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FICTION Resonant realities from Ramallah

SUE TURNER recommends an outstanding book of short stories set in the Palestinian city

The Book of Ramallah
Edited by Maya Abu Al-Hayat
(Comma Press, £9.99)

THE BOOK of Ramallah is the latest in Comma Press’s short-story collections based on a city, usually a capital.

Situated in the West Bank, some 10 miles from Jerusalem and ranged along a ridge of the Samarian Hills, Ramallah is a capital city of sorts. It acts as an administrative centre, with government ministries, the HQ of the Palestinian Security Services and the Mukata’a compound, the seat of the Palestinian Authority.

It’s notorious for the two-year siege the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) imposed on Yasser Arafat, almost killing him as the bulldozers rolled in at the end.

The IDF dominates the network of roads around Ramallah, many of which can only be used by Israeli citizens as they move between their illegal settlements on expropriated land.

The journey from Jerusalem to Ramallah should take just 15 minutes, yet negotiating checkpoints means it takes one-and-a-half hours and it is surely no coincidence that three of the 10 stories in this anthology are set at checkpoints.
 
Ramallah is a multi-faceted city. Outward looking, modern and liberal, it is physically choked by the encroaching Israeli settlements and the bureaucratic checkpoints. It is a city containing modern businesses, NGO offices and a sophisticated cafe culture alongside falafel outlets, deprivation and three refugee camps.

Above all, it is a city with a rich cultural life, functioning against a backdrop of  curfews, arrests, strikes and martyrs and in her excellent introduction Maya Abu Al-Hayat charts the historical and political life of the city, describing its thriving culture and internal tensions, thus providing a rich context for the tales that follow. Notes on the authors and translators are also included.

Her own contribution, Badia’s Magic Water, is a beautifully crafted story about the heartache and danger women face when they find they are pregnant but unmarried. It is so truthfully written that it almost seems not to be a fictional account at all, a quality apparent in several other stories.

Translated into English for the first time, the stories range in style from the surrealism of The Horse’s Wife to the bitter satire of At The Qalandiya Checkpoint and from the realism of Surda, Surda! Ramallah, Ramallah! to the lyrical tale Secrets Stroll The City Streets. This gentle story tells of a limping street sweeper with a deep love of his city, who received his injury defending Ramallah in the Second Intifada.

Each story is a snapshot of life in the West Bank, conveying the essence of the reality of survival in such abnormal conditions and they cover a range of experiences — the humiliation suffered at checkpoints, the random violence of the Israeli Defence Force, the loss of a sense of identity and the fragility of house and land tenure.

Taken collectively, these vignettes add up to a comprehensive picture of the trauma Palestinians suffer under Israeli occupation — and an insight into the people’s determination to resist.

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