By Olivia Snaije
This is a story about many stories. It begins with the Nakba, occupation, and imprisonment, but it’s also about courageous publishers and an upcoming memoir, The Tale of a Wall, translated from Arabic by Luke Leafgren — a book that became an unlikely topic of discussion at last week’s Frankfurt Book Fair. It is a “metaphysical and introspective voyage about being Palestinian,” says Judith Gurewich of Other Press, Nasser Abu Srour’s publisher in the US.
Nasser Abu Srour’s family is originally from Bayt Nattif, northwest of Hebron, now in Israel, but their home and village were destroyed during the Nakba, after which they found themselves living in Aida refugee camp near Bethlehem, in the occupied West Bank.
As a teenager, Abu Srour participated in the first Intifada, which began in 1987. In his memoir, he describes it as a moment of hope:
The intifada gave causes to us all. It made us small gods. We shaped it in our image and gave it our romanticism, our tolerance, and our forgiveness of transgressions, both small and large… We were lying gods, but we believed our own lies. We believed that Palestine was still possible, that the road was long, and we might not see it in our lifetimes. We believed that freedom was possible, despite all its demands, and that our sacrifices might not be enough. We didn’t stop believing for a single day. We would have died, had we stopped believing.
In 1993—the same year Yizhak Rabin and Mahmoud Abbas signed the accords that Edward Said predicted would be disastrous—Abu Srour was arrested. He was accused of killing a Shin Bet agent who had been applying pressure on Abu Srour’s cousin—later killed by Israeli security forces—insisting the cousin and others become collaborators. Abu Srour writes:
That winter began with my arrest. A life sentence came in its middle. Its end has not yet begun.
Abu Srour lives through solitary confinement, torture, hunger strikes, and profound introspection. He reads: poetry, philosophy, and theology, and obtains a bachelor’s and then master’s degree in political science. He begins to write poetry, and even lives a passionate love story from within the confines of his walls. He finished writing his memoir in the maximum-security prison of Hadarim in northern Israel.
It took Abu Srour two years and three months to get his manuscript out of prison, according to his Lebanese publisher Rana Idriss of Dar Al-Adab. There are many channels for getting manuscripts out of prison, she said, but two of the ways are via regular post, with letters that might include paragraphs that are part of a manuscript, or via recordings on cell phones that families can get to prisoners by bribing prison guards.
The Palestinian cause has been part of Dar Al-Adab’s DNA since it was founded in 1956 by Idriss’ father, the late journalist and author Souhail Idriss. Even before, it was part of the vision of the prominent literary magazine Al-Adab that Idriss co-founded in 1953. Rana Idriss’ brother, the late Samah, continued to edit the magazine and founded the Lebanese branch of Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS).
It was the obvious publisher for Abu Srour’s family to send the manuscript to. “We have many manuscripts coming from prisoners in occupied Palestine,” Idriss said, adding that, despite the quantity, Dar Al-Adab publishes very few—their mission is to publish high quality literature.
Idriss published Abu Srour’s memoir in 2022. Shortly afterwards, Other Press’s Judith Gurewich asked a trusted Arabic speaker to read the 350-page book. He read it in one go and came back to her saying it was tremendous. Gurewich bought world rights (excluding Arabic-language territories and Israel) from Idriss.
Gurewich has a background in law and sociology and is a former psychoanalyst with experience in inherited trauma. She grew up in a Jewish family—her parents had been able to escape Europe during World War II, and she began to think deeply about the State of Israel when she heard about Israeli soldiers who had been imprisoned for refusing to fight during the second Intifada. She went on to publish stories told to her by these soldiers, as well as several books by Franco-Israelis who deeply questioned Israel’s behaviour, and increasingly so under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu.
Gurewich, who publishes authors in translation from all over the world, had never published a book translated from Arabic before, although she has published Arab authors writing in French. This year, she also published Raja Shehadeh’s memoirs written in English, We Could Have Been Friends, My Father and I, which was a finalist for the 2023 National Book Awards.
Gurewich travelled to occupied Palestine and Israel to visit Abu Srour’s family and also to the Nafha prison in the Negev desert where Abu Srour is now held, in the company of his lawyer, who is an important character in the memoir.
The text was translated, read aloud, and edited. Then, finally, Gurewich travelled to the Frankfurt Book Fair last week against the grim and dismal backdrop of the attack on Israel and ongoing bombardment of Gaza, the fair’s unconditional support of Israel, and its postponement of a prize to be given to Palestinian author Adania Shibli, taking away her platform to speak.
Gurewich said she felt that rights sales for Abu Srour’s memoir were a little quixotic, and that she didn’t expect much. However, “it was much less difficult to talk about the book because of the ongoing debate,” she said. Moreover, after participating in a last-minute, early-morning panel called “The Transmission of Trauma: Publishing Voices from Israel and Palestine”—at which she spoke calmly and openly about Abu Srour’s intelligence, humanity, and the trauma that he delved into and examined, which ultimately gave him access to creativity—publishers began to get interested. So far, Gurewich has sold rights to the book to a Spanish publisher and talks are ongoing with others.
“You don’t often have the opportunity to go inside the mind of a Palestinian whose family was a victim of the Nakba, who grew up in a refugee camp where people’s sense of identity and time is shattered. You don’t know what tomorrow will bring and you do the best you can in the moment, but you can’t project yourself as a full human being. It gives you this sense of something very uncanny…”
Of Abu Srour’s memoir, Raja Shehadeh writes: “Nasser Abu Srour doesn’t allow his long incarceration in an Israeli prison to break his spirt. He turns the wall of his cell that is intended to confine him into his path to freedom, and in the process, out of the darkness of his cell produces a luminous memoir.”
As of September 2023, the prison support and human rights organization Addameer listed the total number of Palestinian prisoners as 5200; however, since the Hamas attacks on October 7, Israel has arrested hundreds more Palestinians, and prisoners’ conditions have significantly worsened.
The Tale of a Wall by Nasser Abu Srour, translated by Luke Leafgen, will be published in Spring 2024 by Other Press.
Olivia Snaije (oliviasnaije.com) is a Paris-based journalist & editor.