Suad Amiry, Mother of Strangers: A Novel (Penguin Random House, 2022).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Suad Amiry (SA): The tears of my father when I was seventeen years old. The tears that ran down his cheeks when he was not permitted to enter his own house in Jaffa by the Israeli woman who occupied it. The shock and sadness stayed with me forever. It took me five decades to finally come around and write a novel about Jaffa.
Though Mother of Strangers is not about my father, but rather a heartbreaking love story about two teenagers, Subhi and Shams, it is still a homage to my father and his city. It is an attempt to reconstruct a lost city, a lost family home, which I have had to imagine from a distance since my family took refuge in Jordan in 1948.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
SA: The main topic of the novel is the human tragedy of the 1948 Nakba—a tragic event for us Palestinians which the Western world knows very little about. It comes about from the need to tell personal stories rather than collective ones. Through a tender story of love between fifteen-year-old Subhi and thirteen-year-old Shams—who fantasized about having a future together—we learn about the human price we Palestinians had to pay for the creation of Israel.
In the first half of the novel, and through the eyes of young Subhi, I tried to reconstruct life in the vivacious port city of Jaffa pre-1948: a cosmopolitan, rich city with various ethnic communities. We see its numerous cafes and cinemas, its markets, and the lushness of its orange groves—the famous bayarat Yaffa.
The second part of the novel deals with the destruction and the ethnic cleansing of Jaffa and its neighboring villages. One of the topics is centered around what happened to the small numbers of Palestinians who remained in Jaffa, three thousand out of the one hundred thousand that lived there before 1948. The novel also talks about the “Arab ghetto” in which those three thousand were forced to live. The ghetto was surrounded and enclosed by barbed wires and guarded gates, and was subject to a 6am to 7pm curfew. Finally, the novel addresses the 1950 Absentee Properties Law; Palestinian refugees left behind a great deal of property, and this Israeli “law” served as the legal basis for transferring such properties to the State of Israel. It deprived all Palestinian refugees living in the diaspora, Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip from reclaiming their properties, even if they were physically present in areas controlled by Israel.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
SA: Mother of Strangers connects to the rest of my work, because all my previous books, except for My Damascus, deal with the loss of different aspects of Palestine or describe people’s lives under occupation. It also connects to them because of my interest in cities. While Golda Slept Here described Arab neighborhoods of West Jerusalem and My Damascus described Damascus, the city where I was born, Mother of Strangers is centered around Jaffa, the city where my father was born.
However, it departs from my previous work in the writing style. While all my previous books were based on short stories that were connected by a common theme, this is my first attempt to write a novel. It also differs in that I am not in it as a character myself, unlike in all my other books. And, though humorous at times, Mother of Strangers might be the saddest of all my books.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
SA: Though I often care about, or fear most, my Palestinian readers, I do hope this novel will be widely read by US and other Western readers. I believe the human tragedy of the Palestinian ‘48 Nakba is not known enough in the Western world, hence the sympathy and support for Israel. I always say the key to understanding the Palestinian-Israeli “conflict” is to know what truly happened in 1948. I want the Western world to realize that what happened to us Palestinians as a result of creating Israel in a majority Arab country could only have led to the ongoing tragedy we see today. I hope my novel, Mother of Strangers, succeeds in fostering this understanding.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
SA: I am working on a long-sought dream; with the support of the Aqttan Foundation in Ramallah, I am working with a group of young Palestinians on the art of storytelling. I am also working on a new book, but as often is the case, I do want to give the punch line or let the cat out of the bag just yet.
J: Is this a fictional novel?
SA: No, not at all!! This novel is based on and inspired by a true story. I met my two protagonists Subhi and Shams in 2018, when she was eighty-four and he was eighty-six. They narrated to me their love story as the tears were running down my cheeks, this time.
Excerpt from the book (from pp. 3-6)
1. The Best Mechanic in Town
(Jaffa, June 1947)
It took a few ascending yells—“Subhi! Subhi! Subhi! Goddamn, walak, Subhiii!”—before he showed signs of hearing his name. Half- heartedly, he raised his head and looked in the direction of his boss. At the entrance of the dark garage stood M’allem Mustafa with a new customer who was tall and elegant. It took Subhi a few long minutes before he silenced the deafening noise of the electrical generator he was repairing. From a distance, he lifted his palm as if to say “What?” In return, he received a beckoning hand gesture and a command: “Come here!”
Resenting the interruption, Subhi pointed to the dozens of dismantled engine pieces spread out on the smeared concrete floor under his feet. In line were other machines: water pumps, more electrical generators, and engines, all waiting to be fixed by the clever fifteen- year- old mechanic. Familiar with Subhi’s “not wanting to budge” body language, M’allem Mustafa yelled at him again.
“Subhi! Leave everything. Go wash your hands and face. I want you to accompany Khawaja Michael to his orange grove, his bayyara. There seems to be a problem with the irrigation system or the water pump in the big cistern.”
“Khawaja Michael,” mumbled Subhi to himself as he stared once more in the direction of the new customer, a well- built man dressed in a camel hair suit with a light brown fedora.
Khawaja Michael was standing with the strong midday light behind him, making it difficult for Subhi to see his face. The glare formed a halo around one of the richest men in the port city of Jaffa.
Khawaja Michael, Khawaja Michael . . . Where have I heard that name before? Subhi asked himself as he bent over the stone sink, rubbing the engine grease off his hands. Oh, of course, from my father, he remembered, then said aloud, “Khawaja Michael himself! What an honor.”
All of a sudden, Subhi recalled word for word an argument, more like a fight, he once had with his father in which Khawaja Michael’s name was mentioned.
“I love my job. If need be, I’ll do it for free,” Subhi had said in defense of his choice to leave school and work as a mechanic with M’allem Mustafa, the owner of the garage.
“For free? You son of a bitch. Who do you think you are? The son of Khawaja Michael?”
Subhi also recalled how his father had made fun of him for thinking Khawaja was Mr. Michael’s first name.
“La ya ibni, no, my son, Khawaja is not his first name. A Khawaja is a Christian or Jewish gentleman. But of course not all Christians and Jews are khawajat, only the rich among them. Some are as poor as your father, if not poorer.”
Subhi knew the poor among the Christians, the Jews, and the Muslims— including his Christian neighbors Abu and Um Yousef and Abu Ya’qoub, the Jewish porter at the Carmel Market— but he certainly didn’t know any of the rich khawajat.
“And what is a rich Muslim called?” Subhi asked his father.
“A rich man, I suppose!” his father responded with a smile.
Though excited to accompany one of the city’s richest merchants, who grew oranges and exported them to the whole world, Subhi was worried: What if I fail to fix the water system in one of the city’s largest and most prestigious bayyarat? What baffled Subhi most as he pulled up his stained baggy trousers and hurriedly walked across the garage in the direction of M’allem Mustafa and Khawaja Michael was why Khawaja himself had come to the Blacksmith Market, the Suq il Haddadeen, one of the poorest and shabbiest parts of town, where the garage was located, and had not sent his driver or one of the numerous men who worked for him instead. Khawaja Michael must have had dozens if not hundreds of men working in his groves, and just as many working in his orange export company. It was at this point that Subhi remembered his father describing Khawaja Michael as an isami, a self- made man. Only then did he understand the modesty of self-made men.
Unlike his older and younger brothers, Jamal and Amir, who worked with their father planting and tending for a number of orange groves to the east and southeast of Jaffa, Subhi had followed his passion— or rather, his obsession. From an early age, he had been dismantling and reassembling everything in sight, whether it was his grandfather’s Zenith radio, his father’s agricultural tools, his brothers’ bicycles, the neighbor children’s tricycle, his uncle’s horse carriage, or his younger siblings’ toys and dolls. He dismembered those toys into heads, arms, hands, legs. While the children cried frantically, older family members burst into laughter as they complimented him on his newly invented creatures, where one doll’s limbs were attached to another doll’s torso or an animal head to a human body or the like. Subhi would always restore the dolls and toys back to their original compositions, and then the screaming and yelling would stop.
Subhi’s father, Ismael— also called Abu Jamal, in reference to his eldest son— often asked him, “Why work for M’allem Mustafa when you could work with your own father?”
“The answer to your question is very simple,” replied Subhi.
“M’allem Mustafa pays me thirty piastres a day, while you pay my brothers nothing.”
Excerpted from Mother of Strangers by Suad Amiry. Copyright © 2022 by Suad Amiry. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher