Mother of Strangers
by Amiry, Suad






"Set in Jaffa in 1947-51, this fable-like novel is a heartbreaking tale of young love during the beginning of the destruction of Palestine and displacement of its people. At times darkly humorous and ironic but also profoundly moving, this novel based ona true story follows the lives of a 15 year old engineer, Subhi, and the 13 year old girl, Shams, he hopes one day to marry. It brings Jaffa vividly to life as a beautiful city by the sea where Jews, Palestinians and Christians lived peacefully just before it was destroyed by the November 29, 1947 UN General Assembly Resolution 181 that would partition Palestine into two states and the end of the British Mandate on May 14, 1948. The first part of the story conveys the prosperous life of this cosmopolitancity on the Mediterranean-with its old cinemas, lively cafes and brothels, open air markets, a bustling port and orange groves on the hills behind-through the lives of the families of Subhi and Shams, but particularly through Subhi, a gifted engineer. As the novel evolves, the bombing and displacements of families begin, and we get a fascinating though dark close-up of how those who were left survived which we see more through Shams and her sisters. This novel is a cinematic, though devastating accountof an important moment in history of the Middle East and portrait of a city irrevocably changed"-





SUAD AMIRY is a writer and an architect. She is the author of six works of nonfiction, including Sharon and My Mother-in-Law, which was awarded the Viareggio-Versilia International Prize in 2004, and Golda Slept Here, which was awarded the Nonino Risit d'Aur Prize in 2014. Amiry received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture and is the founder of the RIWAQ Centre for Architectural Conservation in Ramallah, where she lives.





*Starred Review* Subhi is an ambitious, energetic 15-year-old boy mildly rebellious against the father who wants him to go into the family orange-growing business and the mother who exhorts him to stay in school and out of trouble. A whiz-kid mechanic, he earns the notice of the wealthy merchant, Khawaja Michael, who gifts him with an impeccably tailored wool suit, impractical in the summer heat of Jaffa, but perfect for impressing the love of Subhi's life, 13-year-old Shams. All is going well until café gossip about the end of the British mandate in Palestine in 1948 and a possible partition and occupation become alarming. Within a year, Subhi will see his beautiful city wracked by bombings and martial law that force his family and neighbors to flee. In her first novel, architect and memoirist Amiry keenly evokes the tension and anxiety of an occupation, during which no one quite knows what the rules are. As Jaffa falls to the Israelis, the focus shifts to Shams. Separated from her parents in a crowd of panicked refugees, she shepherds her two younger sisters to safety, but she will be faced with a terrible decision that may separate her from Subhi forever. A powerful story of love, loss, and the destruction of a nation. Copyright 2022 Booklist Reviews.





1. The Best Mechanic in Town
(Jaffa, June 1947)
 
 
It took a few ascending yells-"Subhi! Subhi! Subhi! Goddamn, walak, Subhiii!"-before he showed signs of hearing his name. Half- heartedly, he raised his head and looked in the direction of his boss. At the entrance of the dark garage stood M'allem Mustafa with a new customer who was tall and elegant. It took Subhi a few long minutes before he silenced the deafening noise of the electrical generator he was repairing. From a distance, he lifted his palm as if to say "What?" In return, he received a beckoning hand gesture and a command: "Come here!"
 
Resenting the interruption, Subhi pointed to the dozens of dismantled engine pieces spread out on the smeared concrete floor under his feet. In line were other machines: water pumps, more electrical generators, and engines, all waiting to be fixed by the clever fifteen- year- old mechanic. Familiar with Subhi's "not wanting to budge" body language, M'allem Mustafa yelled at him again.
 
"Subhi! Leave everything. Go wash your hands and face. I want you to accompany Khawaja Michael to his orange grove, his bayyara. There seems to be a problem with the irrigation system or the water pump in the big cistern."
 
"Khawaja Michael," mumbled Subhi to himself as he stared once more in the direction of the new customer, a well- built man dressed in a camel hair suit with a light brown fedora.
 
Khawaja Michael was standing with the strong midday light behind him, making it difficult for Subhi to see his face. The glare formed a halo around one of the richest men in the port city of Jaffa.
 
Khawaja Michael, Khawaja Michael . . . Where have I heard that name before? Subhi asked himself as he bent over the stone sink, rubbing the engine grease off his hands. Oh, of course, from my father, he remembered, then said aloud, "Khawaja Michael himself! What an honor."
 
All of a sudden, Subhi recalled word for word an argument, more like a fight, he once had with his father in which Khawaja Michael's name was mentioned.
 
"I love my job. If need be, I'll do it for free," Subhi had said in defense of his choice to leave school and work as a mechanic with M'allem Mustafa, the owner of the garage.
 
"For free? You son of a bitch. Who do you think you are? The son of Khawaja Michael?"
 
Subhi also recalled how his father had made fun of him for thinking Khawaja was Mr. Michael's first name.
 
"La ya ibni, no, my son, Khawaja is not his first name. A Khawaja is a Christian or Jewish gentleman. But of course not all Christians and Jews are khawajat, only the rich among them. Some are as poor as your father, if not poorer."
 
Subhi knew the poor among the Christians, the Jews, and the Muslims- including his Christian neighbors Abu and Um Yousef and Abu Ya'qoub, the Jewish porter at the Carmel Market- but he certainly didn't know any of the rich khawajat.
 
"And what is a rich Muslim called?" Subhi asked his father.
 
"A rich man, I suppose!" his father responded with a smile.
 
Though excited to accompany one of the city's richest merchants, who grew oranges and exported them to the whole world, Subhi was worried: What if I fail to fix the water system in one of the city's largest and most prestigious bayyarat? What baffled Subhi most as he pulled up his stained baggy trousers and hurriedly walked across the garage in the direction of M'allem Mustafa and Khawaja Michael was why Khawaja himself had come to the Blacksmith Market, the Suq il Haddadeen, one of the poorest and shabbiest parts of town, where the garage was located, and had not sent his driver or one of the numerous men who worked for him instead. Khawaja Michael must have had dozens if not hundreds of men working in his groves, and just as many working in his orange export company. It was at this point that Subhi remembered his father describing Khawaja Michael as an isami, a self- made man. Only then did he understand the modesty of self- made men.
 
Unlike his older and younger brothers, Jamal and Amir, who worked with their father planting and tending for a number of orange groves to the east and southeast of Jaffa, Subhi had followed his passion- or rather, his obsession. From an early age, he had been dismantling and reassembling everything in sight, whether it was his grandfather's Zenith radio, his father's agricultural tools, his brothers' bicycles, the neighbor children's tricycle, his uncle's horse carriage, or his younger siblings' toys and dolls. He dismembered those toys into heads, arms, hands, legs. While the children cried frantically, older family members burst into laughter as they complimented him on his newly invented creatures, where one doll's limbs were attached to another doll's torso or an animal head to a human body or the like. Subhi would always restore the dolls and toys back to their original compositions, and then the screaming and yelling would stop.
 
Subhi's father, Ismael- also called Abu Jamal, in reference to his eldest son- often asked him, "Why work for M'allem Mustafa when you could work with your own father?"
 
"The answer to your question is very simple," replied Subhi.
 
"M'allem Mustafa pays me thirty piastres a day, while you pay my brothers nothing."
 
"Nothing, ya 'ars, you bastard? Nothing? Don't I give you and your siblings a roof over your heads and a mattress to sleep on? Don't your mother and your grandmother spend their days and nights washing and boiling your greasy clothes and cooking for you? You call that nothing? What else can a poor man like me do for his kids? Let's see how far your thirty piastres a day get you. I bet you'll end up a bachelor just like your uncle!"
 
"What's wrong with Uncle Habeeb? Isn't he having fun staying out late in Tel Aviv most nights?"
 
"Is that the kind of life you aspire to, son?"
 
Subhi's father was referring to his youngest brother, who, in spite of the little work he did and the little money he earned, managed to lead a rather wild life in the bars and nightclubs of Tel Aviv. He also spent most of his weekends in the Arab and Jewish brothels located along the Jaffa- Tel Aviv Road frequented by British soldiers and Jews.
 
"But doesn't Uncle Habeeb say he's making use of his good relationships with the British soldiers he meets in the brothels to change their government's policy toward Jewish immigration to Palestine?"
 
"What nonsense. We see more and more ships full of Jewish immigrants arriving at the Tel Aviv Port every week. If neither the 1929 nor 1936 revolts managed to change British immigration policy, do you think your drunken uncle and the drunken British soldiers in the same brothel could?"
 
"Why not?" asked Subhi, who was enjoying one of his first man-to-man conversations with his father.
 
"Why not? Everybody goes on strike against the British bias toward the Zionists except those sharameet, those whores, and their karakhanat, their brothels. War or peace, they never shut their doors."
 
"But wasn't the brothel on Chelouche Street set on fire the other day?"
 
"I see, my son, that you're closely following the political struggles of your city."
 
Subhi added, "And Jews go there as well."
 
"I tell you, son, every time Arabs and Jews get together, something sinful happens: prostitution, smuggling, arms sales, gangs, looters, and robbers, not to mention the informants who spy on our political leaders and fighters."
 
"You are telling me all this just because I want to be a mechanic?" Subhi was making fun of his father, who never missed an opportunity to bad- mouth his younger brother and lecture Subhi about the Palestinian struggle and the resistance.
 
"What I meant to say, is this the kind of life you aspire to live, son? Smoking and getting drunk every night and doing God knows what other sinful things your uncle does in Tel Aviv? I'm afraid that's about all your thirty piastres a day will get you. Oh well, what does one expect from an earthquake except destruction?"

Zilzal, earthquake, was Habeeb's nickname. He'd acquired it as a result of being born on the same day a catastrophic earthquake struck and devastated Jericho, along with many cities and towns in Palestine: July 11, 1927. Subhi's grandmother had gone to visit her sister in Jericho and prematurely given birth to Habeeb. "Scared to death, Habeeb came running out of his mother's womb and hasn't stopped going to other warm places ever since." This was the family joke.
 
Habeeb was not alone, since most members of his family had a nickname associated with a significant event: a revolt, a war, or a natural disaster, of which there were many in Palestine. Born in 1911, Subhi's father acquired the nickname il Sakhra, the Rock. This was a reference to the uprising and demonstrations that took place throughout Palestine against the digs that were being done, secretly, by the British under the Muslim holy site of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Indeed, Ismael was as tough as a rock, especially when it came to his younger brother Habeeb, who was sixteen years his junior, more like his son. Born in 1915, also called the Year of the Locust, one of Subhi's uncles was nicknamed Jarad, meaning "grasshopper." And since he was born in 1924, when the city of Jaffa was connected to electricity, another one of Subhi's uncles had the nickname Dhaw, meaning "light."
 
[ . . . ]
 
Subhi had never told his father-or anyone else, for that matter- that he was head over heels in love with thirteen- year- old Shams, the eldest daughter of Khalil Abu Ramadan, one of Ismael's helpers, who was a saqqa, a water provider, whose main responsibility was to irrigate the orange grove. Something about that girl drove Subhi out of his mind. He could never figure out what it was about her that had made him fall for her. Was it her smile or her melancholic hazelnut eyes? The curls in her long hair made him feel as though he was trapped in a fisherman's net. Just like the fish in his grandfather's net, Subhi had flipped from one side to another, unable to sleep, the night he saw Shams on the shores of il Nabi Rubin. And what better place to fall in love than during the festival? Mawsim il Nabi Rubin took place in the open air south of Jaffa and lasted for a whole month from mid- August to mid- September. Everything flourished during that vacation month, including the love between Subhi and Shams.
 
Like hundreds of other kids, she was joyfully running on the beach, along with her younger sisters, Nazira and Nawal, and their many cousins. Subhi spotted Shams's white and orange dress before he came closer to admire her smile, her eyes, and her hair. Little did Subhi know at the time that the melancholy he spotted in her eyes foretold a tragedy that would befall them, their people, and their country in the coming years.






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