René Backmann
translated by A. Kaiser
Picador ($12)

by Spencer Dew

Consider the village of Chiyah, where an Israeli-erected barrier “slices in between apartment buildings” and “loops around and through various religious properties (Christian monasteries, pilgrim hostels, churches, schools, and retirement homes),” cutting through “the landscape like a giant chain saw.” Here, as René Backmann describes it, “the wall separates Palestinians from Palestinians,” and “the only Israelis present in the vicinity are a few settlement families living in two old Palestinian homes,” a “‘wild’ settlement, called the Kidmat Zion . . . not on the list of official settlements published by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics” yet still “protected by the Border Police detachment that has set up shop in the former Cliff Hotel.” One could imagine a whole book about Chiyah—a number of books, even—but Backmann does not linger on the particulars of this place or its populace.

A Wall in Palestine takes as its mission an investigation of the contested “security barrier” (or “annexation wall”) dividing Israel from the West Bank, and there is much ground to cover. Backmann wants to prompt his readers to ponder why “the length of this continuous obstacle was estimated at nearly 435 miles when the line that serves as the border between Israel and the West Bank is no longer than 202 miles.” For this purpose, he has included maps, from which one can see how the wall gobbles its way into the West Bank, bisects communities, and disregards the 1949 “Green Line” border. These maps, while shocking, are also somewhat lifeless; roads “forbidden or with restricted access for Palestinians” are marked, but it’s unclear if all roads are. No population data for towns or settlements is given, and there is no charting of past entrance points for terrorists. Standing alone, these maps can be read as objective fact or as a reflection of a specific ideology, but Backmann’s decision not to accompany them with direct commentary and explanation is troubling, as are the larger lacks, in his book—a lack of clear speaking when it comes to goals and a lack of detailed engagement with human particulars.

Backmann’s journalistic style tends toward dry narration; even in his quickly related interviews of architects and victims of the divider, there are few real glimpses of character or encapsulations of the human cost of the wall’s presence. There is a moment with a man who explains how his morning commute out of Jerusalem is only fifteen minutes while it takes him “two to three hours to get back home at the end of the day, because of checkpoint delays,” but Backmann speeds away from this rich and relatable anecdote to more facts and figures, which, while addressing the scale of the economic catastrophe wrought by the wall, don’t express it nearly as well. Likewise, Backmann interviews a shepherd whose ability to pasture his sheep was prevented by the erection of the barrier. “I sold a part of [the herd] to make a little money,” he says, “and slaughtered the others, one by one, to feed my family. May Allah punish the Israelis for what they do to us!” In two sentences we have poignancy and rage, the banal reality of oppression and a disquieting glimpse into the sort of religious fanaticism that fuels violence on both sides of the wall. But Backmann moves on; religion as a motivating force is of no concern for this book.

There is undoubtedly a larger goal here, but it is vaguely defined. “Can Barack Obama reopen the road to peace,” Backmann asks at the close of his book, at which point many readers will surely flip back to see if they missed the chapter where the conflict itself was explained. But Backmann, dealing with such a literally concrete manifestation of policy as the wall, remains abstract as to his conclusions and what he aims for his book to accomplish. “What if today’s security threat to Israel came not from the surrounding region, but also from the misguided decisions of its own leaders?” he asks. “Does Israel imperil its chances at peace and security by showing indifference to Palestinian human rights; by refusing to acknowledge or at least entertain the possibility that Palestinian anger springs from the legitimate desire for liberty; by assuming that all Palestinians are complicit with international terrorism; and by repeatedly casting irresponsible accusations of anti-Semitism at anyone who attempts to criticize Israeli policies and decisions?” As with the question about Obama, these mouthfuls seem shockingly unrelated to anything earlier in the book. We have heard neither accusations of Jew-hatred nor international terrorism. While we have heard about outbursts of “anger” (the 2001 Dolphinarium discotheque bombing is mentioned, in passing), there is nothing like a practical sense of what Palestinian “liberty” might look like—save for, I suppose, the absence of the wall.

I found it impossible to read Backmann’s book without comparing it to other works, comparisons not to Backmann’s advantage. A Wall in Palestine covers similar ground to Nida Sinnokrot’s engaging documentary “Palestine Blues,” pursuing similar questions about the curves and loops along the divider’s route—though Sinnokrot, carrying a camera into the orchards and up to the faces of the people affected, makes maps come alive, cry, sing. Backmann, attempting to contextualize this wall within what is often euphemistically neutered as “the situation,” ends his study with a chronology not of events “directly pertaining to the wall” (though these are noted with an asterisk), but of the modern state of Israel, beginning in 1896 with the publication of Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State and ending in 2009, with Netanyahu’s rejection of a freeze on settlements. Again, some readers will see objective fact and others a narrative of bias, but, in any case, the book makes no other gesture toward such a scope of history. It can hold nothing, then, against Adina Hoffman’s portrait of the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali and his milieu, My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness. Hoffman expertly alternates between a wide-lens survey of the past and vivid engagement with the particularities of the people enduring this “situation,” both Israeli and Palestinian. Hoffman, for instance, would have spent enough time with that shepherd to parse out his idiosyncrasies and present him as a full person, located in history.

Ultimately, the book I thought of the most, as I plodded through Backmann’s pages of statistics on settlements or surveys of judicial decisions, was Philip Gourevitch’s masterful study of the Rwandan genocide, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. Gourevitch, like Hoffman, untangles the various strands that led to the present while, via self-examining narration, engaging in empathetic encounters with people involved in, or able to offer some insight on, the events he’s investigating. Backmann’s book remained distant, the reality obscured, which is deeply unfortunate for a book with such an urgent subject. Luckily, we have Sinnokrot’s film, but this is far from enough. Backmann’s shortcomings should jolt others into action, and the wearying way he skims over moments that should be given deep attention will, at the very least, prompt readers to try to imagine all that Backmann does not offer. Consider this fact that he relays:

For security reasons, Palestinian vehicles are no longer allowed to enter Israel, except for humanitarian purposes. It is now impossible for a resident of Bethlehem, for example, to drive to Jerusalem, fill her car up with goods, and drive back. Drivers from the West Bank must leave their cars in the terminal parking lot, cross the terminal by foot—if they have a permit—and, on the other side, take one of the new buses from there into the city. The ticket costs 1.5 shekels. The bus drivers, carefully chosen and trained by Israeli security services, are responsible for verifying that their passengers have the required permits, and will lose their license should they make any error.

Hoffman or Gourevitch would have given us that woman from Bethlehem, and given us that driver, too, made us feel what that 1.5 shekel could cost and have some sense of the experience of that walk and that ride. Backmann, in his presentation, raises question after question. The very mention of special security training for bus drivers deserves some detailed follow-up, but A Wall in Palestine has no time for such texture, such realistic consideration; its author moves too quickly, on too broad a survey of his topic, in a quest for far too vague a peace.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010