Based on real-life events, Professor Stuart Rees outlines the plot of his latest novel.
In the United States primary contests, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders has insisted that his country should at last have due regard for the dignity of all Palestinians and should no longer merely accept dictates from Israel.
In the forthcoming Australian election, candidates could also be tested on whether they have the courage to speak about the worsening Palestinian tragedy, or whether they will continue to accept Israel’s disdain for human rights and for international law.
In 2003, Australians witnessed a nation-wide controversy as to whether a distinguished Palestinian leader should be allowed to visit Australia to receive an international award for peace. That Palestinian and the individuals who supported her faced ferocious opposition.
That controversy is retold in a novel based largely on the murder of a Palestinian journalist, the 2002 massacre in a Jenin refugee camp and the Israeli lobby’s efforts to stop a Palestinian leader from telling the story of these atrocities.
The Story So Far
Former Australian journalist Tom Markson is passionate about the plight of Palestinians.
He is also infatuated with a young Jewish activist, Naomi, who leaves Australia to work with a Palestinian human rights organization. Soon after her arrival in Jerusalem, a close friend of Tom’s, Walid Asiri, is murdered. Within days of that happening a massacre occurs in a Jenin refugee camp and huge efforts are made by politicians and by a compliant mainstream media to suppress accounts of the murder and the massacre.
Tom and Naomi resolve that the story of these violent events should be told and that the best person to do this is a principled human rights investigator, Dr Fadeela Qubra.
To do justice to his friend Walid, and to give Fadeela the chance to tell the story, Tom nominates her for an international award for peace.
This nomination of Fadeela is opposed by an Israeli lobby, including significant politicians, frightened university managers and compliant journalists. Tom and Naomi deal with the intrigue, cowardice and desire for compromise which characterizes the efforts of their opponents who can’t tolerate this high profile woman and what she stands for.
Faced with death threats and the desire of even close friends to compromise and postpone the award, Naomi challenges Tom to find the courage to keep going. The ebb and flow of their encounters resembles the intrigues associated with opposition to Fadeela.
Those intrigues are apparent in advice from a fifty-cents-each-way management consultant who says that compromise – at least postponing the award – is in everyone’s best interests. A Vice Chancellor agrees with this advice. To the incredulous Tom he insists, ‘Let sleeping dogs lie is a sound management principle.’
Speaking in the them-against-us contexts of the Iraq War and the post 9/11 war on terror, government politicians argue for the cancellation of the award on the grounds that Fadeela is a threat to peace and a potentially dangerous terrorist.
The formidable chair of the committee which agreed to award Fadeela the $100,000 prize, believes, naively, that everyone should wait ‘until peace has been achieved in the Middle East, then the decision about this award can be re-visited.’
A Story of Courage
The story of courage is sandwiched between death and birth: the murder of the brave Walid Asiri; the birth of a Palestinian baby in rocks and rain at an Israeli military checkpoint. An Australian/Israeli military officer who had previously opposed Fadeela, delivers the baby. Following the birth she concedes that this beautiful newborn prompts her to admit that at the beginning of life, there’s no apparent difference between people of all races and religions.
Tom confronts politicians’ derision and a hostile media. He is supported by his previous mentor, Evan Macey, an experienced, feisty political correspondent for a national newspaper.
Naomi’s courage is apparent in her willingness to take risks in travelling to new and dangerous places, in her interviews with survivors of the Jenin massacre, in confrontations at military checkpoints on the West Bank and even in the gay abandon of her love making with Tom.
In the grandeur of Yosemite National Park, Naomi quotes lines from her favourite poet the eccentric American Marianne Moore. ‘Blessed is the man who favours what the supercilious do not favour who will not comply. Blessed the unaccommodating man.’ She challenges Tom, ‘Can you, will you display such courage ?’
The answer to that question evolves in the final stage and on a stage: Fadeela’s triumphant appearance in Sydney in November 2003 where she answers her critics and pleads for respect for human rights. She paints a picture of the life-enhancing ideals of ‘A Lover’s Country.’
This work of fiction is based around events which took place almost 15 years ago in Berkeley California, in Sydney, London, Ramallah, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The story is derived from ‘facts’ but on planes which are meant to be different – enticing, engaging, even theatrical.
I am familiar with the intrigues of international politics. I knew that in recounting a controversy in a novel I had to appear balanced, otherwise the too easily made charges of anti-Semitism would arise. I also wanted to place readers in the context of dramatic and often violent personal, local, national and international exchanges, yet leave them to make up their own minds as to how to assess their own assumptions about the long standing Israel/Palestine conflict.
Interest in this story could mark a watershed in public understanding of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and in Australian politicians’ resolve to consider Senator Sanders’ challenge to speak without fear about the Palestinian tragedy and to cease uncritical acceptance of Israeli narratives.
I have taken a poet’s licence to tell a story that would otherwise not be told. My gutsy London publishers have had the courage to enable me to do so.
* Professor Stuart Rees is an occasional New Matilda contributor, and the author of A Lover’s Country, (2016) London, Austin Macauley
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