Mario Azzopardi evaluates the Maltese version of Suad Amiry’s new book in the light of the author’s work leading a voluntary organisation aimed at safeguarding Palestinian heritage.

Although Malta has consistently expressed solidarity with the Palestinian cause and its people, nailed, as they are, by Israeli oppression, local cultural initiatives highlighting the Palestinian plight are few and far between.

Over the year we have seen sporadic street marches in solidarity with the people of Palestine, however one cannot speak of sustained action, except for rare exceptions such as that carried out by the protest group Graffiti. Even our television channels seem to favour a low profile where the Palestinian cause is concerned.

There was a time when such initiatives had a far more robust and coherent structure.

Soon after the first Intifada (or the Palestinian rebellion in 1987, which started in a refugee camp and whose final body count reached 1,000) the first Palestinian ambassador to Malta Mourad Bahloul, who was also a graphic artist, asked a small group of Maltese to pass on messages of solidarity through cultural and literary initiatives.

He called on Yana Mintoff, who had just returned from the UK at the time, Joe Cassar, who was eventually appointed Maltese ambassador to the US and on myself.

There was also a religious person involved with the group, but memory does not serve me well and I can’t recall his name.

We decided to launch public readings of Palestinian literature, mostly poetry.

Soon after, we reckoned it was time to actually publish an anthology of Mahmoud Dawish’s poems, Poeżija tar-Reżistenza mill-Palestina (Resistance Poetry from Palestine, 1988).

Together with the poets Tawfiq and Tahar M. Ali, Dawish represented a forceful voice of resistance against the Israeli occupation.

Translation of the chosen poems was undertaken by the academic Tarcisio Zarb, while the group assigned me responsibility for the book’s layout and design. The book was illustrated with Palestinian art.

Over time, interest waned. Then the group Inizjamed arrived on the scene and revived interest in the Palestinian plight, especially after the Second Intifada (2008), during which 5,500 Palestinians lost their lives.

Inizjamed has repeatedly invited Palestinian authors to take part in its annual literature festival held at the beginning of September. The list includes the poet Fatima Ghassan and the novelist Suad Amiry.

In the context of the brutal attacks against Gaza a few years ago, and again last summer, which reduced the territory to a heap of debris oozing blood, Inizjamed published the anthology Id-Demm Nieżel bhax-Xita (Blood Pours as Rain) with the writings of prominent Maltese authors.

Now, SKS Publishers is bringing out a Maltese version of Suad Amiri’s Ramallah Diaries. Amiri is also an architect who has studied in the US and Edinburgh and has founded an NGO, called Riwaq, to restore and protect Palestinian rural heritage.

The diaries represent the fake decrees of every occupation, be it military or mental, including the Palestinian one

Writer Walid Nabhan, who has been living in Malta for the last two decades and who, like Amiri, is also from Ramallah, has been instrumental in bringing the author to the attention of SKS.

Nabhan explains how in the diaries (collectively presented under the title Sharon and My Mother-In-Law) Amiry tries to save what remains of historical sites in the West Bank, as well as olive trees and other odds and ends.

He is emphatic about how the diaries (which have been translated into over 20 languages) represent the fake decrees of every occupation, be it military or mental, including the Palestinian one.

Amiri’s book is divided into short episodes, which make her diaries extremely accessible. However, there is a subversive subtext to the seemingly simple narrative structure.

She employs irony and a tragicomic style and repeatedly compares her people’s situation in Ramallah to Kafka’s The Trial, where everything is equivocal and mysteriously dangerous.

She deftly analyses her neighbours’ trivialities, their family squabbles, as well as incidents that induce fear and panic, such as the time when there is a collective dash to secure gas masks.

The book’s main title refers to the author’s mother-in-law in partly-comic situations arising from the elderly lady’s slide into panic and signs of dementia, which the author finds distressing.

Other entertaining episodes centre on those Palestinians trying to sell or barter naff goods to buy food.

Very often, Amiry’s Ramallah diaries pay tribute to women engaged in passively resisting not only the foreign occupiers, but also their husbands’ Arab male machismo.

At the same time, the diaries are very graphic in their depiction of the control methods used in the occupied territories, be they administrative, bureaucratic, strategic or legal. Naturally. arrests and incarceration in notoriously dehumanising prisons are commonplace.

Amiri is fulsome in her praise for a friend who taught her to “step over the picture frame” and “observe the absurdity of the moment”.

After some time she realised the efficacy of “this golden tactic”, which she then adopted as an effective therapeutic tool.

There’s a paradox that stands out in Amiri’s writing: despite the oppressive context she writes about, her style is light and even ‘entertaining’.

Starting off in 1981, the diaries span the years until 2004. They include vignettes from the author’s everyday life under occupation and her frequent run-ins with so-called civil administration and the military.

This book, translated into Maltese by Jean Paul Borg, has won the Viareggio Prize (established in 1930) and the Nonino Prize, whose recipients include names of the calibre of Gerzi Grotowski, Peter Brook and Edward Said.

Sharon u l-Kunjata will be launched on April 24 at St James Cavalier, Valletta, at 7pm. Suad Amiry will be present for the launch.

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