I seldom read books from cover to cover. But when I received Kenneth Ring's book, Letters from Palestine, I couldn't put it down.
Ken presents a collection of personal stories from Palestinians, inside and outside the occupied territories, that provide penetrating insights - sometimes harrowing, sometimes funny, always fascinating - into their daily lives and thoughts. It would not surprise me if, in time, these accounts became inscribed in Palestinian folklore.
They reveal the Palestinians' strength of character so well. For these are among the world's most civilised and sophisticated people. They have withstood 90 years of betrayal and humiliation, and still they bubble with humour and friendship, thanks to their resilience and a gritty determination to overcome the collective and individual tragedies inflicted on them.
The thirty whose voices are heard in the letters they write to their American friend, are a wonderfully varied group.
One young lady says that, for her, the adeyat phalastin (question of Palestine) is the ultimate fight for humanity and justice. "And being Palestinian reminds me every day that justice and human rights can never be taken for granted. Because, in theory, every person is entitled to equality and his or her rights. In reality they are a privilege a select few enjoy."
A young Palestinian-American woman visiting family members in Birzeit comments: "Despite the occupation, Palestinians still remain some of the most educated people in the Arab world. They sit at the checkpoint if they can't make it to school and read their books, or have class right there if their teacher happens to be around..."
She tells how "the majority of the students I worked with at the camp had a parent or a sibling in jail. One boy's father was shot by Israeli soldiers right in front of his eyes. Many of the children wore pictures of dead loved ones or of martyrs around their necks or on their shirts. It was a constant part of their lives."
Fareed, a peace activist, challenges Israel's claims that the clamp-down on Palestinian movement is in response to the new Hamas-led government. "The reality is that Israel first established its system of permits and closures in 1991, and we have been living under these difficult conditions ever since."
The first-hand accounts of terrified families trying to survive the horror and devastation unleashed by Israel on the Gaza Strip in December 2008 are very powerful indeed. As Ken himself reminds us, "by the time it was over nearly seven thousand Gazans had either been killed or wounded, and Gaza itself had been largely reduced to smoke, burning phosphorous, and rubble".
The book's hard message is softened by the many threads of humour. "In spite of the terrible hardship, you still won't find people sleeping on pavements like in New York or London," says Ghassan. "So we guess we still have a long way to go before we become an advanced society."
He observes that Israel is losing the demographic war with the Palestinians. "What do you expect people locked up in their homes to do, especially when the power is cut off by the Israeli Army and no TV?"
I laughed out loud at Ghassan's pithy jokes and found myself cheering Manar's exploits, which she reported to her university chums back home in the US. But then I was brought down to earth with a jolt by Ramzy Baraud's heartbreaking account of how his freedom-fighter father, ill and prevented by the Israelis from leaving Gaza for treatment, died there alone, cut off from his family.
Discovering that two of Ken's contributors were friends of mine was a wonderful surprise. Jiries Canavati (I call him George) was a survivor of the infamous 40-day siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 2002. It is a gripping story of great courage. In the end they had to surrender, but the eyes of the world were on the Church by then.
George was lucky. Many who came out of the Church alive were deported. The Israelis put him on a blacklist. "So I can't leave Bethlehem now. I can't move anywhere. Bethlehem is like a big jail, and that's it... I am a Christian, but there were both Muslims and Christians together in the siege. The relationship became very friendly. We respect ourselves, we respect each other, and we love each other. And they said, now the Church of the Nativity is the most important place and very special for us because this place protected all of us."
George has very recently set up an organisation called Bethlehem Fair Trade Artisans, which promotes small craft workshops. Ken won't mind, I'm sure, if I give this brave man's new venture a plug by mentioning the link, [...].
The second courageous friend is that young Gazan photo-journalist Mohammed Omer. Sheer professionalism, and a determination to tell the unvarnished truth about Gaza to the western world, earned him the coveted Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in 2008 while he was still only 23. He received the award in London and went on a speaking tour of European capitals. On the way home to his family in Gaza he was detained and brutally beaten up by Israeli border and security thugs at the Allenby Bridge crossing from Jordan, and hospitalized with severe injuries. In the book Mo tells the shocking story in his own words.
Perhaps Mo's darkest hour - and he must have had many in his young life - was in January 2009 at the height of Israel's vicious blitzkrieg on Gaza's civilians. He wrote to me: "I have been in Holland the past few weeks in hospital, with high fever and following up Gaza's appalling situations. My family have been under very awful situations, but today I managed to get hold of them finally and they are all alive. Some damages around, but that doesn't matter as long as they are alive. I have been so worried and also sad to lose some of my friends who are journalists and others were injured... shame on the international community to allow this to happen."
Yes indeed, shame on the international community which, 18 months later, has still done nothing to resolve the situation and actually rewards the lawless Israeli regime while it continues air strikes and threatens to repeat the atrocities.
Ken writes from a humanistic standpoint, as befits a professor of psychology. He treats those he meets with sensitivity and respect. His great affection for them shines through at all times.
And I like the way he came to the task almost by accident, as I did, after reading a book by a remarkable peace activist. It changed his life completely, he says.
Palestinians have been stripped of nearly everything - their lands, water resources, possessions, dignity, quality of life - and are left with only their education (which the Israelis do their damnedest to disrupt) and their culture. Women value education, pursue it energetically and hold down responsible jobs. I think their influence would surprise westerners.
This is not to say that the menfolk neglect their education. On the contrary. Palestine's strangulated economy is full of well-qualified men. But it is right that many of Ken's contributors are female. Despite decades of deprivation and hardship the rich Palestinian-Arab culture survives. The women, with their resourcefulness and strong sense of family, have seen to it and injected it with an indomitable spirit.
Letters from Palestine will put you through the emotional wringer - you'll share the laughter, pride, helplessness, despair, anger and even the camaraderie. It is written with a pleasant light touch while providing an accurate portrayal of the plight of the Palestinians.
The picture painted by Kenneth Ring and his friends is, of course, seriously at odds with the one invented and broadcast by the propagandists in Tel Aviv and their hirelings in the US and British governments. Anyone who has been to the occupied Holy Land knows that Letters from Palestine speaks the truth.
And Ken's being Jewish makes the book all the more remarkable. I see it as one of the few beacons of decency in a swamp of deceit, and I would like one day to shake him by the hand.
I understand that proceeds from the book are to be split between the Atfaluna School for the Deaf in Gaza, where Ken sponsors a child, and civil society NGOs in the West Bank with which co-author Ghassan Abdullah is associated.
God and Allah bless you, Kenneth Ring, for your gift to better understanding.