Palestinian author Suad Amiry writes funny, gossipy books about her homeland. She tells Jaideep Sen that humour can humanise any situation
Speaking over the phone from Ramallah, Palestine, Suad Amiry has a hearty laugh to offer when informed that one critic described her first book, Sharon and My Mother-in-Law, as a Palestinian version of The Bold and the Beautiful. The book, based on her diary entries through a 42-day curfew, became a bestseller in 2004. It has been translated into 17 languages.
‘I became a writer purely by accident, thanks to [former Israeli prime minister Ariel] Sharon and my mother-in-law, who both drove me crazy during the Israeli invasion of our city in 2002 and 2003,’ recounts Amiry. ‘My mother-in-law ended up staying with me for 40 days, which felt more like 40 years. So I started writing as a way of therapy. And the soap opera about my neighbourhood was all true.’
The elements of gossip and a dogged sense of humour made the book a success, agrees Amiry. In Murad Murad (her third book, after No Sex in the City), a personal account of slipping into Israel disguised as a male labourer, there is plenty of humour, too. She writes, ‘You cannot describe a tragedy with another tragedy. People stop listening. But humour humanises.’
She continues: ‘It’s almost impossible to lead a normal life under a 42-year-old [Israeli] occupation. Being funny is a way for me to cope with reality. Many times, the situation is extremely humiliating – being searched, our houses bombarded, you can’t leave the country, and so on – and the only way you can tell a story is by being ironic and making fun of yourself, of the country, and also of the occupiers.’
The new book, Menopausal Palestine, relates Amiry’s ‘personal shock, utter disappointment and deep sadness’ after the Hamas victory in the region’s 2006 parliamentary elections. It was an astute observation of her ‘intensely menopausal friend, Varda’ that made her realise the obscure relationship between the troubled women and the ‘no-longer friendly Palestine’, writes Amiry in the book’s preface. Despite the underlying humour – now an Amiry trademark – she does make a few pointed observations, such as the change in most people around her, who didn’t want to dwell on the collective struggle.
‘I belong to the ’70s. We’re all mostly in our fifties now,’ says Amiry. ‘We grew up as a generation that faced many international issues – Vietnam, South Africa, India-Pakistan, Cyprus…The liberation of Palestine was one of many. We were mostly interested in public issues and policies then. And in a sense, we had forgotten about ourselves as individuals. After the Hamas election, when I talked to people, I realised that it was the personal histories that came across, rather than the political clichés that we grew up with.’
Amiry explains that an important point for her to note is that the women in her book are not all Palestinian. ‘They are women for Palestine,’ she clarifies. ‘There is an Arab, an Armenian, an American, an Italian, and a half-Syrian… What brought us together were the values of human rights, and the unfairness in the world, in a time when nationality and religion has become so blind.’
As for her own reality, Amiry notes that while she has obtained a Jerusalem passport for her pet terrier Nura, she herself is confined with a West Bank ID.
Amiry says she expects her new book to resonate both among people who are concerned about Palestine and among women everywhere. ‘Menopause symbolises change, losing power, becoming less beautiful. But at the same time, it has its own positive aspects of reflecting on what it is that one wants to change, and evaluating the life that one has lived for 50 years. That is also true of Palestine. It’s a moment of reflection for the Palestine Liberation Organisation – [to consider] what it is they have lost, why they have lost it, and how to regain power and charm.’ Menopausal Palestine is published by Women Unlimited. See www.womenunlimited.net