The Words of My Father, by Yousef Bashir, opens with a tender description of an idyllic home in the Gaza Strip. The author’s father loved his land as much as he loved his mother. That love was obvious in his father’s care of the olive trees on his land, his pride in his home, and his resistance to leaving it when soldiers occupied it during the second Palestinian uprising, the Intifada.
Before the Intifada, Bashir’s boyhood was filled with school, friends, siblings, and the aromas of lovingly prepared meals. But with the start of the Intifada, life changed. The soldiers, mostly Israeli Jews but also Christian-Arab, Bedouin, and Druze, took over two floors of the Bashir house and used them as an outlook point. The soldiers pleaded with the family to leave, but Khalil, the author’s father, refused. The coexistence was not entirely peaceful. The family was not always free to move around the home and the interactions were hostile and occasionally violent. But the family was not isolated, “Journalists were now starting to come to our house, and I liked showing the bullet shells to them.” Despite the danger, Khalil’s response to journalists was that the soldiers “only wanted the top two floors as an observation post. If I leave, I know I will never see my house again…”
The tensions culminated when a soldier shot the author in the back while he was standing outside his home. In a subsequent apology he learned he was not the intended target, but what followed the incident was an awakening of sorts. Bashir was treated by Jewish doctors and nurses in a hospital in Tel Aviv, where he discovered, for the first time in his young life, that Jews can be good. He writes, “Whenever I remembered my nurses were Jewish, I felt confused … they were just like the Palestinian women I knew at home — kind and very caring. Until then, I had only thought of Jews as soldiers who pointed their guns at my family and me.” This is a powerful window into the divisiveness that permeates the region, but it is a brave admission and one that marks the start of Bashir’s journey towards education, understanding, and peace-making.
Bashir offers a powerful story of love, growth, survival, and unfashionable generosity of spirit inspired by his father. Missing from the narrative is the broader socio-political context, but this is a personal narrative rather than a political one. There are some hints at the larger landscape, “One of the teachers in our school, my history teacher, was committed to Hamas.” Bashir describes friendly visits between the teacher and his father, a committed pacifist who was the headmaster of the school. Yet, “politics never came between them,” he writes.
There is no exploration of the role or methods of Palestinian leadership. If the author was moved by the complexity of the conflict that has plagued the region since long before his time, it was not apparent in the narrative. It’s his grappling with the complexity of his personal experience that is both harrowing and admirable, even more so in that it has led him to a career as a peace activist.
Bashir ends with a powerful letter to the soldier who shot him. At the heart of this letter is a haunting question which undoubtedly echoes in the wounds of generations of Israeli Jews and Palestinians alike: Dear Cousin, why?
Ada Brunstein is the Head of Reference at a university press.