Countless accounts have been documented regarding the conflict in Palestine informing readers of the causes, developments and outcomes of the issue. Most of them, however, have failed to effectively recount how individual lives changed in the region and in many ways deteriorated, not only for the Palestinians but also for several Israelis consumed by the guilt induced in them by the actions of the Jewish state.
American journalist Sandy Tolan`s The Lemon Tree, a piece of narrative non-fiction, provides a `much needed human perspective` on the said conflict. The book centers on the lives of Bashir Khairi, a Palestinian Arab from the town of Al-Ramla and Dalia Eshkenazi, a Bulgarian Jewish settler residing in Al-Ramla.
The author compassionately documents the history of the Khairi family which had been well-settled in Al-Ramla for centuries, but was forcefully expelled from their homes — along with several other Palestinian families — by the Jewish Agency so that space could be created for Jews migrating from all over the world to Palestine. The home which was once Bashir`s now belonged to the Eshkenazis. The Khairis, once prosperous, had been reduced to the status of refugees in their own land — a most abnormal phenomenon. There are also references to massacres in the village of Deir Yassin and other such incidents which instilled fear among the Arabs of al-Ramla and Lydda.
Tolan narrates how Dalia Eshkenazi`s parents emigrated from Bulgaria during the regime of King Boris III, who had agreed to Hitler`s condition of transporting the Jews under his jurisdiction to various death camps in Germany and Poland in exchange for maintaining territorial sovereignty. At the same time, the author relates the woes of the Khairis after they were expelled from their homes and arrived in Ramallah as refugees. Their living conditions only worsened with time, but Bashir and the others continue to hope that they will return to all that was theirs.
Tolan narrates how Bashir finally undertakes the journey to Al-Ramla, 20 years after his family`s expulsion from that town, and is greeted by the then 19-year old Dalia who lives in his house which also houses the lemon tree planted by the Khairis.
This encounter results in a friendship which lasts over four decades and leads to understanding the perspective of the `other` and an alternative insight into why and how things happened as they did. As the Jewish state had already taken liberties with the UN partition line which was prescribed at the end of the British mandate, and as the tensions kept on mounting between Israel and its neighbours, the Palestinians had started to recognise that `their return would not come about through diplomatic pressure,` especially when they were dealing with a leadership high on its newfound hubris of having transformed from not just a victim to victor, but also occupier.
Tolan`s idea of presenting history as a narrative gives his writing an extraordinary perception into the personalities of Bashir and Dalia, and eventually into the psychological and human cost of the Palestinian conflict itself. Despite the open dialogue between the two, Bashir remains a stateless Palestinian still hoping toreturn to his childhood home in Al-Ramla.
The book relates in detail and with an adequate degree of compassion the consciousness of the exiled — both exile within and from one`s homeland. The author clearly understands the futility of resorting to violence and drastic measures and yet choosing to do so for lack of a better and effective strategy. The question of violence dealt with in this specific context automatically relates to the idea that violence only breeds more violence — cases in point being Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq where countless once-harmless civilians have decided to take this road since their loved ones are dying daily leaving them very little to live for.
The book also mentions in passing Bashir`s suspicions regarding a Jewish nationalist movement taking its course at a particular time in history. The most interesting parts in the book centre on conversations between Dalia and Bashir in which each attempts to understand each other`s plight; a situation made all-the-more painful and burdensome because of a shared history and a lost home.
Dalia, despite condemning the treatment of Palestinians by the Israelis, refuses to agree with their right of return which would displace the Israelis settled in their homes. After all, many Jewish settlers were made to believe that `a land without people` was awaiting the so-called landless people. It is only after a long time that Dalia finally discovers the various reasons behind Bashir`s resolve to never give up on the Palestinian right of return.
Tolan`s idea of presenting history as a narrative gives his writing an extraordinary perception into the personalities of Bashir and Dalia, and eventually into the psychological and human cost of the Palestinian conflict itself. However, despite the open dialogue between the two, Bashir remains a stateless Palestinian Arab still hoping to return to his childhood home in Al-Ramla. This hope is in every bit legitimate but hardly realistic, considering continues Israeli expansionism in the region. And yet, it is no less realistic than the hope-turned-reality of Jews to occupy the Promised Land after 2000 years in exile.