Novelist Mohammed Hanif on the Re-release of Sahar Khalifeh’s Classic ‘Wild Thorns’

On the first day of 2023’s Women in Translation Month, Saqi Books is releasing a new edition of Palestinian novelist Sahar Khalifeh’s classic Wild Thorns, originally published in 1976, translated by Trevor LeGassick and Elizabeth Fernea. They have shared the book’s new introduction by novelist Mohammed Hanif.

By Mohammed Hanif

Wild Thorns opens with Usama, who is returning to Palestine after five years abroad making money in the Gulf countries. We soon learn that during that time he has become a member of the resistance movement, undergone training and plans to complete a mission to blow up one – or some of – the transportation buses that take Palestinian workers from the West Bank to Israel. It is 1972 and Usama is angry to find that Nablus is not as he thought he would find it. His family and friends are going about their lives with a level of acceptance. They are not grabbing their Israeli occupiers by the throat. At a West Bank checkpoint, a girl is screaming, most probably being tortured, and a woman is asked to pay customs duty – money she doesn’t have – on gifts for her family.

Like any great storyteller, Khalifeh wants us to see both the anger and those who are too overworked to get angry. Though this is a novel about anger, it is not an angry novel; Khalifeh is more concerned with people than anger. Usama cannot understand why his mother is only interested in getting him married to a cousin, who isn’t keen and who is in love with a revolutionary anyway. This cousin is a brave woman, but she is helpless in front of her old father who is on a kidney machine. She will not accept Usama, the match he has found for her, but she will not confront her ailing father, either. Her father himself is all for resistance but won’t let his own children join it.

There is a bread seller who is hounded by his customers because the bread is made in Israel and who is judged for being a collaborator by people wearing pressed trousers. There is a peasant and a dog who stay at an abandoned farm while the owner, who hides his shame because he needs to feed eight mouths, takes the daily bus to work in an Israeli factory. It is in this factory that an employee in his sixties, Abu Sabr, loses fingers on his right hand, his working hand, but he can’t get an ambulance because the Israeli owners won’t give him a proper job and then won’t let him use the ambulance that is parked on the premises because he doesn’t have a proper job. As Abu Sabr races towards a hospital in a friend’s jeep, watching his right hand, his working hand, slowly bleed, all he wants is to listen to stories of heroes and their adventures. And it’s not ironic at all that his friend can’t remember any such stories. The only stories he can remember are about humiliation, hunger and secret loves. There is a child somewhere whose playtime involves pulling out random things from filthy sewage.

Khalifeh, a native of Nablus, might be the storyteller that Abu Sabr yearns for. Khalifeh went to university at the age of thirty-two, after surviving a forced marriage for thirteen years. The manuscript of her first novel was confiscated by the Israeli army. Loss, like many of her characters, probably added to her determination to tell stories. She published We are Not Your Slaves Any Longer and Wild Thorns in Arabic during the mid-seventies. She went on to study in the USA and returned to Nablus with a plan: to tell more stories. There are many men in Wild Thorns, but it’s the women that power her narrative; they are protective and fierce, respectful, rebellious and resourceful – they can cook a meal with scanty ingredients and they also know where to hide the weapons. Khalifeh’s women are not heroes or victims. They are daughters of the soil. They nurture, collaborate, protest and ultimately, it is the women who are left undertaking an inventory of the kitchen utensils when their houses are demolished by the occupation forces.

Wild Thorns is set in Nablus of half a century ago. You would think that enough time has passed for the world to wisen up to the horrors of Apartheid occupation, that by now the lives and struggles of the Palestinians Khalifeh wrote about would be known. I can’t remember the last time I heard a story from Nablus that wasn’t about killings. I hear nothing, ever, about how people live there. Should we be pleased to know that the United Nations has finally mustered the courage to use the word Nakba? There is no talk of undoing it, but seventy- five years after more than half a million people were thrown out of their ancestral homes, we can finally give it a name. The occasion was commemorated at the UN headquarters’ Conference Room No. 4 in New York on 15 May 2023. While I was reading Wild Thorns, I turned on the news and Khader Adnan had died after remaining on hunger strike for eighty-eight days. BBC’s 6 o’clock News started their coverage with the news of violence, ‘The violence flares up,’ a very sombre newscaster told us. It was emphasised that Adnan was a former spokesperson of Islamic Jihad, but there was no mention that he was protesting an illegal detention, without trial. There are many ways to kill yourself and the Israeli Occupation is designed to edge an entire population towards suicide. Going on hunger strike is one of the most peaceful forms of resistance. You are not shooting yourself in the head, or dousing yourself in fire: just refusing to eat. Hunger, impending starvation and the memory of hearty meals also haunts these pages. People would like to be content with some food in their belly and a roof over their heads. They can get a meal, with an egg thrown in, but only in a jail. Jail is a place of both separation and education in Wild Thorns. Perversely, it seems the only way to be free and to be loved and to prove that you are a man is to be in jail. Recently, we heard that the liberal Israelis, who oppose their government’s atrocities, were on the verge of burning their passport in protest. Not burning them yet, but on the brink of. It’s difficult to imagine what occupiers thought half a century ago as Khalifeh mostly shows us Palestinians arguing among themselves. Israelis appear only in brief, humanising glimpses. Israeli prison guards cry when a four- year-old boy comes to visit his father but doesn’t recognise him. That was the world imagined by Khalifeh. The world is now run by the likes of Israeli MP Ayelet Shaked who said in support of the ongoing bombing of Gaza, ‘They have to die and their houses should be demolished so that they cannot bear any more terrorists … This also applies to the mothers of the dead terrorists.’ Shaked also called Palestinian children ‘little snakes’.*

In these pages Khalifeh restores humanity to the men and women like Shaked, the beneficiaries of dead or abandoned children. Khalifeh doesn’t avert her gaze, but holds us by the scruff of our neck and makes us watch closely as an Israeli officer out shopping with his wife and six-year-old daughter is stabbed in the neck. We are forced to gaze on, along with his wife and child, as the officer bleeds to death next to a vegetable cart, and although all hell is about to break loose, Kaltom watches, too. Kaltom, whose husband is still looking for compensation after losing a hand, comforts the dead Israeli’s wife and child. Khalifeh shows us something more than compassion in this moment, when all sides are locked in an existential confrontation and people come close but they can’t embrace or look at one another until the other is completely annihilated. When I was reading the final part of this book, three young men were killed by Israelis in a raid in Nablus. We are still living in the world witnessed by Khalifeh half a century ago.

Against the rich tableau of characters there is one further one that it would be negligent not to touch on here. There is God in these pages. Sometimes He is evoked for mercy and sometimes He is cursed for making slaves of our generation; for giving all this oil to Arab countries, then making them slaves to the friends of occupiers. An impotent God, a good-for-nothing God.

Khalifeh’s novel is a timeless reminder that you might snatch our homes, kill our children or force them to play in filth, but you can’t take away our stories. Wild Thorns is an ambulance ride of a book, complete with a red light and blaring siren. It’s urgent and essential. We are all in that car with Abu Sabr, right hand bleeding, contemplating the misery of a future without it and of how our wife’s only gold bracelet can be sold to buy food for a few days; trying not to think about the prospect of taking our son out of school and putting him to work; yearning, begging to hear a story. That’s where Sahar Khalifeh comes in, takes hold of our other hand – the one that’s not yet bleeding – comforting us on this journey and says: Here, I’ll tell you a story.

-Mohammed Hanif, June 2023

*‘What Does Israel’s New Justice Minister Really Think About Arabs?’ by Judy Maltz, Haaretz, 11 May 2015.

Mohammed Hanif was born in Okara, Pakistan. He graduated from the Pakistan Air Force Academy as Pilot Officer but subsequently left to pursue a career in journalism. He has written for stage, film and BBC Radio. His first novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes (Penguin, 2008), was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, short-listed for The Guardian First Book Award and won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Novel. He was the head of the BBC Urdu Service in London and now works as their special correspondent based in Karachi.

Wild Thorns by Sahar Khalifeh publishes August 2023 RRP £9.99 (Saqi Books).