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Of Noble Origins, Sahar Khalifeh.

April 9, 2015

Of Noble Origins, Sahar Khalifeh.  The American University in Cairo Press (2012), Edition: 1, Paperback, 304 pages.  Aida Bamia (Translator)

5 stars

A complex novel by a renowned Palestinian author about a family from Nablus living through the British governance of the country and its growing Jewish colonization after the World War I.

The ongoing conflicts between Arabs and Jews have emerged out of conditions established at the end of World War I, yet few of us understand the chaos in Palestine in those years. The merit of this book is to tell the story of what happened at both the private and the public level that led to the polarization and violence we see today.

For Sarah Khalifeh, this is not simply a story of victims and victimizers or of inherited religious differences. Some Arabs and Jews had simplistic stereotypes of each other, but Khalifeh deftly moves beyond them to reveal the rich diversity of both sides. Hers is a story primarily of European colonization of the Middle East by the Jews and the Palestinian inability to retain their homeland. As such it not only expands readers’ understanding of the Jewish-Arab conflict, it also addresses more widespread issues around colonization.

The bare historical facts lay out the problems underlying the novel. Palestine had been ruled by Turkey as part of the Islamic Ottoman Empire. When Turkey sided with Germany in World War I, Palestinians and other Arabs joined the British and its Allies. In return for fighting other Muslims, they were promised independence from Turkish rule. At the peace talks, however, Middle Eastern countries were given to European countries to govern. Britain was granted a mandate to rule Palestine. Instead of granting Palestine independence as promised, they assured European Jews that the territory would be given to them.

The only British person in the book is the governor of the region, an ambivalent man whom I considered one of the best drawn characters in the book. He is intent on retaining order and enforcing the mandate, but deeply appreciative of Arabs and their culture—and of a particularly attractive young Arab woman. He dislikes the Jewish leaders who push him to act in their behalf, but he does little to stop their drive for power. In Khalifeh’s descriptions, the Jewish leaders clearly express their utter disregard for the inhabitants of Palestine. Despite evidence to the contrary they speak off them as dark-skinned, illiterate, and barely human, fit only to be servants of the civilized European Jews. These men are balanced with Khalifeh’s more sympathetic treatment of other Jews, especially in the kibbutz where they are obviously simple workers.

As a Palestinian herself, Khalifeh is most concerned with the variety of Palestinians and the diverse beliefs about  what ought to be done in the face of British and Jewish takeover. Her story focuses on Zakiyeh, a widow raising her four children alone. She is a strong, intelligent, illiterate woman, but one who can be demanding and narrow minded. She comes from a family “of noble origins,” descendants of the Prophet. Her one daughter, Wedad, has been crushed by her demands and become a shy, insecure shadow of a woman. Her eldest son, Waheed,  is a devote Muslim who quit school and worked hard to support the family. Zakiyeh forces both son and daughter to marry into their uncle’s wealthy family to resolve the family’s ongoing  financial problems. While Zakiyeh is a devote Muslim, her brother and his children are westernized and move easily among wealthy Jewish friends. He is even involved with smuggling arms and ammunition to Jews who will use it to fight his Muslim relatives.

Unsurprisingly, the marriages fail, as both Wedad and Waheed are pushed into a changing world. Wedad tries to run away and gets involved with a movement of modern Arab women speaking out for their nation. More realistically, Waheed joins the guerrilla resistance to the British and Jewish rule. When he attempts to talk to his mother about his fear that Palestinians are losing their country, she is preoccupied with the barrenness of his wife.  Attention shifts to Amin, the second son, who is educated and living in Jerusalem. As a journalist, he is aware of larger political affairs. Palestinians are split between rural and urban factions.  Their leaders refuse to lead opposition to the British and Jewish power.  While Nationalists push to defend Palestine, Communists urge that Jewish and Arab workers should unite against the oppressive wealthy. Even within the guerrilla forces there are divisions. No moderate position seems viable.  Disunity among the Palestinians leaves them unable to defend their land, and the British mandate is powerless to protect them.

Sahar Khalifeh is a leading Palestinian writer, the author of nine novels and recipient of various literary prizes. She was born in 1942, in Nablus in the newly created Occupied Territories. The fifth daughter in a traditional Palestinian family, she experienced what it meant to be the “miserable, useless, worthless sex,” imprisoned with endless rules of behavior. After years in an unhappy, arranged marriage, she began to write. By doing so, she was able to leave her marriage and establish herself as a Palestinian author. In her thirties, she received a Fulbright scholarship to study in America where she earned an MA in English from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and PhD in Women’s Studies and American Literature from the University of Iowa. Returning to Palestine, she has continued her interest in women’s issues and her writing about life within the Palestinian struggle.

As literature, I would have preferred a stronger plot and stronger connection between the private and public narratives. Yet despite this quibble, I was very impressed and moved by this book. I learned a great deal from it. Too often those of us living in colonizers’ countries fail to understand the inevitable problems growing out of colonization.  Of Noble Origins gave me a fresh perspective on current unrest around the globe.

I strongly recommend this important book to readers; especially to those needing to understand both the particular Arab-Israeli conflict and the larger problems of people seeking to move out of colonization.



3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 9, 2015 9:11 pm

    This sounds excellent – you are very good at writing enticing reviews:)
    But what an extraordinary cover, especially from a culture that makes so much of female “modesty”! It reminds me of those trashy covers of a past era that you sometimes see at second-hand stores!

    • April 10, 2015 10:30 am

      Thanks. When I enjoy a book or find it important, I want everyone else to read it.


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