Saud Amiry's tale of two Palestinian teenagers
Suad Amiry, who came to international fame in 2003 with the acclaimed novel Sharon and My Mother-in-Law – a memoir of domestic life under the siege of Ramallah – is the youngest member of a refugee family who fled their home after the Israeli occupation of Palestine to relocate in Jordan, where she grew up among tales of her native land. Her most recent book, Story of an English Suit and a Jewish Cow (yet to be published in English), departs from her usual documentary approach and focuses instead on a fictionalised version of the true love story between two Palestinian teenagers against the backdrop of the Nakba (“catastrophe” in Arabic), the 1948 Palestinian exodus which she recalls as “a critical juncture in the history of her people”.
The book follows 15-year old Shubi and 13-year-old Shams on their journey to adulthood, beginning from young Shubi’s clumsy attempts to impress his love interest by wearing expensive Manchester wool clothing (the “English suit”) gifted to him by a rich orange merchant and narrating the pair’s vicissitudes amidst growing political unrest up to the point of their forced separation. Amiry recounts how she stumbled upon the story almost by accident, agreeing to an arranged meeting with the elderly Shams while on her way home from her unsuccessful quest to retrieve her father’s family home (which had been leased to Israeli tenants after the Six-Day War); and explains the detailed descriptions of the urban background of the story as a tribute to her father’s hometown, Jaffa, a flourishing commercial centre, beating heart of the Palestinian citrus industry and her nation’s “richest, most vivacious and open city”.
The book is a celebration of the Arab world “at the time of a lost generation”, an open and diverse macrocosm overflowing with a myriad of ethnic and religious groups, whose borders “have been forcefully shrunk down ever since”. The main characters’ innocence and naivety contrasts with Amiry’s forthright style of writing and wry sense of humour, dotted with Arabic words which give her narrative a tragic sense of realness.