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  • Published in Book Reviews

The Last Earth tells the moving stories of eight Palestinian women’s and men’s experiences of persecution and the refugee camps, finds Ellen Graubart

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Ramzy Baroud, The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story (Pluto Press 2018), xvi, 278pp.

The bifurcated olive tree, growing out of a large rock in a parched and stony landscape, depicted on the front cover of The Last Earth, is a powerful metaphor for the steadfastness and determination of the Palestinian people to regain their land and lives. This book is a very moving collection of personal stories, which Ramzy Baroud has woven into the form of a novel, spanning the decades of persecution and brutalities inflicted by the state of Israel in its pursuit of its version of settler colonialism, which has been aided and abetted by Western imperialism.

The overlapping and converging stories are those of eight Palestinians, four men and four women, from 1948 to the present. Baroud’s beautiful prose flows like a series of streams and rivulets intermingling and diverging in time and space, and at times the narrative style calls to mind a category of work where reality and fiction merge:

‘What may, at times, read as a form of magic realism (for example, ‘Spirits of the Orchard’) is, in fact a reflection of the strong belief held by some of the characters, who truly believed – or needed to trust in – the supernatural and the miraculous’ (p.267).

The preparatory work for the book involved a great deal of research, beginning with a call to Palestinians everywhere to share their stories, while attempting to relate them to the collective Palestinian narrative. Baroud used print, online publication and social media to circulate a statement, written in Arabic, English, Spanish and French to make contact with Palestinians in refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria. Several young Palestinian journalists became involved in the project, including a dedicated Gaza-based writer and Ph.D (candidate) history student, Yousef Aljamal, and an award-winning documentary filmmaker, Salwa Amor, who had previouslydocumented refugee stories, mainly in Syria and Lebanon. Baroud also collected stories from those who had escaped from the Syrian war for Turkey, Greece and the rest of Europe.

A collective Palestinian story

With the help of American-Italian editor and journalist Daniela Loffreda, Baroud sorted through hundreds of profiles, of which fifty were selected for lengthy interviews, most of which were conducted by Skype. The stories were selected on a basis of fair representation between male and female correspondents and geographical location, to show how representative each story was in terms of the collective story of the Palestinian people, and to reflect the current distribution of Palestinian communities world-wide.

Building on his Ph.D research on peoples’ history with Professor Ilan Pappe  at the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter, Baroud has transformed and distilled a painstaking and lengthy research project involving countless interviews, collaborations and discussions into a coherent novel, therebycomplementing the existing scholarly tradition by adding the authentic voice of the people as principal narrators. Through these personal accounts, he illuminates the suffering and the destruction of their lives, livelihoods and homes before, during and after the Nakba (the Palestinian word for catastrophe) of 1948, which enabled the creation and brutal birth of the state of Israel. This is a historical event which nevertheless continues to this day, affecting the lives of the Palestinian people every moment of every day, whether they live in Palestine/Israel, or live or were born in refugee camps where their families had fled to avoid persecution.

‘The Last Earth is a unique document in narrative form of a people’s history that challenges both earlier academic and popular takes on the collective Palestinian story, regardless of who has told it and why’ (Postscript, p.265).

It is the culmination of several books by Ramzy Baroud dedicated to investigating an alternative approach to communicating the Palestinian story and focusing on re-telling the story from the viewpoint of ordinary, poor, underclass, and working-class Palestinians, rather than from an Israeli perspective or the typical elitist narrative (p.267).

‘Each chapter is a separate story, and read individually, is like an icon for the experience of an entire generation. When read as a whole, the book tells the story of a people whose history cannot be reduced to a timeline of conflict, but rather is embroidered and torn with complex human emotions, hope, dreams, struggles and priorities that seem to pay no heed to politics, the military balance or ideological rivalries’ (Postscript, p.266).

Through the telling of these stories Baroud has also provided a way for the reader to fully understand the connection between the destruction of urban space in Palestine in 1948 and that of Syria since 2011:

‘The inhumanity that engulfed the Palestinians once more has also affected millions of others in the region. The barbarity raging in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen deserves our attention and condemnation. Nonetheless we should not forget that this kind of inhumanity prevailed in Palestine for more than a century and that global indifference towards, and indeed quite often support for, it is one of the major reasons that the West feels and remains helpless in the light of the present carnage. It is only through paying attention to the Western role in the dispossession of the Palestinians, which began one hundred years ago with the Balfour Declaration, that the West’s responsibility for the mayhem in the Middle East can be fully appreciated’ (Foreword by Ilan Pappe, p.xv).

Stories from Yarmouk

‘Shit River’, the first story Baroud tells, is Khaled Abdul Ghani al-Lubani’s story. He was otherwise known as ‘Marco’ because of his obsession with Marco Polo, whose adventures he had learned about at Kawcab Elementary School in the Syrian refugee camp of Yarmouk, where he was born (the camp had been set up in 1957 for thousands of dispossessed Palestinians during the Suez crisis and was home to the largest community of Palestinians in Syria).

‘Yarmouk was ever present in Khaled’s soul, pulling him in and out of an abyss of persistent fears, urging him to never return. What was he without Yarmouk, his first haven, his last earth?’ (p.3).

Intense fighting in 2012 between the Free Syrian Army and the PFLP-GC, supported by Syrian Army government forces during the Syrian Civil War turned Yarmouk into a battle ground of carnage. Various warring factions consequently took over the camp, which was then deprived of supplies, causing hunger, disease and many deaths.

Khaled felt strongly Palestinian in spite of the fact that all he knew about Palestine existed only in books, or as ‘the tattered map in his family’s living room, and in old fables conveyed by long-dead grandparents’ (p.3).As a child he had been taught that he would never leave Yarmouk unless it was to reach the family’s home village in northern Palestine, and only then would true freedom be attained, and his family’s honour be restored. He spoke to Baroud of Palestine ‘as if she were a woman; a beloved mother that was lost somewhere on the dusty trail of an unending journey’ (p.xvii).

The atmosphere in Yarmouk was one of fear and mistrust of the government and the factions that spoke on behalf of the refugees and supposedly protected them. This fear was mirrored in the isolation in which his very strict parents kept him: he never left his neighbourhood except in the company of his father, or to walk to school and back, ‘always in one straight line, never deviating or pausing’ (p.10).

The inferno of war in Syria, and a betrayal by a man whose life he had saved, forced him and Maysam Saeed, his Syrian lover (whom he had met as a volunteer in Yarmouk’s Palestine hospital), to flee, along with other refugees; Palestinians, Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans. Khaled’s story is of his countless attempts to cross the sea to Greece and reach the safety of Serbia. Maysam succeeds in making her way to a haven in Sweden, but Khaled is repeatedly caught by the authorities, spends time in prison, escapes, and walks hundreds of miles along dusty roads in bare and bloodied feet.

He is finally within a hair’s breadth of freedom when he manages to board a bus to Belgrade only to be arrested and taken back to the border. Dazed and devoid of fear or any feelings at all, he resumes his journey to Serbia as if he was back in time, still walking to his resting place – as he had walked long ago to Kakwab Elementary School in Yarmouk, ‘no deviations, no talking to strangers, just keeping to what was familiar to him, in one straight line’ (p.38). As far as we know, he is still walking that one straight line.

Umm Marwan

‘The Spirit of the Orchard’isTamam Nasser’s story. Known as Umm Marwan (Mother of Marwan), Tamam, like most women of that generation, was illiterate, yet ‘possessed the heart of a self-aware rebel’:

‘Not only did they raise children and make ends meet in dire circumstances, but they also protected their families by fighting with soldiers, and laboured to build communities in overcrowded and impoverished camps’(p.77).

She had been a friend of Ramzy Baroud’s mother in the Gaza refugee camp where he was born and raised, and he had had the pleasure of meeting her on several occasions. By the time Tamam was born, in the Palestinian village of Joulis, the British had already colonised Palestine for decades.

The Palestinian Jews lived behind walls and trenches, but moved freely amongst the fellahin, shopping in their markets and seeking advice on agriculture and telling the signs of the seasons. All of this changed when the military began to roam their village. Her father Yousef often spoke ‘about the betrayal of their Jewish neighbours, and of a conspiracy between the Zionists and the British’, with the implication being that the presence of the military had destroyed the trust that had existed between the two communities (p.82). War then broke out, and in order to ensure her children’s safety and keep them close at home, Tamam’s mother told them a story of a frightening ghoul that roamed outside Joulis. The ghoul becomes associated with the orchard and turns out to be benign and a protector of the family. The theme of the orchard runs like a thread throughout Tamam Nasser’s story as a place of solace and sanctuary, mystery and danger.

Tamam’s story begins with her son, Kamal, in a prison cell, scratching on the walls the names of everyone he loved, starting with the name of his mother, whom he loved the most. He had been dragged out of his house into the street in the middle of the night by soldiers with dogs, beaten up and dumped in prison. During the ordeal he had hardly been conscious of anything but his mother’s bloodcurdling screams:

‘He would never forget the pain inflicted on his beloved mother, whose wailing echoed in him like a broken record. In a ring of small flowers, her name would be the first to be immortalized on his prison cell’ (pp.79-80).

He was tortured many times but refused to divulge any names of fellow revolutionaries. Finally, he was beaten to a pulp, every bone in his body broken, and dumped in an orchard. He died of brain cancer many years later and was buried in the Martyr’s Graveyard. Umm Marwen, immensely proud of her son, never ceased in her rebellion against the occupation, spreading the message of her son’s revolutionary actions, standing on the frontline of every protest and attending every funeral of the camp’s many martyrs: ‘all sons of fellahin who believed that a utopia was possible’ (pp.111-12).

Palestinian society is divided by class. The fellahin, mostly poor peasants, have suffered the most and have fought the hardest; socialist elements and growing political awareness have had their influence on the opposition to Israeli aggression. The young Kamal:

‘was a rebellious, skinny and strange child who always mumbled about socialism and a utopian world where the fellahin united and liberated their land from oppressive landlords and the armies that protected them’ (p.97).

As a school boy he had been caught, slapped and held for days by Israeli soldiers for displaying a crayon-coloured image of the Palestinian flag. He was also a solitary boy with an obsession for reading, and had educated himself, absorbing the works of Marx and Gramsci. His brand of revolutionary Marxism was, he felt, all the refugee camp needed to be able to ‘throw these occupiers back to whatever European hell they came from’. Blessed with a charismatic personality, he became leader of the youth unit of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine: he persuaded them that it was up to the fellahin to rise again and ‘redeem the sins of a generation that was dishonoured beyond redemption’ (p.98).

From British occupation to modern imperialism

Although the fellahin were not as politically aware as the educated elite Palestinians who lived in the cities, it was becoming clear to them that the British army and the Jewish settlers were colluding against them in the constant robbery of fellahin land by both, which was being mirrored in other parts of Palestine as well. The following is from Ahmad’s story, ‘Abu Sandal – The One with the Slippers’:

‘As Khaleel [Ahmad’s father] and his children worked on his land, a political transition was taking place, one that aimed at changing the ownership of Khaleel’s land, and all the land owned by the fellahin and even the larger clans as well’ (p.53).

The history continues:

‘By the end of 1939, the British agreed to end land transfers from Arabs to Jewish settlers, but the decision came too late. That year Europe exploded into unprecedented fury. If the First World War led to the demise of the Ottomans and the advent of British rule over Palestine, the Second World War ushered in the end ofBritish rule and the demise of the fellahin’ (p.55).

Later, Kamal was just one of many of the youth who took on the responsibility of leadership to challenge the Israelis and the traditional order of Palestine itself. The uprising, the first Intifada, broke out in December 6, 1987, and thousands of youth took to the streets. A third generation of fellahin born in refugee camps fearlessly faced a well-quipped Israeli army that was visibly gripped by fear.

­The settler colonial project engineered early on by the first Zionists has been firmly entrenched in Israeli law: the state operates a form of apartheid, treating the Palestinian population as second-class citizens. That the Palestinian people have lived peacefully - along with their Jewish neighbours - in that part of the world for thousands of years is irrelevant; they are simply in the way because of their geographical situation. 

The Zionists’ goal to set up a Jewish state coincided neatly with the western agenda of gaining and maintaining control of the Middle East, for strategic reasons and to control the supply of ample oil reserves in the area. The state of Israel functions as a sort of ‘seventh fleet’ in the area, in exchange for guaranteed support by the West, mainly the US.

The historical oppression of the Palestinian people is their daily reality, the repercussions of which have spread throughout the entire region like a festering wound. Thousands upon thousands more lives in the area are being destroyed as unrest and destabilization spreads. This has resulted in pointless wars, devastating whole countries: Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen. The resulting tide of people seeking sanctuary in the West has had the doors slammed shut in their faces by the very powers that facilitated the Nakba, and continue to push the colonial settler agenda.

No one in power seems to have the will to find a peaceful resolution to the wars, or the capacity to address the overwhelming tragedy of the tide of refugees pushing at the gates of Europe. The thousands of drowned bodies gathering at the bottom of the Mediterranean ocean are a shameful memorial for the tens of thousands of refugees seeking asylum from the results of the policies of those who generated the disasters and control the gates to sanctuary and the right to a normal life.

The Last Earth is a moving testament to the remarkable courage and determination of ordinary Palestinians, stubbornly refusing to bow before oppression, determined to regain their Palestine at all costs. They stand tall and proud, fighting to regain their land, protecting their children and their culture, they have shown the world that they will never give in to the Zionist occupation.

The West’s responsibility for the mayhem in the Middle East can only by fully appreciated through recognizing the Western role in the dispossession of the Palestinians, which began one hundred years ago with the Balfour Declaration. We must listen to the voices of the people from below, at the sharp end of the policies of Western imperialism that speak to us through their stories. Only then can a better and hopeful world for the Middle East be found. In the words of Ilan Pappe in his foreword toThe Last Earth:‘This book is a good place to start this journey.’

Ellen Graubart

Ellen Graubart

Ellen Graubart was born in India of American parents and came to London from Virginia as a teenager to study art. She lives and works as an artist in Hackney. She is a member of Counterfire, Stop the War and Hackney Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

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