Book Review: Strangers With The Same Dream

“I did my best. I came up short. Can any of you claim otherwise?”

Strangers With The Same Dream, by Alison Pick, is set in 1921 when the first kibbutzim were being established on land that would one day form a part of Israel. The tale provides some understanding of why the pioneering Jews felt entitled to settle in Palestine. It acknowledges the righteous anger their actions ignited among those they displaced, whose families had lived there for generations.

The story is told from three points of view.

Ida is a young Russian fleeing persecution following her father’s brutal murder, whose mother was assaulted by the perpetrators and thereafter encouraged her daughter to go ahead of her and her younger child to help found a homeland where Jews could live safely and feel they belong.

David is the de facto leader of the new kibbutz who, a decade previously, was among pioneers founding another community. He was required to leave following the death of a young girl.

Hannah is David’s wife and has to live with the anguish of collective decisions made in the name of expediency and equality, which rob women of autonomy over their bodies and offspring.

In coming to this story I bring decades old memories of a summer spent volunteering on a kibbutz during which I worked in the younger children’s accommodation block. As a non Jew I have always struggled to understand why, over the centuries, Jews have been persecuted. If my reading of this book is correct it is, to some extent, because they believe they are God’s chosen people and therefore have rights above other races and religions. They appear to regard Jewishness as their nation more than where they reside, wishing to breed only amongst themselves and preserve the ancient bloodline they believe goes back to biblical characters, Abraham and Sarah. They seek peaceful acceptance, to be allowed to contribute and function within society, but choose not to fully assimilate. They are not, of course, the only cultural entity seeking to hold themselves apart. And yet, exclusion fuels resentment.

The story opens with a narrator, a ghost, informing the reader that they did not commit suicide as those left behind were led to understand. This Being wishes the truth to be known claiming their honour is at stake.

Part One is Ida’s story. We are introduced to her in the straggly line of new settlers, mainly male and from Russia or Germany, as they wind their way through the Palestinian mountains. They reach the swampy lands where their new kibbutz is to be founded. They are challenged by the resident Arabs. The supplies the Jews carry includes barbed wire. Within the collective, workers may be regarded as equal but there will be a need to protect the land they are taking from those who many look down on with disdain, and also fear.

David tells the new settlers that they must surrender their possessions, that all will be shared and used according to need. This first test of the Utopian ideal lays bare the contamination of human desire and possessiveness. Ida has brought with her valuable candlesticks, heirlooms entrusted to her by her now longed for mother. Ida knows that if she surrenders them they will be sold to raise necessary funds. Jewish customs on high days make use of many revered objects yet the kibbutz ethos demands a relinquishing of personal assets and desires, for the common good.

In tableaus through the turning of the seasons the reader is offered glimpses of the challenges faced by the idealistic young people as they drain and clear the land for ploughing and planting whilst going hungry and sleeping in tents. Ida falls in love with Levi who becomes sick. Her early decisions come back to haunt her, and wreak wider damage she could not have foreseen.

From time to time further groups of settlers arrive. They are swarmed not for the skills and effort they offer the collective but for the effects they carry and must submit to be shared. There are resentments as talents do not receive the wider recognition they may achieve elsewhere. There are power plays at work as secrets are used as leverage.

Part Two is David’s story and was the most challenging to read as he is an intensely self-centred character. We learn why he had to leave the kibbutz he helped to found, and then how the events recounted in Ida’s tale are viewed through his eyes. David is the embodiment of the weaknesses of many men: lust, ego, a need for attention and laudation.

“All a boy wanted from his mother was comfort, and to be the centre of her universe. It was this they were trying to get back to their whole lives.”

There is an undercurrent of discontent, disagreements over how best to achieve the ideals for which the settlers strive, and what these may mean for the individual.

David talks of equality and freedom yet seeks out only the beautiful women. He regards them as existing for his gratification, including somewhat disturbingly his daughter, Ruth. Although he becomes irritated by the child’s demands he muses that he is pleased she is a girl rather than a boy. He quashes thoughts of his ineptitude as a leader and fears being eclipsed.

The third and final part tells the same story from Hannah’s point of view. By now we know that she has had to live through heartache due to David’s actions but not yet the extent of his betrayal and its terrible consequences. In such closed communities secrets will not stay buried. They bubble to the surface, expelled in part due to guilt and mistaken belief that others grant them the same attention and importance as the bearer.

The structure of the story is a familiar device jarred slightly by the occasional interjections from the ghost narrator. It is a compelling tale to read but not one that is entirely satisfying. David is almost too stereotypically unlikable (“It was not love, it was appetite.”) and there are many limited snapshots of characters whose roles then peter out.

What is offered though is an understanding of how the kibbutzim were created: the hardships endured by the founders in their quest for a homeland, how the land was taken. Having lived in one, albeit briefly and as an outsider, it would appear the discontents I observed in the 1980s existed from what was reminisced about, particularly by the more elderly kibbutzniks, as the exemplary beginning. As a fictionalised history of the region this makes for interesting reading.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tinder Press.

Book Review: Chains of Sand

chainsofsand

Chains of Sand, by Jemma Wayne, tells the loosely connected stories of families whose lives are affected by the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. I know little about this highly contentious region, despite having worked on a kibbutz near Gaza many years ago. I had hoped that this book might offer some enlightenment.

From the minuscule knowledge I have of Jews I assumed that, apart from the black suited and hatted Orthodox variety, they were generally well educated and intelligent. I therefore struggled to empathise with these Jewish characters. They appeared overly bound to tradition, family and religion. Even those who believed themselves liberal struggled with the ties of ritual. They viewed themselves as Jews first, believing themselves assimilated in their host nation yet living largely amongst people like them.

Of course, we all gravitate to those who share similar values. Perhaps it was the incursion of religion that discomforted me.

The theme throughout the story is one of belonging and the disconnect some feel to the lives their loved ones expect them to live. Many young people rebel against the demands of the previous generation. This tale vividly demonstrates how difficult cultural bonds are to break.

Udi is an Israeli Jew born to Iraqi parents. He has been damaged by his experiences fighting for his country, as all young Jewish Israelis must do. He dreams of moving to England where a similarly aged cousin has made a prosperous life for himself. Udi compares this to his own prospects and plots his escape.

Daniel is a financially successful investment banker in London who believes a move to Israel could give his life the depth and meaning it lacks. His grandmother is a concentration camp survivor, his best friend a British Muslim. His sister is engaged to a gentile, a choice he supports but struggles to consider for himself.

Kaseem is an Arab Muslim living in Jerusalem. Despite graduating near the top of his university class he cannot find the work he expected his qualification to bring. He rails against the discrimination he must live with due to his race. When he meets the beautiful Dara, an artist from a supposedly liberal Jewish family, they both discover that prejudices are difficult to overcome.

The challenges of living in Israel are well evoked. The young people struggle with the responsibility they feel towards their families. However accepting the men may think themselves, they still expect to dominate. The girls are beautiful and strong but also tied to tradition. Only Udi’s sister, Avigail, seems willing to truly challenge the patriarchy, and she pays a terrible price.

Daniel’s family at first appears to have fitted in well to British society. As the story progresses it becomes clear that they choose to exist within the confines of a Jewish community. When Daniel decides to join a rally he cries out for peace whilst planning to join the Israeli army. The juxtaposition is telling.

The course of all the characters’ lives, the expectations they have for themselves and for those around them, was, for me, summed up as a metaphor in a comment made about birthday presents:

“Gifts are funny things. I know you’re meant to try to think of something the receiver would like, something they would want, nothing to do with you, but it never works that way. There’s always a not-so-subtle hint of the giver in there, an intimation of their perception of who the receiver is, or who they wish them to be.”

Each of the younger family members struggles with the disconnect between what they think they want and the mould their family is trying to push them into. The three young men’s view of themselves is a deception. Prejudices picked up from the cradle run deep.

Even though I was often discomforted by the content, the quality of the writing is impressive. These are difficult issues to explore and the author does not flinch from presenting differing points of view. Her sympathy appears to be with the Jews, but she vividly portrays Palestinian issues. Having said that, I feel no closer to understanding why this region evokes such widespread ire when the world is full of troublespots, or why the Jews have been singled out so often and by so many for persecution.

An interesting and challenging story that is well worth reading. I would now like to peruse more of this author’s work.

Out of Africa

Browsing through the blogs that I follow this morning I came across the latest instalment in Duncan Swallow’s¬†‘advice’ series,¬†How not to be killed by a wild buffalo | nobodysreadingme. The memories came flooding back as I remembered the day that I was charged by one of these beasts. Canny readers will have worked out that I survived the experience, but it got me thinking about the various other encounters that I also survived whilst on a memorable trip to Southern Africa in the nineteen eighties.

I had spent the previous summer working on a kibbutz that was located on the Gaza Strip in Israel. Although this was a known trouble spot I was unfazed by the potential threat of bombings or shootings. I had, after all, spent my entire life up to this point living in Belfast during the worst years of The Troubles. The constant army presence was nothing new and I was more intrigued by the fact that young women were required to complete National Service alongside the men. As a feminist this was something that I fully approved of; I wished to be treated as an equal and it just didn’t happen where I came from.

Volunteers on the kibbutz lived in a separate area from the kibbutniks and we partied hard. I learned to drink beer and to smoke cigarettes that summer, habits that I all but gave up as soon as I returned to my homeland but which added to my enjoyment at the time. I encountered my first scorpions and poisonous spiders, and developed an allergic reaction to biting insects which caused liquid blisters the size of saucers to appear on my legs.

The kibbutnik nurses sent me to an off site medical centre for treatment. After a long wait I was seen by a doctor, but I have no idea what he thought because he spoke no English and I had no understanding of any other language. My blisters were opened and my legs bound in gauze. After that the kibbutniks treated me as if I had some sort of plague, which got me out of a lot of the work details I was there to perform.

One of the other volunteers at the kibbutz came from Zimbabwe, but had Irish ancestors and an unfulfilled wish to visit the emerald isle. Being an hospitable Irish person I offered him an open invitation to come stay with me any time he wished. A month or so after I flew home he surprised me somewhat by phoning to say that he was taking me up on my offer.

His timing was perfect. I still lived with my parents at this time, but they had a holiday abroad planned meaning that I had use of my father’s car and did not need to abide by their rules. I borrowed a tent and spent ten days driving around Ireland with this boy, a most scandalous thing to do at the time. We had a fabulous trip and even managed to locate the graves of his long dead relatives. We asked around and found a few people who remembered the family; Ireland proved itself to be the welcoming place it purports to be. My parents were not so impressed when they returned home and discovered what I had been up to in their absence.

Having partaken of my generous hospitality my new found friend reciprocated, telling me that I would be most welcome in Harare any time I chose. I decided this was too good an opportunity to miss, bought a plane ticket, and spent the three week Christmas holiday travelling around Zimbabwe and South Africa with him.

We camped on the borders of Zambia and Mozambique, hitch hiked from city to city, took a lift with a trucker friend into the wilderness; but the most memorable trips were those made to the Zambezi River, and with his family to Victoria Falls. I was seeing wildlife that I knew only from zoos and television documentaries, in their natural habitat.

I wanted to take photographs of everything. When a large spider started bouncing towards me I was delighted. ‘Look! a bouncy spider!’ I cried as I captured the image, whilst those who knew better ran to escape from one of the most poisonous beasts around. Waiting for a lift by the roadside I wandered up to a group of baboons to photograph the cute little babies before my host dragged me away as the enormous, angry looking mother moved in to protect her young; apparently they are killers too. I was not allowed to approach the elephants who came to drink from the motel swimming pool, and was advised against attempting to get close to the hippopotami and crocodiles in the rivers. I did get to hold a baby crocodile at a tourist attraction; it wee’d on me.

I met the buffalo on a trip down the Zambezi River in a small motor boat. The game keeper carefully pointed it out and then became highly agitated when I stood up in order to photograph it better. The beast raised it’s head, then lowered it menacingly, haunches rising, and charged. I was nearly thrown out of the boat, into the crocodile and hippo infested waters, as the gamekeeper enacted a hasty turn and full throttled escape. I was sworn at quite a lot but was more upset that I didn’t manage to capture on my camera that magnificent beast in full charge. At the time I had no concept of the danger to us all.

Needless to say the trip was awesome. I saw a herd of wild zebra running across a plain, flamingos taking flight in formation and slept out in wooded areas surrounded by the sounds of wildlife I could not even name.

Africa was a land of beauty, poverty and huge inequalities. I argued with one of my welcoming and hospitable host families over apartheid and their treatment of the coloured servants who lived in a hut at the end of their garden, required to live away from their families. I slept in a bed that had shotgun damage in the ceiling above and fleas in the sheets. I was fed the most delicious and enormous steak I have ever eaten.

Thirty years later I still remember the sights and sounds of Africa: the colour, the dust, the welcome. It is an awesome place. I am grateful that I was granted enough luck over judgement to survive to tell my tales.