Ideal for middle school readers (upper mg/lower ya), this magical realism book takes readers from middle school in American to a Palestinian village outside of Jerusalem through the consumption of some magical olives. Written by a Jewish author married to a Palestinian Muslim who raised their three daughters in Palestine, the book features a lot of Islam, but is Palestinian centered in its insight, critique, culture, and dreams. Over 224 pages, Ida starts to find where she fits in both in understanding her self within her family, her place in America, her passion in life, and what it means to be Palestinian. The story is important, and is told in a way that will encourage readers to learn more about the occupation. Nuances are shown in characters and groups, but the line that the occupation is oppressive is never compromised. I appreciate that the author writes from her own experiences and openly acknowledges that she is not trying to take away from Palestinian born and raised OWN voice stories, but she is an advocate, she has raised her children and lived in the West Bank, and her characters reflect a sense of intimate knowledge, love, and appreciation. Even with Ida having to decide to stay in America or Palestine, the two countries are not pitted against each other or seen as black or white, as to which is better or worse, the middle is where much of the story takes place, and appreciating your culture no matter how much others are trying to erase your existence, is always stressed.
Ida is the middle child of her Palestinian immigrant family and isn’t artistic like her younger sister, a ballet dancer like her older sister, or a soccer player like her father. She wishes she was invisible. Especially when her classmates turn on her every time there are conflicts in the middle east. When it seems that everyone wants to diminish her heritage, she finds herself at a new school, unsure of where she fits in. With anti Palestinian attitudes and Islamophobic people, Ida just wants to go unnoticed, unfortunately middle school requires a passion project to be presented and Ida has no idea what her passions are, and how she will face the crowds.
One day when looking for a snack she finds a jar of olives stuffed in a cupboard- olives brought by a family friend from her now deceased aunt in Busala, one bite and she is magically transported to the familial village. It is an alternate reality of what life would be if her parents never came to America. Not only is she in a country she has never seen before, meeting family members she has never met before, but even her own parents and sisters are somehow different. She enjoys the warmth, the communal activities, the extended family. Her mom in hijab, the athan being heard, the men all going for jummah, but then they sit down for a meal and the same olives are served and Ida accidently takes a bite and is whisked back home.
Once home, she longs for so much of Palestinian life, but relishes in the convenience and ease of America as well. Her passion project still looms and she finds herself hoping to escape it by going back to Palestine. When she finds herself back near Jerusalem she ventures out with her Aunt, who isn’t dead in this reality, and learns more about the occupation and oppression, and how the families interact with the various Israelis: some sympathetic to Palestinians, some actively working to help Palestinians, and some settlers- forcefully killing and bulldozing Palestinian homes.
When Israeli military troops enter their village, the families meet to discuss the best course of action, the families do not agree, there is no clear way to prepare, there is no guarantee of survival. Ida starts to find her voice, and when the soldiers enter, Ida finds herself rushing out to help a small boy. Guns, demolition, rocks, tear gas, fear, so much fear, what can one person do? What can one village do? What will Ida do?
WHY I LIKE IT:
The book is relatable and moving, not just for those with a tie or interest in Palestine. It is a coming of age story that shows a girl grappling with forces so much bigger than herself, while at the same time dealing with homework and friends and stereotypes. Ida has a lot to figure out and the book doesn’t sugar coat a happy ending, it simply provides a moving story based on reality, through a character whose quirks and personality you find yourself rooting for.
I love the presence of Islam and the way it is apart of Ida and her surroundings, even though she makes it clear early on that her family is not religious. The Quran is mentioned, the athan, various salat, hijab, Hajj, Ayatul Kursi, Ramadan, Eid, wasting food as being haram. In Boston her friend knows she doesn’t eat pork, she went to Sunday school to learn Arabic at the mosque when she was younger. It doesn’t gush with Islam, but it is present, for example Ida’s sister and her joke about a good Palestinian girl shouldn’t have a boyfriend, it isn’t tied to their religion. The story is a Palestinian one, and as someone who is not Palestinian, the images, the foods, the smells, the love all seemed to embrace everything I’ve ever heard Palestinian friends talk about, and it feels like a warm hug to read the effects being in Palestine has on Ida.
I love that the author is upfront about her perspective, and I love that she is putting this story out there. The writing is sufficient: I was invested in the story, and it was an easy read. I don’t know that I’ll remember it months from now for it’s imagery or power, but I’m certain I’ll remember the commentary about life under occupation and the struggle to not be erased by a world that doesn’t seem to care about the settlers still taking Palestinian homes and their way of life away by force.
Fear, crushes, death, injuries, loss, magic, bullying, racism, Islamophobia, guns, physical assault, threat of force, destruction.
TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:
Our school is majority Palestinian. Years ago when we read Where the Streets Had a Name, I learned so much about the students, their families, their own experience living under oppression, that I can’t wait to present this book with the middle schoolers and take notes on their thoughts. I would not lead the discussion, I would let them, their voices will not be erased by me.
Preorder available here: Amazon