Arthur Neslen, In Your Eyes a Sandstorm: Ways of Being Palestinian (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), hardcover, xiv+306 pp.
Reviewed by Silvia Pasquetti, University of Cambridge, firstname.lastname@example.org
In In Your Eyes a Sandstorm Arthur Neslen takes readers on a journey through “the many layers of Palestinian experience” (p.4) by way of fifty interviews with ordinary as well as more renowned Palestinians living in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon. He starts with the viewpoints of Palestinians in their teens and ends with the memories of those who experienced the cataclysmic events of the Nakba (catastrophe)—the destruction and dispersal of Palestinian society in 1948—and, before then, of the defeated Palestinian revolt against British rule in 1936. The title of the book comes from a poem by Tawfiq Ziad and refers to the different ways in which Palestinians have resisted displacement and dispossession, thus remaining as a “sandstorm” in the eyes of powerful forces, which have attempted to silence them. Neslen also uses the expression when he presents the goals of the book. He states that the book aims to show how his interviewees are normal human beings dealing with difficult individual and collective situations. He hopes that this focus on the basic human qualities of his interviewees helps “to remove some sand from the eyes” (p.11) of the readers pushing them to go beyond the tendency to approach Palestinian lives from within the Jewish Israeli national narrative or, by contrast, as mere individual reflections of the collective Palestinian history.
Neslen’s deep empathy, exceptional listening and communicative skills, and magnificent mastery of the writing craft make the journey engaging, at times surprising, often distressing due to the palpable suffering that exudes from the text. I suspect this is the case for both the well-informed readers, including, I am sure, those with a personal involvement in Palestinian society, and those for whom the book is a first-time “encounter” with ordinary Palestinians beyond the news headlines. This is an impressive achievement especially given that Neslen does not speak Arabic and conducted his interviews in English or more often with the help of translators. Neslen’s genuine attempts to connect with his interviewees and overcome distance, distrust, and language barriers truly come alive when he negotiates moments of tension as in the interview with Huda, a Hamas media liaison, or when he interviews ordinary Palestinians including villagers, fishermen, drug-dealers, students, artists, and even a taxidermist and zoo curator.
The strength of the book also lies in its organization. The decision to move from the youngest to the eldest generation instead of the more typical progression from the past to the present gives dynamism to the collection of interviews. It foregrounds the human qualities of the interviewees as they speak about their day-to-day concerns, frustrations, hopes, and traumas while offering a present-day perspective on the memories and experiences of the older generations. The decision to group interviewees according to age range rather than place of residence also renders the book particularly vital, often highlighting the stark contrast between the life trajectories of differently situated Palestinians. This is for example evident when one juxtaposes the interview with the two militants of the Islamic Jihad in their early thirties living in the Jenin refugee camp, who have practically come to embody political activism and who are uncomfortable speaking about other things to a stranger, with the interview that follows with two renowned Palestinian comedians of the same age living inside Israel, who speak about their gradual discovery of Palestinian identity. The interludes that summarize key historical events are helpful in orienting the readers through the many changes in Palestinian history and sensitizing them to the interviewees’ repeated exposure to traumatic situations of war, dispossession, and displacement. Finally, the decision to add the author’s perspective to the myriad of opinions and viewpoints that emerge from the interviews adds a sense of authenticity to the book. More or less explicitly, Neslen extends his interest in and understanding of human suffering and resistance against oppression to a connection between the Palestinian experiences of marginalization, ghettoization, and stigmatization and the predicament of oppression historically experienced by the Jewish population.
While Neslen often uses poignant quotes from the interviews to convey a vivid sense of how different segments of Palestinians think and feel about their lives, the quotes are typically brief and I was left wanting to hear more stories and comments directly from the interviewees. The length of the book (306 pages) and the goal of offering a tapestry of voices across time and space justify the use of short quotes. Yet, longer quotes might have deepened our understanding of the different experiences of the Palestinians that Neslen interviewed, especially those who, as he puts it, might not be interviewed again in their lives. Another criticism relates to what is not included in the book: the voices of the many Palestinians living in other areas of the world, for example, the Gulf, the United States, and Europe. Their inclusion would have enriched this already brimming account of “ways of being Palestinian,” especially as their relationships with Palestinian identity and history are salient for some of the Palestinians that Neslen interviewed. For example, Abdul, an artist in his mid-twenties living in the Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon, commented about the Palestinians living in Europe and America: “We lose more than them if we neglect them” (p.41).
But these are minor criticisms. The original materials offered in this book are quite compelling in showing how the interviewed Palestinians are themselves on both a personal journey and a national one, both journeys being punctuated by recurrent traumas from loss of land to violent death, from physical displacement to imprisonment and torture. Three themes are particularly central to the varied “ways of being Palestinian” discussed in this book: 1) the embodied dimension of suffering under the constraining and at times immobilizing pressure of the Israeli state, its legal system, and its coercive agencies; 2) the search for respect, dignity, and value; and 3) the orientations towards other segments of Palestinians. The embodiment of oppression is cogently captured by the collapse and hospitalization of Nuri, a Bedouin activist in his mid-sixties, after a string of state-initiated actions against him ranging from his expulsion from the Negev, where he was born and owns land, to his arrest for opening a garage without license. It is also well captured by the words of a young homosexual Palestinian living in Ramallah and hoping to move to Europe when he explains that he needs to keep in mind the Shabak’s (the Israeli main security agency’s) practice of recruiting informers as he negotiates his intimate and affective life. The search for respect and value runs through many if not all the interviews but is paired to different things, most prominently to the connection with the land but also to “the street” in the case of the drug-dealer in East Jerusalem and to a dangerous activity as in the case of the tunnel engineer in Gaza. The interviews often include references to Palestinians with a different background especially those living across borders. For example, Tamer Nafar, a member of a renowned Israeli Palestinian hip-hop group from Lyd emphasizes that they are “superstars” when they play in Ramallah or Bethlehem (p.71) while Diana Buttu, a lawyer whose family comes from Nazareth, though she grew up abroad and now lives in Ramallah, complains that Palestinians in the West Bank “think they’re more nationalistic than people [Palestinians] inside Israel” (p.89). While Neslen states that reconnecting the different segments of Palestinians “may prove akin to piecing back together the shell of a shattered egg” (p. 16), I think that the stories that he includes in his book offer a complex image of a society surely traumatized and fragmented and yet, one still capable of generating positive energies and perhaps a renewed language of in-group solidarity.
This book fits well on a shelf with other recently published interview-based works on ordinary Palestinian lives including Dina Matar’s What It Means to be Palestinians and Fatma Kassem’s Palestinian Women. It also complements Nesler’s Occupied Minds, his previous interview-based study of Jewish Israeli society. My hope is that this book will inspire other scholars to pay more attention to the everyday lives of ordinary Palestinians, to excavate their social histories, and to cross borders to draw comparisons and make connections between Palestinians living in different places.