The Words of My Father: Love and Pain in Palestine - Reviewed by Jon Little
“To discover my own humanity and to know that my apparent enemies were also human was my father’s most important gift to me.” – Yousef Bashir
When I think of Gaza, I think of border walls, of Palestinians crammed into checkpoints, struggling to make their way to their daily bread. I think of Israeli soldiers standing high above, assault rifles clenched across their chests. Yousef Bashir’s inspiring memoir, The Words of My Father: Love and Pain in Palestine, opens with a picture of a different Gaza, a pastoral scene of verdant farmland, figs and guavas plump on the limb, dates and olives ripe for the picking.
This seeming idyll is the Bashir family farm, where the author and countless generations of his family were raised, where bees buzz past, their pollen-dusted legs ensuring all will be well for another generation. But when Bashir pans back, the larger picture comes into focus. Across the highway lays an Israeli settlement. Next door stands an Israeli military base, its watchtower scraping the blue sky above, casting a long shadow below.
In the ‘90s, when Bashir was young, many Palestinian families fled their homes for fear of violence. But not Bashir’s. They remained. His father insisted upon it. Even when Israeli soldiers pounded at their door, demanding they leave, Bashir’s father, an ardent believer in peaceful coexistence, stood firm. Rather than rebuking the soldiers or taking up arms, he offered them hospitality; he opened the door and invited them in as guests.
In they came, and in they stayed. For five long years Israeli soldiers occupied the top two stories of the Bashir family home. Broken plaster scattered across the floors as they knocked holes in the walls to set up gun positions. The house darkened as camouflage netting was lowered over the windows. Soon the family would be forced into a single, common room. There they would live, three generations of Bashirs, sleeping together, eating together, hoping, dreaming, and mourning together, all under the watchful gaze of a rotating cast of soldiers. All but captive in their own home, even trips to the toilet required a soldier’s permission—and an escort. The situation improved slightly when the international press descended on the farm, hoping to document the plight of a Palestinian family living in a home occupied by Israeli soldiers.
Through all the indignities, the gentle, steadfast presence of Bashir’s father, Khalil, kept the family strong. When he returned from the local school where he was headmaster, tired from a long day’s work, soldiers demanded he strip. He complied. When Bashir and his siblings fumed about the soldiers’ behavior, Bashir’s father replied, “They are just children, forgive them.” Even when Bashir was shot in the back by an Israeli soldier, his father preached forgiveness and understanding. “Do not be angry with the soldier who shot you,” he said. “Do not wish him evil. Challenge him to ask himself why he shot you, why he shot a boy who did not and does not wish him evil.”
As an adult, Bashir would find great wisdom in his father’s words. But as a teenager, he struggled to reconcile his father’s loyalty to non-violence with the bullet that had struck his back, leaving him partially paralyzed.
Ironically, it was through his father’s connections as a peace activist that Bashir came to be treated in an Israeli hospital. It was there, while convalescing under the attentive care of Israeli nurses and therapists, that he caught his first glimpse of the borderless love of which his father so often spoke; the nurses and therapists that cleaned his wounds and taught him to walk again were Israeli; overcoming political antagonism, their compassion knew no bounds.
The experience proved pivotal for Bashir. It was the beginning of a long journey away from anger, towards the peace his father so eloquently embodied. Now a peace activist in his own right, The Words of My Father is the moving tale of Bashir’s struggle to understand and then live up to his father’s remarkable example.
The Words of My Father inspires and challenges in turn. It inspires me to believe that peace is possible, and challenges us to make it so. Rather than parsing policy solutions, Bashir focuses on the role of individuals. He implies that no lasting peace will be forged by politicians alone. If peace is to be made, and kept, we must all play a part.
The humble and persistent non-violence of Bashir’s father is the model for such individual engagement. He participated in multi-faith groups advocating for non-violence, but also went a step further. He embodied peace. Non-violence was, for him, more than a strategic weapon brandished to achieve a political end. Peace was more than mere policy goal. It was a way of life, a foundational orientation, the impress of which was discernible in the way he approached the Israeli soldiers who occupied his home, as well as the way he raised his children. His example reminds us that, in order to transform our world, we must first transform ourselves.
Such total commitment to peace set me reflecting on my own life. I believe in non-violence. I favor restorative over retributive justice. I support non-violent protest and peaceful resolutions of international conflict. As a parent, I teach my children to use their words, not their fists, when tensions flare. Yet, I know that’s not enough. I know barbed words can cut deeply too. Though I forgo meat and refuse to act in violence, I know my words often harm those around me, and my thoughts often do myself damage. It is the example of people like Bashir’s father that remind me that non-violence is not only a worthy goal for nations, but for each one of us. More than that, he reminds me that it is not enough to embrace the principles of non-violence. I must enact them, moment to moment, day in and day out. As the great Buddhist writer and monk Thich Nhat Hahn says, “peace is every step.”
Of course, Bashir’s writing does more than call us to individual responsibility, it also pushes for political change, if only implicitly. With Gaza and Israel clashing violently once more, The Words of My Father couldn’t be more timely. Its portrayal of life in Palestine is a moving reminder of the price that every day people pay when governments are unable to make peace, or simply refuse the pursuit.
For writers committed to non-violence, The Words of My Father also asks us to consider the role of the written word in sparking and perpetuating violence. More specifically, Bashir’s work raises the question: can we write non-violently, particularly when reflecting on trauma or oppression we’ve suffered? How can we write about such experiences without vilifying those who have caused us harm?
The Words of My Father is particularly telling in this regard. Bashir individualizes those who have done violence to him by showing their actions as theirs alone. He takes great pains not to suggest, either explicitly or implicitly, that the offending individuals are representative or reflective of larger groups, be they a military organization, nation, or religious group.
He accomplishes this effect by presenting us with a great number of different Israelis. He shows both the soldiers who occupied his home, as well as hospital staff whose care and consideration nursed him back to health. It would have been easy to vilify the former and write off the later as exceptions, but Bashir doesn’t take this route. It should be said that Bashir paints the Israeli soldiers who occupied his family’s farm as, generally, less than sympathetic characters. That said, he does not treat them as a wholly undifferentiated mass. We see soldiers who take to their work with sneering relish and soldiers who all but shrug and drag their feet.
Writing non-violently means not violating the individuality of those engaged in oppression; but neither should we ignore the violence they’ve done. A depiction of our shared humanity—this is what all non-violent writing must strive to pass on. Bashir says, “To discover my own humanity and to know that my apparent enemies were also human was my father’s most important gift to me.” With The Words of My Father, Bashir has passed this gift on. It would be fitting to respond in the spirit of a gift to friends, by reading this book, then passing it on to them.
Jon Little is a writer from Murfreesboro, Tennessee. More of his work can be found at MindfulDaddy.com where he writes on mindfulness, fatherhood, and faith.