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‘We need the literature of other countries to expand our
horizons and stimulate our ideas. Without it, we are not only
diminished, we are starved’
(The Times, Magnus Linklater 29/06/05)
Trees for the Absentees
by Ahlam Bsharat
Age Range: 14+
On the brink of adulthood, Philistia’s world is that of an ordinary university student, except that it’s in occupied Palestine. Her father is incarcerated in an Israeli prison and she still misses her beloved Grandmother Zahia.
Philistia has a part-time job washing women’s bodies at the ancient Ottoman hammam in Nablus, the West Bank. This parallels the job Grandma Zahai had during her lifetime, as a midwife and corpse washer. The affinity Philistia feels with her grandmother is key to the narrative. Zahia taught Philistia the ritual of ablutions, the secrets of the body and life and death. She also introduced Philistia to the imaginary world which for her is as real as the physical world she inhabits – “reality was my imagination and my imagination was reality.”
Philistia also enjoys a close relationship with her father which is demonstrated through a series of letters she sends to him. Through these and Philistia's narration, we come to understand more about her. She is a free spirit craving independence from her family but her future path is inevitably entwined with the history of one of the most volatile regions in the world. Philistia must try to make sense of it all; find a way of coping and searching for a place of refuge in her imagination.
Palestinian author Ahlam Bsharat’s small novella is multi-layered weaving from reality to the imaginary, both of which are 'real' to Philistia. On the one hand, it is a coming-of-age story; it focuses on women's experience, particularly in Philistia’s relationship with her grandmother and her best friend Fathia; deals with separation and loss and daily life living under occupation. On the other, there is the powerful fantasy world that Philistia inhabits in which she meets and falls in love with the ghostly Bayrakdar from several centuries before.
Bsharat’s exquisitely lyrical prose, with a masterful collaborative translation from Arabic by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp and Sue Copeland, uses metaphors to great effect. Light and dark represent uncertainty and death and the fight for life respectively. Perhaps the most important metaphor is 'trees' (hence the title). Each body's soul has a message and in each heart, a tree grows. When the soldiers came to cut down the olive trees Philistia seeks a place inside herself where she can plant a memory of the loved ones she has lost. By using evocative metaphors and a dash of magical realism in her novel Bsharat expresses more deftly the tragedy of Palestinian life under Israeli military occupation.
Trees for the Absentees was a runner-up for the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature in 2013.
Code Name: Butterfly by the same author is also reviewed on the website.