Suad Amiry on the Difficulties of Literary Journalism in Palestine

Suad is the blurry woman in orange. But I do think I'm getting better at photographing the backs of people's heads.

PalFest—the annual Palestinian Festival of Literature—begins tonight in Jerusalem.  The night before its kickoff, Ramallah-based author Suad Amiry talked in Cairo about her new nonfiction book, Nothing to Lose But Your Life: An 18-Hour Journey with Murad.

Amiry was joined by Palestinian-Australian YA author Randa Abdel Fattah and the new Managing Director of Bloomsbury Qatar, Seif Salmawy.

Amiry spoke eloquently about her new book, which is built on the same sort of lived journalism as Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.  To write the book, Amiry, a self-described “coward,” accompanied a young man named Murad on his illegal crossing into Israel in search of work. In her talk, Amiry connected the struggle of Palestinian Murad with the struggle of Mexicans crossing illegally into the United States.

But the talk—and more than that, the Q&A—often veered away from Amiry’s new book and into the details of Palestinian politics. At one point, Amiry held up the book and said that the publisher is always reminding her: “Ya Suad, you have to remember that you are here because you wrote a book, not because you are a politician.”

After all, she says of the book, “politics is not the issue. The book is about Murad, about Ramallah, about life.”

The book is also about the struggle to get from one place to another. Amiry spoke about the particular time-space continuum of life in occupied Palestine:

You never know whether you’re going to get somewhere, or how long it will take. Yanni, Ramallah, Nablus: 45 minutes. Could be 45 hours, could be four hours, you may go and not come back. You may not go.

Amiry described her “frantic energy” the day before she travels.

And I talk to my friends, every Palestinian, because of that uncertainty, develops a very psychotic behavior. Some people don’t travel at all.

She said, in fact, one of her next book projects has been stalled because of her inability to travel to Gaza. She wants the book to focus on the tunnels between the Egyptian Sinai and Gaza.

I am totally obsessed with the tunnels. The problem is I can’t get to Gaza. I’ve tried very hard with an international organization, but I can’t get to Gaza to write about the tunnels. And I’m thinking … I’ll write them in an abstract way. Because as you all know, the media makes it sound as if the tunnel goes between Gaza and Tehran directly, you know.

I am totally intrigued by the things that come out of the tunnel.

There was a young woman, on the Internet, on Facebook [who corresponded with a young man in Gaza]. And they fall in love, don’t ask me how, but they did fall in love through the Internet. And she decides to go there. And eventually she goes to Egypt, and then…she gets through the tunnel. And we see a photograph of the bride coming out of the tunnel. You know, in the white dress.

Sometimes, you see a lion coming out of the tunnel. And I have a detail I heard, I just had a friend who went to Gaza, and someone told her, when you do your shopping, go to this supermarket. She said: Why this supermarket? Because there is a tunnel that comes directly into the supermarket.

Amiry’s current book has just been released in English by Bloomsbury Qatar, and should soon be available in Arabic.