“Thank God she hasn't (her son did!)” says Suad Amiry, with characteristic humour when asked if her mother-in-law has read her critically acclaimed Ramallah diaries, entitled Sharon and my Mother-in-Law. The book arose out of a form of email therapy, as Amir tried to stay sane cooped up with her Mother-in-Law, with Sharon's army on her doorstep, during the forty-three day curfew imposed by the Israeli military on the residents of Ramallah during March 2002. In the introduction she addresses Sharon directly: “Perhaps one day I may forgive you for putting us under curfew for forty-two days, but I will never forgive you for obliging to have my mother-in-law with us for what seemed, then, more like forty-two years”.
It's a book full of humour, anger, and frustration. Though initially her messages were intended for no wider an audience than her friends, she was subsequently persuaded by an Israeli friend to show them to a publisher. The book has touched a nerve, putting life on events that are all too often seen from the sterilizing view of news correspondents and political analysts.
Despite the title, there's an absence on both sides of political figures in her diaries, with mere passing references to Sharon and Arafat. “At the end of the day – Amiry explains – the occupation is about the lives (or for that matter the lack of life) of the three and a half million Palestinians living in the occupied West bank and Gaza strip. The book is not about the 'Breaking News' but the news of the ordinary people who never make it to the headlines. Who wants yet another political analysis?”
Amiry, the founder of the RIWAQ Centre for Architectural Conservation, has been taken somewhat by surprise by the success of the book – it has been translated into eleven different languages, winning the Viareggio-Versilia prize in Italy and has been longlisted for the Lettre Ulysses award for reportage. “All of a sudden I have a parallel life to my life as a conservation architect!”.
Sharon and My Mother-in-Law is told with a narrative skill that belies the fact that it's Amiry's first foray into the world of publishing. “I actually write as close as possible to the way I tell a story – she explains, continuing – perhaps since I love telling stories, as we say in Arabic hakawati (story teller) I tried to keep my writing as close to that as possible”. There's a freshness to the book which she puts down to the spontaneous nature of its creation, having precious little editing or re-writing. While not having any direct literary influences apparent in the book, she admits to having a passion for the writing of Lebanese writers Huda Barakat and Amin Malouf, as well as Ian McEwan (“of course”).
Amiry was born in Damascus, her parents having left their family home in 1948 as refugees. She grew up between Amman and Beirut. In 1981 she decided to move to Ramallah, with all that entails, to live, and teach in Birzeit University. The book brings across the daily obstacles and humiliations inherent living under a military occupation, so the obvious question that springs to mind is why did she deliberately choose that life? “I happen to be interested in the protection of architectural heritage and that was why I came to Palestine in the first place, fell in love and now have wonderful friends – that is what makes a place worth staying in. Finally, I feel like an indigenous plant in its natural habitat, and I after all culturally belong to this area – if it was not Palestine then somewhere in the Mediterranean”. But in itself, moving to Ramallah was a political action as well (her Mother for example refused to cross over into the occupied territories out of principal).”Coming to Ramallah was a choice I made and continue to make. I don't believe in sacrifices –she says, without apology – one often makes choices to provide meaning to ones life. I support the struggle of Palestinians not because I happen to be one; I also supported the struggle of the blacks in South African, the Vietnamese etc. Many people made the choice to join the Spanish War against fascism. And that is why I made this choice“.
Her mentioning of the Spanish civil war, fascism and apartheid will no doubt make many feel uncomfortable, conditioned as we are to view the occupation in Palestine through a certain filter. The key word when dealing with Israel and Palestine is balance, so for every mention of Israeli military action there should be a corresponding discussion of terrorists and suicide bombings. While giving a vivid picture of the violence inflicted on the civilian population of Palestine, by the Israeli army, armed resistance is never mentioned in the book. Amiry responds openly, stressing her pacifism: “Let's always keep in mind there is an occupier and an occupied in this equation. What balance are we taking about?”. She continues, stressing, “I am totally against suicide bombers but the first ever suicide bomb took place in 1996. Why hadn't the Israeli occupation which started in 1967 ended by then? As Palestinians under occupation, International law gives us the right to resist the occupation. France did that against the Germans, the Vietnamese against the Americans, and the Blacks in South Africa. It is our right to decide how best to resist the occupation. I happen to think that non-violent ways are more fruitful but short of suicide bombers, this is for the Palestinians to decide”.