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Nothing to Lose But your Life - Suad Amiry

An 18-hour journey with Murad  - Paperback       

Review by Abe Hayeem in Palestine News- Spring Edition 2011

The hazards for Palestinians from the Occupied Territories finding work in Israel are revealed in an illuminating and moving new book by Suad Amiry. In her remarkable earlier diary “Sharon and My Mother–in-Law”, she exposed the horrors of the Israeli invasion in Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 by evoking the personal daily lives of the beleaguered families and community in Ramallah, using a dark sense of irony and humour. Her talent is displayed yet again in this original and gripping narrative.

Israel’s total control of the West Bank and its natural resources has engineered the collapse of the Palestinian economy creating a 31% rate of unemployment. Palestinians have practically no choice but to seek work inside Israel or in building the illegal settlements.

Permits for work are scarce, with migratory workers from other countries (themselves brutally exploited) deliberately brought in to deny employment for Palestinians. In 2009 no more than 23,000 were given work permits, forcing nearly half of the 40,000 Palestinians entering Israel to work illegally. This leads to exploitation of these workers by many Israeli employers who often do not pay them, and then simply hand them over to the authorities if they complain. 15,000 illegal Palestinian workers are arrested annually, and in October 2010 alone, 500 were detained. The desperate search for work, in what should be short journeys can take whole days crossing into Israel. These men, fearing being unemployed more than anything else, say they are not “scared of jail or the oppression of the occupation”. In the ‘cat and mouse’ game escaping the soldiers guarding the borders along the Apartheid Wall, workers can be shot and killed.


It is this scenario that led to the title of this book and the author’s courageous decision to join a group of workers led by the intrepid Murad, a brother of one her staff members at RIWAQ*, in their quest for work across the encroaching barrier mapping out its own illegal boundary separating Israel from the occupied territories. The destination is Petach Tikvah, a major Israeli town north of Tel Aviv, (built on land controversially purchased in 1878 from the Palestinian village of Mlabbis), where Murad and his friends have worked for ‘sympathetic’ Israelis, and where Murad has also found a Jewish girlfriend he longs to see again.

What takes only 18 hours feels like a mini-odyssey. Amiry is disguised as one of the workers, travelling by taxi, bus, and then on foot, bravely scampering over the Palestinian landscape of red earth, olive trees and boulders, in the shadow of the settlements - often going round in circles, negotiating checkpoints, detritus and barriers, dodging the Israeli soldiers in their armoured cars. With a mischievous streak in often-hilarious vignettes, Amiry sympathetically describes the traditional domestic life of Murad’s family, the raw humorous banter;(“had I not decided I wasn’t a woman on this trip, I would have put an end to all their sexist remarks, but I must admit I was enjoying the Big Boys’ political analysis”) the camaraderie, the foibles, hopes and despair of the growing crowd of workers and characters from villages along the route towards and across the enclosing barrier.

The tragedy is that the apartheid separation of the two peoples is so unnecessary, as the Palestinians show an amazing ability to co-exist with the Israelis when allowed to, and feel a longing to move about freely amongst what was the land of their villages and towns, whose access is denied to them. But as Abu Yousef, one of the older workers, who spent twenty eight years in such searches for work through the night says “ No doctora, it is not this darkness that worried me, it is the darkness of their hearts...They have no mercy and they know no God. I spent my whole life working for them and now look at me; like a thief, I steal my own livelihood in the dark...”

When things get tough on this risky sojourn Amiry retreats into lyrical surrealist dream sequences involving zoo animals reacting to the Wall, the ghosts of the villages, and recreating the idyllic life in Mlabbis – with the Nakba still hauntingly pervading the landscape and lives of the Palestinians on both sides of the fence. This important and heart-wrenching book evokes the absurdity and nightmare of denial and dispossession of a people from their own land and is a spur to those who wish to help bring an end to this injustice.

* Su’ad Amiry is the director of RIWAQ, (at the time  of this review) the centre for architectural conservation in Ramallah. The new dirctor is Khaldun Bishara.

See also Suad Amiry at the TEDxRamallah conference held on 16 April 2011