Celebrated architect Suad Amiry’s non-fiction debut is a history of Palestinian heartache

Award-winning author and architect pays homage to her father and his hometown of Jaffa in her first work of fiction

Palestinian author and architect Suad Amiry's 'Mother of Strangers' is a work of fiction based on real people. Photo: Takreem Awards
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Palestinian writer and architect Suad Amiry’s novel, Mother of Strangers, is a portrait of a fairy tale gone wrong. Released last month, it follows the story of the Palestinian people, through the intimate lives of its protagonists.

From the first page, we meet Subhi, aged 15, who lives in the ancient port city of Jaffa, between 1947 to 1951, a period spanning the end of the British Mandate and the beginning of the Arab-Israeli War.

When Subhi, who works as a mechanic, meets peasant girl Shams, 13, at an annual summer festival, he decides that he must marry her.

Ambitious, clever and talented, Subhi’s hard work as a mechanic is rewarded when a rich merchant offers to buy him a full English suit for fixing the water pump in his orange grove. Even before getting the suit tailored to fit him, Subhi imagines wearing it on his wedding day, seeing the suit as a ticket to a brighter future for himself with Shams and his family.

MOTHER OF STRANGERS

Author: Suad Amiry
Publisher: Pantheon

Pages: 304
Available: Now

Through both Subhi and Shams, we explore an honest, and perhaps, naive view of the world, which slowly crumbles as the mass displacement of Palestinians begins.

Mother of Strangers is hopeful, dark, ironic and full of heartbreak, especially when one discovers that Subhi and Shams were not fictionalised characters but real people, who are still alive today.

Curiously, the book was never meant to be a work of fiction.

Amiry has written six works of nonfiction including Sharon and My Mother-in-Law, which was awarded the Viareggio-Versilia International Prize in 2004, and Golda Slept Here, which won the Nonino Risit d’Aur Prize in 2014. As an architect, she was the recipient of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture and is the founder of the Riwaq Centre for Architectural Conservation in Ramallah, where she has lived for many years.

Amiry’s nonfiction and her work outside of writing frequently delve into the lives of Palestinians, their history, identity and sense of place.

Her first novel began with a plan to write a story about her father. In the author’s note, Amiry recounts a story her father told her of when he was refused entry to visit his childhood home in Jaffa.

“I was 17, and it was the first time I had ever seen him cry,” Amiry writes. “Those were the tears that stopped me from visiting my family’s home in Jaffa all those years.”

Despite only living 40 minutes away from Jaffa, Amiry never felt strong enough to make the journey in search of her father’s home and the hometown which he had told her countless stories about.

“I was born and raised in Damascus and Jordan so I never had the chance to see Palestine,” Amiry tells The National.

“I had to imagine Jaffa from a distance. I always say I became an architect because of building little models in my brain about how Palestine and Jaffa looked like.”

Amiry decided, 40 years after her father told her his story, to go to Jaffa and search for the childhood home he never returned to and write a book about it. However, her first attempt to pay homage to her father felt like a failure at first.

“When I couldn't find the house, I was very depressed,” she says.

“Then the taxi driver taking me from Jaffa to Ramallah felt how sad I was. He told me, if you want to write something about Jaffa, I have a good story for you. And he started talking about Shams.”

Mother of Strangers came about because Amiry decided, 40 years after her father told her his story, to go to Jaffa and write a book about it. Photo: Pantheon Books

The story of Shams, Subhi and their love story in Jaffa triggered something in Amiry. She started to research their lives, the history of Jaffa and met and interviewed them both to piece together what happened to them and what happened to her father’s hometown.

“I feel that we Palestinians and Arabs in general, we shy away from personal stories,” says Amiry.

“Unlike the Europeans, unlike the Jewish people who address personal stories, we don’t. And personal stories are universal, they connect you to other human beings as human beings.”

At first, Amiry wasn’t sure what direction she was heading with the book, but she knew the stories of these people mattered and could shed more light on the history of Palestine than any statistics or figures. What she created was a fictionalised novel, combining her father’s recollections of his home town, the lives of Shams and Subhi and a harrowing period of history intertwined with the lives of very real people.

“This is also a love story of young teenagers,” says Amiry.

“Everything really in Palestine, and these two young people had a future, had hope. And the war made all of this collapse. So I wanted to share with the world, what happened to normal people during the war.”

Amiry approached the story and its tangents in an accessible way, drawing readers in through the power of the narrative, the characters and her rich descriptions of Jaffa. From the view of the sea, the abundance of orange groves, the quaint cafes and old cinemas, the real cosmopolitan fabric of the city becomes a fully whole and realised character all on its own.

In its heart, Mother of Strangers is a universal story about everyday people, with hopes and dreams, who somehow, achingly, found a means to survive through unbelievable and tragic adversity. It is a truth that connects the characters in her book to her father and certainly to Amiry herself.

“Subhi revived what my father went through,” Amiry says. “I found characters, as it were, who fulfilled a story that I wanted to tell about my father.”

Scroll through images of the Palestine International Book Fair in Ramallah below

Updated: November 23, 2022, 7:53 AM
MOTHER OF STRANGERS

Author: Suad Amiry
Publisher: Pantheon

Pages: 304
Available: Now

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