Martyrs' Crossing, the debut novel from Nation contributing editor Amy Wilentz, couldn't be more timely. The book opens at a military checkpoint in Jerusalem, where we meet Marina, an American-born Palestinian, who is trying to enter the city with her sick child Ibrahim in order to visit her husband, who is being held in an Israeli prison on charges of terrorism. Usually, crossing the border "was more or less civilized…. [the soldiers] were naturally unsuspicious and lenient with mothers and children."
But on this day, crossing the checkpoint is different. There are stones thrown by the Palestinians who are eager to cross into Jerusalem; tear gas and sound grenades tossed by Israeli soldiers into the crowd. As the group disperses, Wilentz's other protagonist, checkpoint officer Lieutenant Ari Doron, sees Marina for the first time, "coming at a run, almost, but graceful and dignified…a beautiful woman…carrying a child." He notices, "One of her shoes was missing."
What follows is a story of identity, loss, love, politics and death. After young Ibrahim dies while Marina waits to carry him across the border, he becomes a martyr; Ari Doron, in turn, is blamed for the young boy's death. Marina's father, George Raad, an ailing, prominent Palestinian intellectual, leaves comfortable Cambridge for the West Bank to help his daughter. "I will give them bloody hell," he thinks. "I will rescue my little boy from their old claws." A massive rally is organized around the image of Ibrahim, and the family is called to action; "The Palestinian people are demanding justice," a lawyer tells George at a restaurant; graffiti reading "Find the Soldier" is scrawled randomly on walls.
Even as Ibrahim's death is manipulated for the personal and political ends of others, Marina and Ari Doron find themselves considering one another outside the proscribed lines of their situation, and their people. "I just feel something about him," she tells her father. "That he was trying to be on my side." But in the end, as justice and a quick solution are sought, their feelings are deemed irrelevant. A martyr belongs to the public.
Edward Said hardly needs introduction. Yet one might be astonished to find what book he would anoint an American classic. After a brief discussion of the American interest in "fact" and the institutionalization of "news," and of the anxieties and deformations of American literature, he writes that "in such an unusual setting it is not surprising to discover that one of the greatest American books of the twentieth century is Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon…. Rarely in modern literature, except perhaps in writers like Kafka, does one come across such a studious rendering of the mechanics of ritualized suffering… nowhere else do words like 'nobility' and 'elegance' have so lurid and yet so compelling an aura." This from "How Not to Get Gored," among a compilation of forty-six of Said's often-surprising essays culled from a period of thirty-five years of public writing in venues such as Raritan Review, The London Review of Books and Critical Inquiry.
"The greatest single fact of the past three decades has been, I believe, the vast human migration attendant upon war, colonialism and decolonization, economic and political revolution…. Exiles, émigrés, refugees, and expatriates uprooted from their lands must make do in new surroundings, and the creativity as well as the sadness that can be seen in what they do is one of the experiences that has still to find its chroniclers," Said writes in his introduction. And yet this collection constitutes a part of that chronicle. It includes political-philosophical writings such as "Orientalism Reconsidered" and "Opponents, Audiences, Constituencies, and Community"; assessments of figures as varied as Walter Lippmann, Michel Foucault, Naguib Mahfouz, George Orwell, V.S. Naipaul, T.E. Lawrence, Eric Hobsbawm and Ahdaf Soueif; and examples of Said's music criticism (on Bach, Chopin, Glenn Gould), as well as some wonderful evocations of Egypt, complete with homage to a belly dancer.