Bedtime Stories: Oct. 2016

  • October 28, 2016

What do book lovers have queued up on their nightstands and ready to read before lights-out? We asked a couple of them, and here’s what they said.

Bedtime Stories: Oct. 2016

Elizabeth MacBride:

I was buzzing down Highway 6 in Israel, heading back from an interview in Nazareth to our temporary apartment in Jerusalem. I was listening to the impossibly schmaltzy Israeli radio: "To All the Girls I've Loved Before" had been on earlier, and now we were listening to "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun."

My two girls, 13 and 9, were curled up in the back seat, listening to their headphone. They were traveling with me during my writing fellowship with the diplomats working on Israel/Palestine peace. My job was to document halting efforts toward community between the two sides.

The phone that was navigating had been silent for a while when I looked down and realized the battery was dead. Maps are highly problematic in Israel/Palestine for obvious reasons: When you can't agree on anything, especially borders, even the names of streets are uncertain. The sun was setting, and we were entering the industrial zone. Towering silos and plants were black against the orange sky. Then I saw a sign for Hebron, the biggest city in the West Bank. I'd been advised against going after dark by both Palestinians and Israelis.

Next to me: an old-fashioned paper map, given to me by an Israeli press officer.

I threw it into the back seat. "Girls! You have to navigate us back to Jerusalem."

They did — miraculously, somehow matching the cryptic roadside signs that pointed to Israel and Palestine to the lines on the paper map that only showed Israel. Later, my 9-year-old, Quinn, told me it was lucky they had just covered map reading in third grade.

When we finally rolled into the courtyard at the St. George's Cathedral, where we had rented an apartment that they keep for NGO workers, it was like we had arrived in heaven. I laid on the couch, exhausted, and looked up to see 13-year-old Lillie at the stove, pulling together a pasta dinner out of chopped olives, a little oil, and noodles.

Other than the inherent strength and resourcefulness of my girls, I found I could not take anything for granted in Israel/Palestine: not the road names, not the maps, not the history I thought you knew. Even the name is loaded: in my work for the media as a long-form journalist, I've had editors want to call the whole territory in dispute Israel. I've had some want Palestine or Historic Palestine, or the West Bank or the Palestinian Territory (that's what the U.S. government calls it).

The Israelis call Palestine's West Bank "Judea and Sumeria." I just interviewed Ayelet Waldman, the Israeli-American who, with her husband, Michael Chabon, is editing a book of essays about the West Bank. "I call it Israel/Palestine," she told me. The book is called Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation, due out in May 2017.

All this is a long way of explaining why I have the books on my bedside table that I do: Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, with descriptions of life in the concentration camp. The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine by the revisionist Israeli historian Ilan Pappe. Breaking the Silence: Women Soldiers’ Testimonies, which is put out by a nonprofit group of Israeli soldiers who talk about their roles in the occupation. And finally, Jerusalem: The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore, which is the book I turn to most often. It's easier to read about conflict if it's history.

I skipped to the last page of Jerusalem: The Biography to give this tiny essay a good ending. It’s about the Golden Gate, the mysterious sealed gate in the walls of Jerusalem whose opening might, for all three peoples of the Book, signal the end of the world as we know it.

"It is now one hour before dawn on a day in Jerusalem. The Dome of the Rock is open; Muslims are praying. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is open; the Christians are praying in several languages. The sun is rising over Jerusalem, its rays making the light Herodian stones of the wall almost snowy — just as Josephus described it 2,000 years ago — and then catching the glorious gold of the Dome of the Rock that glints back at the sun. The divine esplanade where Heaven and Earth meet, where God meets man, is still in a realm beyond human cartography. Only the rays of the sun can do it, and finally the light falls on the most mysterious edifice in Jerusalem. Bathing and glowing in the sunlight, it earns its auric name. But the Golden Gate remains locked, until the coming of the Last Days."

Elizabeth MacBride is a journalist, writer, and communications consultant. She recently wrote about the fisherwoman of Gaza and Naguib Sawiris, one of the world's most audacious billionaires.

Rion Amilcar Scott:

Randa Jarrar’s Him, Me, Muhammad Ali zips between fable and realism, sometimes in the same story. Whether Jarrar’s character is a woman suffering under the small patriarchal tyrannies of family or a half-human, half-ibex creature (also suffering under the small patriarchal tyrannies of family), they always feel fully human and real, pained and searching.

In perhaps my favorite story, “Testimony of Malik, Prisoner #287690,” a kestrel named Malik Kareem Aziz El-Hajj Aamer Kan’un (yes, a bird) is imprisoned after being accused of spying in Istanbul. The story takes the form of a report, the bird answering questions about his life, slowly revealing his many displacements and captivities. Of his time among some anarchist birds in Greece, the kestrel says, “They smelled awful, refusing to groom themselves, and had long, tedious conversations about the 1800s, when anarchism was alive and well in the region.” 

“Testimony…” mixes humor with sadness — as do many of the stories — and, in the end, the effect is not so much satiric as it is emotional. The occupation of Gaza is never far from these pages, nor are the ravages of war waged against the Middle East, nor is the displacement of Arabs forced to make homes away from their places of birth.

Whenever I finished a story, though I wanted to read on, I stopped myself, closing the book to extend my time in Jarrar’s world and to let my mind roam. An exciting collection, each story exciting in its own way.

Rion Amilcar Scott’s work has been published in journals such as the Kenyon Review, Crab Orchard Review, PANK, the Rumpus, Fiction International, the Washington City Paper, the Toast, Akashic Books, Melville House, and Confrontation, among others. He was raised in Silver Spring, Maryland, and earned an MFA from George Mason University His short-story collection, Insurrections (University Press of Kentucky), was published in August 2016. Presently, he teaches English at Bowie State University.

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