What we’re reading
These are some of our staff’s favorite books that give some context to life, history and culture in the countries where we work: Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan. We also feature some writings that describe the experiences of refugees and other communities related to those we serve in the Middle East that may be marginalized in different contexts. We hope you’ll be inspired to read a few of these excellent books!
Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa
This is a beautifully written novel that takes the reader through a journey of a Palestinian family – the Abulhejas – from before the creation of Israel to the early 2000s. Susan Abulhawa paints an idyllic picture of small village life in Palestine before 1948, when many were forced out of their homes and villages. She then goes on to describe other major historical tragedies that befell Palestinians through the experiences of the family – expulsions from their villages and lands in Palestine, killing, imprisonment, and regular indignities they suffer through the decades. The book takes you from Palestine to Lebanon (during Israel’s invasion in 1978 and the Shatila massacre in 1982) to United States and back again to Palestine.
Despite the sad realities that the book describes, it’s not hard to read. The characters are nuanced and likable – full of complicated emotions, human flaws and virtues. Abulhawa does a nice job of balancing the tragic with the many moments of joy that life brings, even under the harsh conditions of a refugee camp.
I found this book to be very powerful and poignant. It’s a great primer for anyone who is new to the topic of modern Palestinian history or simply wants to read a well-written novel.
— Liz Demarest, reviewer
How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America by Moustafa Bayoumi
This book dives into the lives of seven Arab Americans in their 20s. Bayoumi, who was born in Zürich, Switzerland, to Egyptian parents, and now works as an English professor at Brooklyn College in New York, spent a significant amount of time getting to know each of the young adults featured in the book. Published over a decade ago, with Brooklyn as the backdrop of the book, we hear each of the young people reflect on what it meant to grow up Arab in America and how that changed in our post-9/11 world.
Their stories take the reader through the experiences of being young and Arab in America and how the events of 9/11 have impacted them mentally, emotionally, and physically. They share accounts of being wrongly jailed, facing discrimination in the workplace, fighting for justice, and their difficulties finding support and community as Arab-Americans, even as their homelands are also in turmoil.
This was not just written for Arabs and Arab-Americans. You do not need any previous knowledge about global issues or politics to understand what is happening in each of their stories. These accounts of their lives humanize Arabs and humble almost anyone with a heart. I encourage everyone to read this award-winning book and share it with others to bring more awareness of the discrimination facing Arabs and Arab-Americans.
— Saniah Naim, reviewer
I Saw Ramallah by Mourid Barghouti
This memoir by renowned Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti opens with his return to Palestine, after three decades of absence, via the Allenby Crossing. Of this terminal between Jordan and the West Bank, managed by Israel, he writes: “On the bridge, that strange border unmatched on any of the world’s five continents, you are overwhelmed by your memories of standing at the borders of others.” The poet brings, as Edward Said notes in an introduction, a “life-affirming poetic texture” that lends the book an “unmistakable stamp of profound authenticity.”
The events of the book take place in the mid-1990s during a period of change and optimism generated by the negotiations between the PLO and Israel. In this sense Barghouti’s journey was emblematic of the experience of many Palestinians who returned during this time period. The political negotiations of the time failed to live up to the hopes of the optimists, although Barghouti – a perceptive political observer – always remained skeptical. He chronicles the many changes to his homeland in the intervening years – the vast expansion of the settlements, the transformation of Ramallah – and reuniting with his friends and neighbors who remain, who update him on others who have died or emigrated.
Barghouti hails from Deir Ghassanah, a village outside of Ramallah. He describes the shock of having to buy olive oil in exile as “truly painful” because it forced him to recognize how distant home really was. In the village, nobody “ever bought oil or olives… for their own tables its people bring olives in from the fields and the oil in from the press to the storeroom and the barrels that are never empty from season to season.” Barghouti is a keen observer of people and takes appreciative note of the wisdom and eccentricities of the people he meets because, as he observes, “folk consciousness everywhere is brilliant at summarizing the human condition.”
Barghouti’s slender book is the memoir of a man who has always been in transit. “I have never been able to collect my own library. I have moved between houses and furnished apartments, and become used to the passing and the temporary. I have tamed myself to the feeling that the coffee pot is not mine.”
His return to Ramallah is a visit – not to stay – and so he must soon say his goodbyes with uncertain hopes of returning again in the future with his family.
— Steve Fake, reviewer
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