The affecting story of an unlikely truce, even a peace, between Palestinians and Israelis in contested territory.
The symbolic center of radio documentarian Tolan’s (Me and Hank, 2000) latest could not be simpler: In an old garden in the town Arabs call al-Ramla and Jews Ramla (neither name to be confused with the West Bank town of Ramallah, 20 miles away), a family cultivated a lemon tree that provided shade and refreshment for many years. When the Khairi family left al-Ramla, driven out in the Israeli War of Independence—a time Palestinians call Nakba, “the catastrophe”—a family of Bulgarian Jews took over the property, which, as far as they knew, had been “abandoned.” Drawing on interviews and oral histories, Tolan reconstructs the stories each family, Khairi and Eshkenazi, told about their respective displacements, the lands they left behind, those who died and were born. His book begins with the arrival of three young Palestinian men in Ramla shortly after the Six Day War; stopping at houses they had once lived in, they asked the new inhabitants whether they could step inside to see them. Only one woman, a Tel Aviv university student named Dalia Eshkenazi, assented. “She knew,” writes Tolan, “that it was not advisable in the wake of war for a young Israeli woman to invite three Arab men inside her house”; yet she did, and from that simple act, a sort of friendship evolved, even as events made Dalia more resolute in her defense of Israel and turned the oldest of the men, Bashir Al-Khairi, into a freedom fighter—or terrorist, if you will—in the Palestinian cause. Through broad sweeps of narrative going back and forward in time, Tolan’s sensitively told, eminently fair-minded narrative closes with a return to that lemon tree and its promise of reconciliation.
Humane and literate—and rather daring in suggesting that the future of the Middle East need not be violent.