I remember being told, when I first started this journey, that there are no Aboriginal Australian fantasy writers because Aborigines don’t really write. That person was wrong, very wrong, and I found Catching Teller Crow by Ambelin Kwaymullina and Ezekiel Kwaymullina (for a future review). It’s not really all that surprising. Every group has its imaginers and dreamers looking to weave their tribe’s stories into a tale waiting to be heard. Today it’s the Palestinians’ turn.
Last iCon (2020) I attended a session called “My First (Palestinian) Dragon” given by Loaay Wattad. It was a lecture on Palestinian children’s literature, and specifically Palestinian children’s fantasy literature, something I knew next to nothing about. It was short, but I did learn a lot. Specifically, there are Palestinian fantasy books, I want to read these fantasy books, and some of them are in English! (but none in Hebrew). Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands by Sonya Nimr is just the latest one of them! I preordered the book as soon as I heard about it. It was a huge disappointment, but I am still really really excited that it exists.
The Curse Took Away the Daughters
“Baba, aren’t there any children in the village?”
Several hundred years ago in Palestine, there was an isolated village. It was a village with many ancient traditions, traditions that dictated every aspect of the villagers lives. Boys were educated, girls were not, and no one was allowed to look at the village elders, especially the women. They had to be satisfied working the fields, and raising the children. It was better than living in the house of shamed women.
The village was cursed. Or at least that’s what the villagers believed.
Villagers were only allowed to live and marry inside the village, and this warning was strengthened by a curse. Except, for obvious reasons, someone did eventually leave, and the entire village suffered the consequences – no more girls were born. It was a huge problem because again tradition dictated that the villagers could only marry each other. Unfortunately, tradition didn’t have any solutions so the people aged slowly, and no one got married.
Several years later, another person left the village. Saeed, a young boy of thirteen, journeys with his male relatives to the city, discovers a book store, a book, and the woman of his life. First chance he gets (seven years later), he heads back to the city, gets married, misses his family, fathers twins, heads back to the village, and becomes an outcast. Meanwhile the village remains cursed.
The twins are Shams (Sun) and Qamar (Moon). They are women, isolated from the rest of the village, until the curse is broken, and then Qamar journeys the world, rather than doing her duty and getting married. It should have been a fascinating journey.
Not The Region I Know
“The men made their journey in the summer, when the wide valley surrounding their mountain dried out. For the rest of the year, the village was isolated by the waters that filled the valley below.”
This book was a decent book that did not even come close to justifying my initial excitement. I enjoyed the writing style, the characters, and much of the events. More importantly, the book delivers a very important and empowering feminist message to a society that still struggles with honor killings, a woman’s duty, and the genetic defects caused by marrying inside the clan. However, these were still not enough to make up for the story’s shortcomings. I personally felt that there were many.
The story starts in Palestine. We are told of an isolated village on a mountain surrounded by a wide valley filled with water that can only be accessed in the hottest months of summer when the waters disappeared. I live in Israel (Palestine). The mountains here are really hills when compared to the rest of the world, and the geographic features described in the book just don’t exist, and that’s not the first time this happens.
This book is supposed to be about Wondrous Journeys In Strange Lands. After Qamar grows up she embarks on a journey that takes her to Jerusalem, Egypt, Morocco, and many other countries. They all share one common thread. Cities and countries have distinct personalities. Cairo, Tangier and Genoa are very different places, but as far as the book is concerned these are just cities. This book is more about the characters and events than the sights along the way, which is a huge problem for a book of travels.
The only city that got any special attention was Jerusalem. Qamar visits the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Mosque of Al Aqsa. I’m going to be charitable, and assume the author chose not to mention Jews at a minor point in the story because incorporating us would be an unnecessary distraction. It still bugged me though that Jerusalem is portrayed as a city of two religions.
I also felt that there were a lot of loose ends that never got properly wrapped up, and that it lacked sufficient depth. This book eventually becomes Qamar’s life’s journey. However, at some point as a reader, I just stopped caring about what happened to her, despite the significant amounts of character growth. I felt this was because of sloppy storytelling. Not enough was done with the rest of the story elements to keep me interested in what was going on.
At the same time the book really is written very well. I was able to finish it in a single Shabbat, despite having three very demanding kids clamoring for my attention. I wouldn’t have been able to do that if the book were boring, or hard to follow. I just wish I had gotten a better story out of the experience.
A Book of Kindness and Inner Beauty
The Omer today is kindness in splendour. This is very much a book of kindness. The kindness brought about mainly from the shared hospitality of books, but also the kindness that one shows others even when they have done very little to earn it. There is also splendour here, but it is a very shallow beauty that doesn’t penetrate deep. Any splendour experienced in this book comes from the characters inner beauty and not the rather bland places they visit along the way.
At the end of the day, I am still really excited this book exists though. This may not have been a book I enjoyed, but I am really happy that there are Palestinian authors out there writing their stories (and that these stories don’t imagine me dead or gone). The more stories there are out there, the greater the odds that I’ll find one I fall in love with, and that means there will be a Palestinian author I get to geek out over, and then? World peace hopefully.
About the Author and Translator
Sonia Nimr is a leading Palestinian Author and storyteller who weaves together contemporary stories with folklore for readers of all ages. She won the 2014 Etisalat Award for this book, and was shortlisted for Thunderbird, the first in a fantasy trilogy. She co-authored two books in English: Ghaddar the Ghoul and other Palestinian Stories and A Little Piece of Ground.
Marcia Lynx Qualey (Translator) is a writer and editor who founded ArabLit and ArabLit Quarterly. She co-hosts the BULAQ podcast and co-translated the co-written Ghady and Rawan (2019)