Susan Muaddi Darraj’s short story collection A Curious Land takes readers on a journey through the Israeli-Palestine conflict. As in her previous collection The Inheritance of Exile, Darraj tells dynastic stories. But while her first collection followed generations of Palestinian and Palestinian-American women who settled in South Philadelphia, A Curious Land tells the story of the Palestinians who either stay or return. In the West Bank village Tel al-Hilou, men and women leave to escape death threats and unwanted marriages, to escape provinciality. They also leave to seek better prospects in the city or overseas. Some return prosperous and invest in their village, helping to modernize it, while others return broken, seeking to lick their wounds and to heal.
“The Journey Home” begins in 1916 with a resurrection. Darraj tells the story of a wandering caravan whose members have been traveling and hiding for over two years to elude and escape the war waging around them. Written from the point of view of the fifteen-year-old Rabab, whose burgeoning adolescence coincides with the caravan community’s shifting power, this story manages to depict Rabab’s approaching womanhood tenderly while being unflinching about the ravages of war, starvation, and butchery:
The fact was that they had all been starving for two years now. Rabab felt that she existed in a constant state of hunger, alleviated only twice a day by a small ration that she received. It happened in waves—sometimes her stomach felt a peace, dry but settled, then a headache would sweep over her, followed by a gnawing pain.
After Rabab saves the life of a man left for dead, they become a type of Adam and Eve for Darraj’s collection, the two people from whom the other characters spring. The nine stories in the collection take their cue from this initial one, all stemming from the chance encounter between these two characters.
We see many characters again and again in Darraj’s collection as they move from front-and-center to the margins—aging, hidden in the shadows of their secret lives, later brought to light. A man left for dead in one story appears as a prosperous and respected village elder in another. A golden bracelet, used to bribe and barter in one story, reappears as a treasured heirloom several generations later, the story of its original owner drifting into myth and legend. The aftermath of an accidental shooting is felt generation after generation. Older parents whose offspring have moved overseas regret their loss.
[A] family is only a family if it can survive together in the worst time when the wells are dry and the clouds completely obscure the full moon and it feels like God has forsaken us. That is when you draw your children close to you, so you can hear their stomachs rumble, when all you can do is keep them warm under your heart.
The village church, with its crumbling statue of the virgin, features prominently in many of the stories, highlighting the importance of religion in this predominantly Christian enclave of the Tel al-Hilou village. The lives of Darraj’s characters are arranged around attending religious and social functions, surviving the growing conflict, and waiting for peace. Behind the rounds of social gatherings, the numerous cups of coffee, and the visiting back and forth, the shadow of war looms. Darraj’s touch is light. She portrays her characters with dignity and complexity.
Each generation of Tel al-Hilou’s inhabitants reveals the growing Israeli-Palestine conflict. Decade by decade, Darraj shows how conflict spreads, how it figures into and overshadows the daily lives of her characters. Simple things that one might take for granted—like driving from one’s village into the nearby city—take meticulous planning because of soldiers and checkpoints. Short trips become all-day excursions as people are continually stopped and detained, with families having to carefully decide which member will make the trip. Are the guards least likely to detain women or older passengers? Who is likely to make it back safely? The political strife is understated but ever-present. Checkpoints go up with increasing frequency until the entire landscape seems barricaded, villagers imprisoned in their homes by soldiers-turned-snipers who occupy their rooftops and abuse their hospitality. The strife appears in the form of cracks on a widow’s wall, a shattered picture frame, the exorbitant price of pineapple in a city market, the reduced numbers of young marriageable men in the village.
In the midst of the war and the worry, Darraj plants the seeds of love—romantic love, familial love, and cultural love. In “Rocky Soil” a young man who is deemed not good enough to marry the woman he loves finds inspiration in his rejection. He becomes industrious. Skipping church to working extra shifts, he decides “[H]is new religion promised him that his saving and his labor would pay off, would set him apart from the rest, would validate his dreams that he not become a layer of dried dust on a dirty floor but something more.”
Darraj’s writing is neither overly moralistic nor didactic. There is a no judgment or anger in the stories. She shows us one side of a decades-long conflict, with characters struggling for the peace and happiness we all want for ourselves.