Saturday, August 27, 2011

Book Review: Where the Streets Had a Name by Randa Abdel-Fattah

Book: Where the Streets Had a Name 
Author: Randa Abdel-Fattah
Published: 2010
Source: Local Library

With her beloved grandmother’s health failing fast, Hayyab has decided that what she needs is soil from her home. Luckily, it’s only a few miles away. Unluckily, those miles lie in Jerusalem, across the wall between Palestine and Israel, through bullets and soldiers, riots and checkpoints. But she knows she must face it . . . not only for her grandmother’s sake, but her own.

I knew this wouldn’t be a cute romp when I picked it up. It takes place in a war zone. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the masterful way that Abdel-Fattah shows everyday life in the midst of death and fear. Sisters argue, grandmothers fart in bed, kids cut school.

But the war makes itself felt in everything. A journey of five miles, half my one-way commute to work, takes most of a day, due to various checkpoints, delays, and other artifacts of living on the border of two warring factions. Near the end of the book, a joyous wedding procession is interrupted and the whole wedding party must climb out of the car to be examined by checkpoint soldiers. And Hayyab's journey is not only one of distance, but one through her own fear. A terrible loss in her past is hinted at throughout her quest and it's not until she's ready to confront it that we're allowed to find out what it is ourselves. Fair warning, it's devastating.

My favorite parts were the religious question, or rather the lack of one. Jerusalem is a wild mix of faiths. Hayyab herself is Muslim, but her best friend is Christian. They meet Jewish people that they come to respect and admire. For a conflict so mired in religion, this attitude drives home the basic pointlessness of arguing over God.

Abdel-Fattah wisely stays out of right and wrong, and goes for the human impact. More than an us/them book, Where the Streets Had a Name is a good hard look at the consequences of growing up in an active war zone, and the thorny questions that surround not only this conflict but every war.

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