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Book review: 'In Your Eyes a Sandstorm'

Bedouin citizens of Israel from al-Arakib (Photo: Mya Guarnieri)

The Palestinian Authority’s United Nations bid for statehood is, in a word, divisive. It has set America and Israel adrift from the international community—confirming, yet again, the United States’ deep bias towards Israel. The request is also controversial within Palestinian circles. Even if the bid is successful, will it create meaningful change on the ground? Can it end the occupation? What about equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel? What about the Palestinian refugees and their right to return, enshrined in UN resolution 194? And, in light of the fact that few Palestinians feel represented by the PA, is the move legitimate?

Interviews in Ramallah reveal no clear consensus. Still, Abbas’ recent speech to the UN was enthusiastically received in Palestinian cities across the West Bank. For some, it represented, perhaps, a small victory—a moment that the voiceless were given a voice. But this begs the question: which voices are we still not hearing? What are their stories? Who are these people, the Palestinians?

Arthur Neslen’s groundbreaking new book, In Your Eyes a Sandstorm: Ways of Being Palestinian, holds some answers.

A collection of 51 in-depth interviews of Palestinians from all walks of life, In Your Eyes a Sandstorm introduces readers to everyone from a Hamas official, to a Palestinian citizen of Israel who served in the Israeli government, to sisters who were born and raised in Beirut’s Shatila camp, to a drug dealer in East Jerusalem, to a West Bank zoo curator. Candid, colorful, and sometimes surprising, the portraits remind us that Palestinians aren’t the monolithic group that the Western media depicts them as.

Neslen points his attention to Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan. While these areas are crawling with journalists, Neslen brings us the stories that go overlooked—like that of Neriman al-Jabari, a 26-year-old widow of an Islamic Jihad leader who was assassinated by Israel in 2004—forcing the reader to interrogate pre-conceived notions about Palestinians.

Neslen’s focus on interviewees in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories serves another purpose. As Neslen points out, location affects both experience and one’s sense of self. The Palestinians nearest to Israel seem to best know “the terror that conflict brings.” Those inside of Israel—an oft-ignored group—wrestle with “identity contradictions that especially afflict Palestinians living close to Israeli Jews.” They also offer a glimpse at the segregation that plagues Israeli society.

As Tamer Nafar, a 29-year-old Palestinian citizen of Israel and founder of the rap group DAM, tells Neslen about his hometown of Lod, just south of Tel Aviv:

“If you buy a map of Lyd, you won’t find the Arabic neighborhoods on it… There are cops here all the time. You have no street lights, unemployment, drugs, and a five-meter-high separation wall between Arab and Jewish areas. You know when someone does something very ugly, and he doesn’t want to look in the mirror? That’s the wall.”

In Your Eyes a Sandstorm also serves as a primer of Palestinian politics, history, and culture, grouping the interviewees by their generation and, thus, the events they have lived through. It’s sophisticated enough to hold the attention of those who are already involved in the issues but accessible to those who have just begun to explore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is a difficult balance to strike and Neslen does so gracefully.

There was, for me, a slight stumble. In the introduction, Neslen describes himself as the son of “left-wing and anti-Zionist Jewish parents.” He also mentions that “trust was often difficult to establish” with his Palestinian interviewees. It’s a catch-22: Neslen can’t not mention these details; but, naturally, some readers might wonder if Neslen’s Jewish background was ever an issue. Was there tension with his interviewees? Why was trust difficult to establish?

One interaction was particularly intriguing. Reflecting upon his interview with an 82-year-old fisherman in Gaza, Neslen remarks, “Strangely and unexpectedly, I felt at home.” This moment seemed worth exploring.

But this is a minor complaint. And Neslen has made the right decision. First off, this book isn’t a memoir. If Neslen had introduced too much of himself, he would have run the danger of his story swallowing up those of his interviewees (a Jew in Gaza! A Jew in Palestinian refugee camps! How does he feel? There’s no room for that but, still, it’s a book I’d like to read).

In Your Eyes a Sandstorm is a gripping look at a society and people who are misrepresented by the mainstream media and misunderstood by much of the Western world. Through these carefully-crafted portraits, Neslen gives Palestinians the space to speak for themselves.

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    1. Rimona

      It is a pity that facts were not checked, by either Arthur Neslen or Mya Guarnieri.
      I was surprised to read about the wall separating Arab and Jewish neighborhoods on Lod.
      Not living far from there I drove to Lod and asked around.
      Yes, I found the wall.
      It separates Snir (Pardes Snir), the Arab neighborhood from Nir Tzvi. But Nir Tzvi is not a Jewish neighborhood in Lod. It is a Moshav and the wall separates the agricultural land of the Moshav from the urban environment of Lod.
      See: http://maps.google.com/maps?hl=en&gs_upl=855521l859438l0l861201l6l6l0l1l0l0l421l1684l2-1.2.2l5l0&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_cp.,cf.osb&biw=1173&bih=728&q=%D7%9E%D7%A4%D7%94+%D7%A9%D7%9C+%D7%9C%D7%95%D7%93&um=1&ie=UTF-8&ei=826YTvzcBYfqOcC_qYkK&sa=X&oi=mode_link&ct=mode&cd=3&ved=0CDAQ_AUoAg
      Furthermore, the wall at its highest point is 307 cm and not the reported 5 meters.
      It so helps to read the truth.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Deïr Yassin

      “I drove to Lod and asked around”
      Wow, in order to give more credit to your spin, I guess…..
      “But Nir Tzvi is not a Jewish neighbourhood in Lod. It’s a Moshav”
      Rimona is playing with words here: I wonder if any ARABS are living in that Moshav built on stolen Arab land ?
      In the New Israel Fund’s report on mixed cities, it states (p.5):
      “The separation wall between Lod’s Arab neighbourhood of Pardes Snir and the Jewish Moshav Nir Zvi was built in 2003. It’a about 4 METERS high and about 1,5 km long, creating a territorial and symbolic barrier between Jewish and Arab residents”.
      Electronicintifada had reproduced extracts from the Government Decision no. 2264 adopted July 21 2002, and the wall is described as 4 METERS tall.
      The residents of the Moshav claim that it’s an “accustic wall” but also that it’s needed in order to ‘protect’ them.
      In: Electronicintifada: Behind The Walls: Separation Walls between Arabs and Jews in Mixed Cities in Israel” June 2006.
      Both the News Israel Fund report and the report published by electronicintifada are on the net.

      Seems as if Rimona’s drive to Lod was a waste of time ….

      I didn’t know this writer, and found that he’s already written a book called “Occupied Minds: A Journey Through the Israeli Psyche” asking himself how could it happen that the former victims turned into perpetrators but still see themselves as victims.
      That sounds a very interesting book too, spot on.

      Reply to Comment
    3. alessandra

      you write, and I agree, “Palestinians aren’t the monolithic group that the Western media depicts them as”.
      Ok, and now let explain to all Israel and Jews fanatic and exalted haters (for instance to the 68.000 and more fans of Vittorio Arrigoni facebook page)that it can be the same for Israeli people.
      by the way, I’m not a Jew, but Italian and from Catholic family origin. but I just can’t stand the growing crazy and senseless antisemitic opinions all over Europe any more.
      and, oh, I forgot to tell you I liked the article and I’m very interested by the book! grazie

      Reply to Comment
    4. mya guarnieri

      thanks for the comment rimona. and wow, what devotion that you hopped in the car and drove to lyd after reading this piece! i appreciate that.

      and, yes, tamer is off in his estimate of the wall being 5 meters high. you’re right. it’s 4 meters. i’m not sure that that meter difference makes it any more understandable or moral or healthy for any of israel’s citizens–palestinian or jewish.

      Reply to Comment
    5. mya guarnieri

      hi alessandra, thanks for the lovely comment. it’s encouraging to see! the book is great. i seriously recommend it.


      Reply to Comment
    6. The wall built by Nir Zvi isn’t to separate it from an Arab neighborhood, but to separate it from one of the most violent, crime-ridden, drug-dealing neighborhoods in Israel, which happens to be Arab. That stretch of Snir is infamous for its “ATMs” – holes in the wall on the Snir side of the alley where buyers push money through and get drugs and even guns pushed back to them. I did a story on the ATMs once, and I did another story that involved the discovery of the body of an overdosed drug addict in Nir Zvi’s fields. I have a very good friend who lives at Nir Zvi and he told me the wall was prompted by the action in that part of Snir, along with the many thefts that had taken place on the moshav.

      Reply to Comment
    7. mya guarnieri

      hi larry, thanks for the insight into the wall. i’m not sure that building a wall around a neighborhood full of citizens of the state is the solution to the circumstances (in this case, state-sanctioned structural violence) that breed crime and violence–poverty, poor education, limited opportunities, etc–but i appreciate your comment nonetheless.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Deïr Yassin

      “One of the most violent, crime-ridden, drug-dealing neighborhoods in Israel, which happens to be Arab.”

      Oh, so it’s a pure coincidence that this neighbourhood is Arab, and has nothing to do with institutionalized discrimination against the native Palestinians. How come those crime-ridden, violent neighbourhoods are all Arab ?

      Funny, here this neighbourhoud “happens” to be Arab, but the riots in France in 2005 were “Muslim riots” according to Derfner, in spite of the fact that NO sociologists endorse that label. How come these rioters didn’t “happen to be Muslims” by pure coindidence ?

      It’s maybe that ‘streak of savagery’ Derfner claimed the Palestinians – but not the Israeli/Jews – possess (cf. a Rattling the Cage-article and a Mondoweiss comment thread back in April).

      DAM on life in Lod as Palestinians:

      Reply to Comment
    9. Hi Mya – thanks for understanding where I’m coming from. The thing about the wall is that it doesn’t surround Snir, it separates the ATM stretch of Snir from Nir Zvi, which I don’t think Nir Zvi can be blamed for setting up – everybody in Lod, Arabs at least as much as Jews, are distraught over the violence, crime and drugs in town. Sure the wall is not the solution, but from the pt of view of the people in Nir Zvi, it’s better than no wall.

      Deir Yassin, who said all drug-and-crime-ridden neighborhoods in Israel are Arab? The Jewish mafia here is much bigger than the Arab mafia. But if anti-Arab discrimination is to blame for Arab crime here, what explains Jewish crime? And what explains Arab crime in Arab counrries, or Russian crime in Russia, French crime in France, etc.? And about my calling the 2005 French riots “Muslim riots,” I think I accepted at least some of your criticism in our back-and-forth on my blog – I ended up saying, as I recall, that while it wasn’t incidental that most of the rioters were Muslim, they weren’t religious riots, so the term “Muslim riots” was wrong. About the “streak of savagery” in Palestinian society, I don’t know if I wrote my second thoughts about that, but if I didn’t, here they are – I think probably most societies in the East and West have a streak of savagery, meaning some of its people revel in the savage killing of even the most innocent of the enemy population, even the children. So I’d say Palestinian society isn’t unusual at all in having this streak – it’s Israel that’s unusual, if not unique, in not having it.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Last sentence in my comment above should read: “…it’s Israel that’s unusual, THOUGH not unique, in not having it.”

      Reply to Comment
    11. Deïr Yassin

      @ Derfner
      If some of the crime-driven neighbourhoods in Israel are Jewish, how come they don’t have a wall separating them from the ‘good’ people. According to the report I mentioned further up by the New Israel Project on mixed cities in Israel (on the net) separation walls in Israel are separating Jewish from Arab neighbourhoods. According to you, it’s NOT because these neighbouthoods are Arab but because they are crime-driven. Logically, there should be at least some separation walls between Jewish and Jewish neighbourhoods, but there aren’t….

      “I think probably most societies in the East and West have a streak of savagery…..the savage killing of even the most innocent of the ennemy population even the children. So I’d say Palestinian society isn’t unusual at all in having this streak – it’s Israel that’s unusual, if not unique, in not having it”

      And I think that you, Larry Derfner, is an ethnic supremacist who’s incapable of seeing what your own people are doing to others.

      How anybody has the chutzpah to claim that the Palestinians have a streak of savagery and the Israelis haven’t, based on the definition of killing innocent civilians among the enemy population when ALL statistics show that Israeli JEWS have killed many more Palestinian civilians, children included, than the other way around.
      I’m sorry Mr Derfner but those are the words of a racist essentialist….not the first time I’ve thought so when reading you.

      Dropping a bomb of more than one ton on a heavy populated neighbourhood to kill ONE man, Salah Shehadeh, in the middle of the night, knowing that there were many children in the building is so much more sophisticated than to blow up oneself in front of a Pizzeria. The pilot didn’t even get dirty hands, or as Halutz said: ‘I just feel a light dump in the wing when I drop a bomb’. White phosphorous dropped on a school by full-grown men is so much more civilized than two teenagers cutting the throat of three kids in Itamar.

      What happened to two-years old Islam Quraiqe in Gaza – an exemple among hundreds – is in fact a sign of Isreal’s superior moral standards. A proper desk job (cf. the photo – it seems that mostly females manage that killing machine). No doubt about that, another proof of “The-Purity-Of-Arms”, “The-Villa-In-The-Jungle” etc

      I want to warn people: the second picture of Islam Quraiqe is unbearable, and makes you wanr to vomit, particularly after reading this kind of self-sufficient ethnocentric crap about Israels’s superior moral standards expressed by Derfner:
      But then Islam Quraiqe was killed by a new sophisticated drone, and not a knife, and his uncle, the Doctor Quraiqe, was a member of Islamic Jihad, and Islam was surely going to become a terroris by the age of three.
      Yeah, The-Villa-In-The-Jungle, when even self-proclaimed left-wingers are capable of writing this kind of s…. !

      Reply to Comment
    12. You mangle what I wrote, Deir Yassin. I didn’t defend all walls that separate Jews and Arabs, just the one that separates Nir Zvi and Snir, which has nothing to do with ethnicity – if Nir Zvi was next to a Jewish neighborhood that was carrying on like Snir does, it would put up a wall just as fast. And I want to amend something I wrote above – the Arabs of Lod are not AS DISRAUGHT as the local Jews about violence, which is dominated in Lod by Arabs – they’re MUCH MORE DISTRAUGHT because they are overwhelmingly the victims.
      You also mangled what I wrote about savagery by leaving out the key word “revel” – that’s the definition of savagery, REVELING in the blood-and-guts killing of innocents, which is something Israelis don’t do, but SOME Palestinians, as well as some members of any number of other societies, do. That doesn’t mean that Israel doesn’t commit all sorts of other sins, that it doesn’t do all sorts of other immoral deeds – it does, and I write about them all the time. I’m a racist, an ethnic supremacist? You say that because you’re a knee-jerk, anti-Israeli, Palestinian nationalist – the mirror image of a knee-jerk, anti-Arab, Israeli nationalist.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Deïr Yassin

      @ Derfner
      So in most societies, there are SOME people who revel in the blood-and-guts killing of innocents, EXCEPT among Israelis. On Mondoweiss, you wrote “Israelis AND Jews”, and you’ve softened your statement on the Palestinian streak of savagery quite a lot, I think.

      And it’s not ethnic supremacism to claim that such a streak of savagery exists, except among Israelis (and Jews) ?

      You’re basically endorsing the Golda Meir-stuff about “We-Will-Never-Forgive-The-Arabs-For-Forcing-Us-To-Kill-Their-Children” or that Israeli “Crying-and-Shooting” self-congratulation.

      How about Julien Soufir, the French-Israeli who killed an Palestinian taxi-driver in his bathtub with, I think, 54 strikes, and expressed great pleasure of having ‘killed an Arab”. Just an exception ? And when a Palestinian do the same, it becomes the rule.

      Or these people, interviewed by the Danish TV2, Ulla Terkelsen: Israelis on a picknic on a hilltop overlooking the killing-fields in Gaza, all while commenting the bombings with great satisfaction:
      Hebrew and English from mon 0:15

      I don’t say you’re an ethnic supremacist because you’re Israeli. I know Israelis of whom I would never say that, but because I’ve noticed on various occasions that you’re essentializing the Arabs/Muslims, and I think your above statement about the Israeli “purity of the soul” really speaks for itself. Maybe you should get embedded in Yitzhar or Hebron for a couple of month.

      And comparing the violence of the oppressed with that of the oppressor is another story.

      Reply to Comment
    14. Deir Yassin, as I wrote on Mondoweiss, savagery is not necessary the worst thing in a person or nation. The pilots who nuked Hiroshima were not savages, Eichmann was not a savage; “banal” evil may very well be worse than savaqe evil. So when I say that Israel (right, and Jews in general) – not UNIQUELY, but probably among a MINOROTY of cultures – does not have a streak of savagery, that’s not an expression of supremacism, it’s citing one horrible quality Israel and the Jewish people don’t have. (If we’re talking about the ultimate evil, genocide, I think Israel, the Jews and every other culture on earth is capable of it.) About Julian Soufir, he was a violent psychotic, and like all violent Israeli psychotics who get a political idea in their heads, he went after Arabs. His savagery grew out of his psychosis. About those people watching the bombing of Gaza, strictly speaking that’s not savagery – they’re not up-close-and-personal in the blood and guts of the victims. But it is dehumanized behavior as bad or worse than savagery, and it says something very, very bad about Israeli society, about its ability to desensitize itself to the suffering it causes others. Anyway, I hope you can forgive my past lapses, my occasionally having said a good word about Israel and a bad word about Palestinians; you’ve never done it and never will, but not everybody can see the world with your moral clarity.

      Reply to Comment
    15. Deïr Yassin

      There’s no reason for me to say a good word about Israel and a bad word about the Palestinians: the MSM and the various lobbies are there to do so, and they do so very well !

      I also know that your use of ‘savagery’ as far as the Palestinians is concerned is not incidental. It’s in fact the lowest stage of human evolution in all evolutionist thinking, preceding barbarity, from Lewis H. Morgan to Marx & Engels, and present-day ethnocentrics.

      Reply to Comment

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