A school trip to an amusement park. The West Bank near Jerusalem. An extremely rainy day causing some parents to hesitate about sending their children on the trip. The children, however, are so excited about the day’s potential fun they convince the hesitant parents to let them go. The bus hired to ferry the children to the park is old and in terrible condition; a condition made worse the weather which is flooding the roads and exposing its poor state. Because this is the West Bank, occupied by Israel since 1967, the route the driver must take is a circuitous one. After all, certain roads are for Israelis only in this land of separation and apartheid. What seems almost inevitable happens. The bus is hit by a runaway eighteen wheeler driven by an inexperienced driver with multiple violations on his record. It only gets worse. The school bus rolls over and bursts into flames. Israeli emergency services, including the police and the military, never come despite their close proximity to the accident. Palestinian services are further away and required to pass through checkpoints manned by the Israeli military and designed to slow down traffic from the Palestinian sectors to Israel and its illegal settlements. Bystanders join the driver and a school teacher in pulling children and faculty from the burning bus. What would be a tragedy in any place in the world becomes an indictment of the Israeli occupation—its racism and inhumanity.
This is the setting for the new book from Nathan Thrall. Titled A Day in the Life of Abed Salama: Anatomy of a Jerusalem Tragedy, this text describes the travails of Abed as he tries to find out the fate of his son Milad, a clever and lovable five year old involved in the bus crash. This story line provides the author Thrall with an entry to the intricacies, inconveniences and outright maliciousness of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. The aggressive intrusions and land thefts of the settlers, the obtuse, suspicious and often hateful behavior of the Israeli military, and the often servile nature of the Palestinian police under the Palestinian Authority (PA). But even more than this, it is a story of individuals and families interacting with each other to save their children despite their family feuds and differing political alignments. In Palestine, those alignments can often mean death given the nature of what is at stake.
The events in the book take place just after first Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization were signed. Abed Salama is a member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), a secular leftist group. The other main organization in the PLO is the more popular Fateh, whose politics are not as leftist and, as it turns out, ultimately considerably more collaborationist. Indeed, it is Fateh’s leader Yassir Arafat whose name became not only synonymous with the Accords, but also with those elements seen as giving into Tel Aviv’s demands. Perhaps the greatest of these is the role of the Palestinian Authority, which is ultimately one that serves the Occupation, both in perception and fact. In the text, this dynamic is represented by Ibrahim Salama, who as a member of the Palestinian Authority refugee authority, works closely with the various Israeli military and civilian officials. In fact, he considers one of the Israelis as one of this closest friends. This works in his favor in the text because he is able to use that connection to get information from the otherwise uncooperative Israeli civilian and military authorities.
Then there are the women. Often involved in marriages to men not of their choosing and somewhat restricted by social expectations in their social circles, they carry on, finding joy in their roles as mothers and caregivers even while they hope for something better. Of course, this is not unlike the state of affairs for women around the world, although in a culture where arranged marriages are often still the preferred practice the women’s sense of empowerment might suffer more. Yet, throughout the text, the women the reader is introduced to fulfill their maternal roles with love and efficiency. At the same time, the deadly accident exposes the fragile nature of the women’s relationships with their husbands and families. Indeed, the mother of one of the children is ostracized from her in-laws because, in their search for a reason to the tragedy, they blame her for allowing the child to go on the school trip.
The story inside this book’s covers is a tragedy; one that should never had to have been written. The heartlessness of the occupation, with its apartheid laws, separation walls, military incursions, deadly police raids and harsh imprisonments are part and parcel of the author Thrall’s story. A Day in the Life of Abed Salama is a beautiful, heartbreaking and necessary tale made that much better by the his telling. This story reminds the reader of the humanity we all share. The tragic tale of the bus accident and the emotional and physical consequences for the children on the bus and their families could happen anywhere in the world. It is also true that only in the political reality of the Israeli Occupation could this tragedy occur in the manner it did. The description in prose both emotive and detailed of the parents’ pain, fear and even anger makes that common humanity as real as if it were happening to the reader themselves. The harsh and cruel reality of the nature of Israel’s occupation is omnipresent. So is its racism. So, too, are the individuals whose humanity ignores those cruel realities in their attempts to save the children.