.) 

I am sure I read about something being written on somebody’s forehead, when it was clearly referring to destiny. Without knowing the original, it felt odd. It also makes me wonder if the repeated references to shortsightedness and the eye are not being used metaphorically in the original but translated word for word into Dutch. Would someone reading the book in Arabic have grasped far more of the imagery than people reading in other languages?

Another phrase I know for certain was used was ‘you can’t clap with only one hand’. In this case, it makes sense as it is, but even more so if you understand the hidden meaning:

يد واحدة ماتسقفش. (iid waHda matsa”afš.) 
One hand doesn’t clap. (Cooperation from all sides is necessary to accomplish anything.) 

Further reading

Very interesting thesis on imprisonment in Palestine as described in Wild Thorns, focussing on the effect it has in Basil and Salih and on Zohra. This is compared to black experiences in the USA. 

Study about suicide in Palestinian society. A clear line is drawn between suicide, which society and religion consider a shameful individual act, and martyrdom, an admirable sacrifice for the good of society, e.g. by what we call a ‘suicide bomber’. 

Original Dutch texts translated in the text

  1. “Hij had het gevoel dat de Westoever zo smal als een nauwe fles was geworden en dat zijn geest, die steeds had rondgezweefd in de hemelen van hunkering en verlangen, nu uit de hoogste hemel naar beneden was gevallen. Ondanks de koortsige, hartstochtelijke fantasieën, die hem al die dorre, schrale jaren hadden vergezeld. Ondanks zijn dromen, die hem iedere nacht hadden meegevoerd naar de brug, en naar de andere oever, en naar de hemelse schilderijen, uitgespreid over de ravijnen en rivierdalen.” (p.21)
  2. “Toen de mannen zich hadden verstopt in de plantage […], hebben ‘ze’ die platgebrand. Nu was het onze beurt. Maar de bomen brandden weg van dorst. De arbeiders vluchtten weg en de grond stierf. Ik bleef alleen achter om de wond van de grond en de wond van mijn ziel te laten helen.” (p.48)
  3. “Als Oemm Badawi naar me vraagt, zeg haar dan dat ze God om raad vraagt en laat haar een stuk aluin branden om het boze oog dat je vader getroffen heeft, uit te drijven. En als ze tijd heeft, laat haar dan naar de Samaritanen gaan om een amulet voor hem te laten schrijven.” (pp..52-53)
  4. “Je verdwijnt in de peilloos diepe kolk van de gebeurtenissen. De dagen overspoelen je met trivialiteiten als zeewier. Week. Slijmerig. Met een smaak waarvan je moet kotsen. Draai maar, hand, aan de zenderknop van de radio en hul me in fabels, heldenverhalen en persoonsverering. Een heel volk verdrinkt.” (p.58)
  5. “‘Wie moet de kinderen te eten geven en de naaktheid van de vrouwen beschermen? En als de vrouwen weduwe worden, wie zal er dan met ze trouwen? En als ze wel trouwen, zullen hun echtgenoten de kinderen de straat opgooien. Dan zwerven de jongens door de stad en roken sigaretten.’ ‘Ze roken toch, ook al hebben ze een vader. Waar dienen vaders dan nog voor? Ze geven de nieuwe generatie een slechte opvoeding en misvormen de heldendaden van het verzet.’” (p.61)
  6. “De geschiedenis wordt niet gemaakt door de economie. Materiële zaken vormen niet de instigator, de stuwende kracht en het doel. En de principes en idealen dan? En de ethiek en waarden? En recht en rechtvaardigheid? Ze hadden vaak van mening verschild. Maar er bleef een gemeenschappelijke noemer die ze verenigde. Het individu ontleent zijn waarde aan slechts aan de massa. Dat betekende dat ze het eens waren over een essentieel punt. Het enige verschil was dat ze allebei geloofden aan de kant van de massa te staan.” (p.78)

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