Saturday, July 30, 2011

Where the Streets Had A Name

Where the Streets Had a Name by Randa Abdel-Fattah 2010 (2008-Australia, 2009-UK)

Rating: 3/5

IQ "I suddenly understand that there is dignity in being able to claim heritage, in being able to derive identity from a rocky hill, a winding mountain road. Sitti Zeynab's village has never stopped calling her, beckoning her to return home. Her soul is stamped into these hills, and I feel her presence as strongly as if she were standing on the peak of one of the mountains." Hayaat pg. 181

Hayaat is thirteen years old but she has a clear mission: to bring back some soil from her grandmother's (Sitti Zeynab) ancestral home in Jerusalem. Samy, her best friend, will accompany her. Their journey is hindered however, by the fact that they live with their families in Bethlehem and there are curfews and checkpoints to deal with. Not to mention, the Wall that divides the West Bank and the fact that they can't travel wherever they like since they are not Israeli citizens. Samy is loyal and has a good heart, but he's obstinate and trouble follows him and his lack of respect for authority. He may put the trip in jeopardy on his own or the security checkpoints could stop them. The journey starts off on a high-note since they have a curfew-free day to travel, but it's just a start....

This is going to sound so silly to people but I was quite bothered by all the mentions of 'farting' in the book. I know I'm persnickety but I just didn't think it continually needed to be mentioned. And I'm pretty sure someone farts and another character takes note of it in every single chapter. On a more serious note, this story moves at a snail's pace. Hayaat doesn't form the idea for heading for Jerusalem until we are more than a few chapters in which I thought was frustrating. What made it more irksome was that the 'grand finale' so to speak felt rushed and the book ended on a happy but anti-climatic note. The ending just seemed odd and after the climax, I didn't understand why the book just didn't end (with a simple epilogue in place of all the details in the ending). Also, Hayaat recalls certain memories at various points in the story but they appear out-of-the-blue and it's not quite clear when her memory fades and it's back to the present.

The descriptions of life in Bethlehem are what makes this book so impressive. It's impressive because the descriptions are so simple but suddenly seemingly-mundane tasks (such as going to the grocery store) become a big deal when there is a curfew to contend with. Friends may end up as overnight guests if a curfew is ordered (sometimes random, sometimes due to protests as a form of punishment) and big celebrations could end up becoming small celebrations if travel restrictions are imposed, thereby limiting the mobility of guests. It's a ridiculous and frustrating situation especially when it limits people's abilities to get to the hospital, or attend a family wedding, etc. It's even more unbearable to read about the destruction of Palestinian homes and/or the possession of Palestinian homes by Israeli families who believe they have a claim to the land. There's a lot of Arabic food for thought, imagine being forced to leave your home (much like a refugee I think) and then essentially imprisoned in your new home. The story never becomes depressing, there are moments of levity (and no for me they did not come from farting references) especially concerning Hayaat and her beloved grandmother, Sitti Zeynab (sitti means my grandmother). The author describes people in a plain manner but with a little spark/unique touch such as when describing Sitti Zeynab's eyes "bright and untouched, having never caught up with the wrinkling, shrinking curse of the clock" (pg. 233).

One thing I am absolutely positive about is that when you finish Where the Streets Had a Name you will question (if you hadn't already) the Israeli government's treatment of Palestinians as well as America's policy towards Palestine. That's not to say there aren't sympathetic Israeli characters, as in real life, the characters are all human and Hayaat realizes that the Israeli soldiers have families, and that not all Israelis hate Palestinians. I think the author should have included an afterword explaining the situation because I was still curious/confused about quite a bit (for example: who orders curfews, the military or the government?). And obviously you can't make up your mind about such a complex issue after reading one or two or three books on the subject, after all this has been an issue since the '50s. Samy is an interesting best friend, I admired his spirit and obstinacy while at the same time it made me wince. I was glad that Hayaat had him at her side. A more concise ending, smoother transitions, and fewer mentions of bodily odors would have been nice. Hayaat's family is entertaining but mysterious since they aren't on the journey to Jerusalem with her, the reader learns little about them. Hayaat is a likable, genuine, brave main character but she wasn't particularly memorable in my mind. Furthermore, the glossary was strange to me because it didn't list definitions of every word mentioned (such as the 'curse' words or expressions). A good story with uncomplicated descriptions but complicated characters who needed to be more fleshed out, it moves slowly and while it took me some time to remember to go back to the story, I always remembered eventually. My favorite book by the author (and one I would recommend starting with if you want a hysterically funny read) is still Does My Head Look Big in This?

Disclosure: From the library

PS I really liked this quote from Sitti Zeynab "We Arabs say that the wound that bleeds inwardly is the most dangerous" (pg. 54). What an eloquent, interesting and accurate way of describing how hate can eat at your insides (so to speak).