The land's good memory

Does the land remember me?

By Aziz Shihab
Syracuse University Press
$19.95, 149 pages

Reading and
5-7pm Wed, Jun 13
The Twig
5005 Broadway

I’m proud of my dad. To have a book published on one’s 80th birthday is pretty great. To have written it while on dialysis is also encouraging.

Mostly I’m proud of my father’s lifelong belief in the human voice telling stories. He always thought stories might help us see what we’re living, shine light on some of the complex mysteries. People reject stances, not stories. I’m right, you’re wrong — forget it. But no one can say, Sorry, you didn’t really live that. What do you know?

Does the Land Remember Me? A Memoir of Palestine by Aziz Shihab grew out of real details and scenes that happened in the 1980s and 1990s on my dad’s many return trips to the West Bank to visit his mom and beloved homeland. Events are linked by a single fictional element — as if everything described happened on one 30-day trip. His mother, who lived to be 106, used to say she
didn’t want to die till everyone she didn’t like died first. But she seemed to like everybody. A veteran storyteller herself, she would have loved being written about.

This book is funny and painful, cleanly written, rich with conversation, woven with brightly colored odd threads — the Israeli border guard who agrees to meet again, in a more “equal” setting, taxi drivers, quirky elders stuck in tradition, Palestinians trapped in their own red tape, judges, young brides, old friends.

Writer Gregory Orfalea (first cousin of Paul, who founded Kinko’s) wrote, “We are moved by Shihab’s honesty, truths rarely told in American literature or news — this water, this story, is fresh.”

My father always believed if the Arabs and Jews had been left alone, they would have solved their problems long ago. Obviously they would have to respect one another. But he remembered them doing that, in mixed communities. Born in Jerusalem, he grew up there in a simpler and vastly different time — before high rises, before the United States had poured so much money into Israeli “security,” before desperate poor kids with stones were called terrorists but kids in uniforms with tanks and fancy weapons were not.  Before so much had happened and not happened in too many lives.

Kicked out of his home with his family in 1948, he traveled to the United States as a student in the early 1950s, after reading on-air news for the BBC, always hoping to go “back home” to live. It never quite worked out, though. The region’s turbulence grew worse instead of better. As a journalist at the San Antonio Express-News and The Dallas Morning News, among other places, my father became keenly aware of the ways stories about the region were and weren’t presented. So he wrote some of his own.

His previous book, A Taste of Palestine, featuring compact childhood tales and recipes, stayed in print for many years, thanks to San Antonio’s Corona Press, the late David Bowen, and Joe Labatt, who bought the press before Bowen’s death. That book opened by quoting Israeli writer Yaagob Yehoshua, who talks about Jews and Arabs being allies, “brothers,” in the old days. Unfortunately, though so many people never gave up on the “allies” idea and kept attempting to make bridges instead of walls, until now, the ones with power and big governmental money weren’t among them. Neither were the desperate ones who had lived generations of disorganized displacement and humiliation … check your headlines for the next sad installment.

But a ceaseless hope for re-connectedness and justice among peoples has always permeated my father’s vision of the conflicted region — how hard it is to hold on to that dream. We can’t solve things, but we can keep listening and speaking.

San Antonian Marie Brenner, staffer at Vanity Fair, describes Does the Land Remember Me? as “a cry from the heart and an unusual view into the soul of the exile — both nuanced and wise.” She says it is “not a polemic but a book that surprises a reader with the contradictions of its portraits.”

One thing I like best is the microcosmic land struggle within my dad’s own family counterbalancing the larger land struggle of the region. Humor grows out of abrasive little conflicts like this. My favorite wacky chapter, “The Lost Bag,” could easily be a short documentary film.

Does the Land Remember Me? features a beautiful full-color cover painting by Palestinian-San Antonian artist and activist Salwa Arnous. The Twig Book Shop will host the first autograph party for Does the Land Remember Me? on Wednesday, June 13. For tasty refreshments, a two-language signature of your own copy, and a visit with Aziz Shihab — please come. And please, don’t give up hope. This past week there was a giant “hug” around the wall of the old city, participated in by thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds. Something good can still happen.

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