By Nafiza Azad
What is home? How do you define home? Is it the land your village/town/city stands on? Is it the houses that are monuments to your childhood? Or is it the people without whom you would not exist?
Susan Muaddi Darraj’s A Curious Land: Stories from Home attempts to answer these questions. The stories in Darraj’s collection are almost always set in the village of Tel al-Hilou in Palestine and centre on the inhabitants of the village.
What makes this book and the stories within it so brilliant? Ah well, there isn’t just one thing but a multitude. First of all, the stories in this book span nearly a century with the first one set in 1916 and the final one set in 1998. Secondly, while this book does not avoid politics (one could argue that to be Palestinian is a political act), the manner in which Darraj illustrates the creeping nature of Israeli occupation is superlative. Rather than a dialectic path, Darraj works implicit and explicit moments into the stories that delineate the oppression with understated and powerful profundity. This is most especially true in “Intifada Love Story” where four Israeli soldiers camp out on the roof of a house in Tel al-Hilou and threaten the inhabitants of the house with physical violence if they do not listen to their demands. The story is centred on Jamil, the teenaged son of the couple living in the house, who quickly realizes the fleeting nature of life and love when faced with the possible termination of both. However, it is not the presence of the Israeli soldiers that strikes a chord with the readers but the very last act of cruelty they commit before they leave: the soldiers dump their bodily wastes into the family’s water tank and only water supply before leaving.
A central theme to all the stories is love and not just the romantic love the poets sing about but love in all its shades and glories. One of my favourites (though all of them are beautiful) is “Rocky Soil” which tells the initially tragic tale of Emad and Evaline who, though sharing a mutual love, are unable to be together because her family prefers a suitor based in America. To them, living in America automatically means wealth and grandeur. Emad is left heartbroken after Evaline is married off and his reaction to his emotional hurt is to change priorities. He starts saving almost maniacally, not for any specific reason but because not having enough is what cost him Evaline. When she returns two years later, broken and divorced, with a daughter, he has a second chance but this time it is his family members who raise objections. The way he resolves this new conflict is what makes this story a thing of beauty.
A Curious Land is full of many iterations of femininity: strong women, meek women, weak women, women ruled by their hearts and women ruled by their heads. My favourite character is one who pops up in many of the stories. Salma is initially introduced in the second story when she helps her grandfather conceal some of their neighbours from people in the village bent on revenge. Throughout the book she is present as a confidante, helper, daughter, beloved, and finally, a memory. Her story, “Behind the Pillars of the Orthodox Church,” reveals the tragedy that set Miss Salma’s life on its course. The poignancy of the lost love juxtaposed with the crooked preacher in the story who uses his position to further his amorous exploits makes this tale a memorable one. All the women in the book are wonderfully depicted with all their flaws and humanity intact.
I cannot talk about this book without talking about the language Darraj uses to tell this story. Evocative, probing, and at times sparse, the prose pulls together the characters and makes them into people. It colours in the setting and makes the land home. An example:
“The night before, to keep the wolves away, he had played a melody on a flute, a hardened reed onto which he had hollowed out four holes. A sorrowful tune was all that could be played on it, whispering its way huskily into the crisp dark night, echoing in the walls of the cave…”
So, what is home? Is it the pieces of the land you carry in your bones when you travel away from it? Is it the whispered secrets you heard through open windows on dark nights? Is it the place the childhood bloomed? Is it the image you see that moment when you close your eyes for the final time before returning to your creator?
In Susan Muaddi Darraj’s A Curious Land: Stories from Home, home is a village that endures oppression and time. The village’s people live and die, leaving behind legacies and families. Home is the place they return to helplessly because it won’t let them go.
Nafiza Azad has a BA in English Literature and an MA in Children’s Literature from the University of British Columbia. She has a passion for pineapple and poetry. She writes children’s literature and is represented by Katelyn Detweiler from Jill Grinberg Literary Agency.