After reading A Curious Land: Stories From Home, it’s immediately apparent to me why it won the Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction in 2014. Published by The University of Massachusetts Press, the collection contains nine stories depicting the lives of various inhabitants of a Palestinian West Bank village, Tel al-Hilou. The characters who live in Palestine in the last century link to their descendants, and readers care and worry about them, suffering with them as they struggle to understand changing times that bring challenges to their long held and cherished traditions.
Although some characters are not revisited directly, readers can piece together how their lives may have unfolded indirectly through other stories that feature their granddaughters or their children as elderly grandparents. Because the stories are linked to place and people, they span generations and continents, exploring what it means to live within that place with people who want to honor those long-established traditions even when doing so is clearly impractical. Place plays such a vital role in these character’s essential truths as human beings, it doesn’t matter what traditions they break or how far they travel, all of them remain connected to the village and each other as if tethered by an invisible thread pulling everyone like the tail of a kite. Muaddi Darraj explores that invisible thread in these stories that ask what it means to belong to a place and to each other, however imperfect they are. A disclosure—I have seen snippets of a handful of these stories in their embryonic stages; Muaddi Darraj and I belong to the same writer’s group, but I have not read any of the stories in their final form until now. This collection offers a much needed and in-depth understanding of what it means to be Arab, Palestinian, and Christian, in the U.S. and in Palestine.
In the opening story, titled, “The Journey Home,” readers meet a precocious teenager, Rabab, who at 15, is selected to be the second wife by the tribe leader of her people. Rabab, however, harbors other ideas about her future and takes bold, decisive action, setting her on a life-changing course; she later learns that her mother, though she’s never mentioned it to Rabab, supports her decision for a different life, despite the cutting sacrifice that come with such defiance. Although we never return to Rabab, we eventually meet her granddaughter, Lydia, in a subsequent story.
In the story, “Rocky Ground,” we meet Emad, a man of patience and substance who thought he lost all that was important to him. One of my favorite stories in the collection, Emad’s mourning of his loss and his efforts to distract his mind leads him to embrace a self-improvement regimen, working hard, taking solace in routine, and saving all his money, actions that pay off when circumstances returns to him what he lost and more. He then finds himself in the position of having to choose between tradition and happiness. This story provides hope to all those stalwart hearts like Emud’s, whose understanding of himself allows him to claim what is rightfully his, despite what other’s may think and fueling his willingness to overlook the stain and stigma of divorce to grasp happiness when it’s within reach.
In the story about Rebab, we meet a good looking and mysterious stranger named Jamal who helps Rabab’s bold decision about her future to succeed. In the story about Rabab, titled “Journey Home,” Jamal is a young man. We meet him again in the story titled “Abu Sufayan,” except now he’s an old grandfather, but still marching to his own sense of morality; consequently, he finds himself at odds with his wife and fellow villagers over the punishment for an accidental killing. Respected as an elder and referred to as Abu Sufayan, Jamal remains true to his nature and his faith, and he is compelled to act with compassion and empathy. Unbeknownst to anyone in the village, he saves another life, this time, the young man and the family responsible for the accidental death. In a different story, readers encounter that young man again, but now he’s an old grandfather living in the US, indelibly marked by the accidental killing. His adult son struggles to understand and connect with his father without knowing how his father’s past marked him.
These nine stories offer readers a look at the transformative powers of love. Readers come to know and love the characters, heroic women like Amira whose love for Lydia and Lydia’s children cause her to sacrifice her deep desire to enter the convent; many years later and in a different story, the struggle of Adlah, Lydia’s daughter to conceive, takes center stage; the compassion of Jamal who defies those around him to do what he thinks is morally right, despite the clamor against him; the steadfast patience of Emud whose loss helps him to find himself; the lifelong loyalty of Salma to a secret lover who was murdered; the humiliation and anger of Jamil and his family at the hands of enemy soldiers.
The stories in this collection also resonate with humor and hilarity. Who cannot laugh when Salma says she’s returned to church, and the villagers think Jesus has found her again, but her saucy voice tells us she’s attending for reasons that has nothing to do with religion or God. She provides a refreshing take on the less than stellar behavior of the priest, which of course, she clearly sees, unlike the rest of the blind flock and uses to her advantage.
If you want to spend time with memorable characters who populate magnetic stories, if you want to an elegant book that enables you to understand something new in subsequent readings, this is the book you want. Muaddi Darraj gives us flawed but authentic characters trying to live as honorably as possible, despite the changing circumstances around them. This collection offers a glimpse of what it means to be what it means to belong to a place and to be connected to people so deeply that one can’t easily forget them. Belonging to both people and place play a vital role in shaping the truths of these characters and how they navigate in the world.