Book review: Suad Amiry’s Golda Slept Here

The authors' new work looks at Jerusalem’s forgotten Palestinian neighbourhoods, emptied of their ancient communities in 1948.

Israeli border policemen outside the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in the old city of Jerusalem. Menahem Kahana / AFP
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It is tempting to analyse the current wave of violence engulfing Jerusalem by falling back on the classic tropes of the cyclical nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the idea that this is a conflict steeped in a clash of civilisations inflamed by religious tensions. The roots of the conflict, and of the current round of violence in Jerusalem, are much deeper and actually a lot easier to comprehend.

Despite the upgrades in urban infrastructure and the handsome branding varnish applied to the Holy City in recent years by Israeli authorities, Jerusalem has not changed since the late 1940s. The city remains occupied, divided along national lines. Those living under the occupied structure are naturally refusing it.

Suad Amiry is notable for proclaiming that she is not, and never wanted to become, a writer. Regardless of her claims, the Ramallah-based architect has transformed into one of the most important Palestinian voices coming from the West Bank today. Starting with her landmark memoir about the second intifada, Sharon and My Mother-in-Law, Amiry's straightforward prose captures the everyday experience of a people living under an elongated military occupation.

While Sharon and My Mother-in-Law told the story of the second intifada from an intimate and sometimes lighthearted perspective, Amiry's latest book is one of mourning, and it couldn't be published at a more pressing time. Golda Slept Here is essentially an extended journey to the grand houses that dot the neighbourhoods of West Jerusalem.

When Israeli forces took control of these Palestinian neighbourhoods in the course of the 1948 war, they essentially depopulated the areas of their native inhabitants. Entire houses were left without the families that had lived there for generations. Some families, fleeing the violence of the war, left behind personal belongings such as book collections, musical instruments and family quilts. Impressive Palestinian book collections ended up in Israeli national museums while new Jewish immigrants from Europe were swiftly resettled into the "old Arab" houses, as they came to be known in Israeli discourse.

Amiry begins her literary trek to this scarred neighbourhood by sneaking “illegally” into Jerusalem from the West Bank. Of course, the legality of the matter is entirely a creation of Israel’s organisational control over Palestinian life, and Amiry spends a number of early pages with important musings about the absurdity of Israel’s attempts to divide Palestinians.

As a narrator, she recounts the struggle of various Palestinian families to obtain the right to return to their beloved homes. In some of the most striking passages in the volume, Amiry lays bare the myriad legal loopholes Israel quickly enshrined in law to prohibit Palestinians from returning to their property. With striking detail and little commentary, one of the greatest real-estate thefts in the conflict, as one character calls it, is shown in stark detail. Her characters have yet to return to their properties, which are now occupied by Israeli elites and well-heeled immigrants from the United States and France.

With a straightforward and compelling narrative retelling the powerful stories of Palestinians who have lost everything for Israel’s creation, the book demonstrates how the media continues to miss an important structural aspect of the ­Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Namely, that the foundations of this conflict are based on colonialism, oppression, occupation and conquest. While it is compelling to argue that religion plays a large role, it is a history of colonialism that best informs the past 100 years in historic Palestine.

The structures of analytical thinking on Israel and Palestine in recent years have been impossibly skewed in a way that downplays this truism. While Amiry focuses on one house that ended up in the hands of the former ­Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, she could have easily looked at the Palestinian house that is now the bureau of The New York Times in Jerusalem.

What does it say about an influential news organisation that chooses to base itself in such a location in the middle of a highly polarised conflict? What does it say about the many liberal Zionist writers who choose to live on the quaint leafy streets of these neighbourhoods? In essence, it demonstrates that the colonial practice required to steal these areas has been accepted as unfortunate scenes from the past that have little bearing on the present or the future. Suad Amiry’s volume demonstrates that this is simply not the case and gives voice to an ongoing episode of mourning.

Joseph Dana is a journalist based in Ramallah.