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In Our Orbit | The Nation

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In Our Orbit

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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."

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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.

 

Critical Inquiry

 

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.

 

Freedom Stumped Its Toe

 

Nation editorial board member Roger Wilkins relates an anecdote near the start of his new meditation on slavery, the Founding Fathers and black identity. He's on a streetcorner in Cape Town, South Africa, when the apartheid regime still stood. Wilkins is thinking how his skin makes him look just like those who are classified "colored" there; before the light changes, a small white South African woman looks up at him and says, "Where're you from, Philadelphia?" He reflects on how profoundly American he feels abroad, and the places--Kansas City, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Pike County, Ohio, etc.--that his "blood came down through." And much of the ensuing book plays out the tension between a sense of patriotism and the full knowledge that this country was created by people who countenanced slavery. To this end, Wilkins examines carefully the words and acts of Washington, Jefferson, Madison and George Mason--all of whom "lived lives cushioned by slavery" and created a nation "dedicated to the proposition that whites were and should be supreme." This, despite the fact that at the time of the Revolution, 40 percent of all Virginians were black, as were, at the end of the war, some 20 percent of the soldiers in the victorious Continental Army.

Jefferson's Pillow is by turns angry (that "America had become a country in which a good part of white self-esteem flowed simply from not being black"), analytical and ruminative as it ranges over questions of motive and identity, rights and the legacy of history. "Without black Americans," Wilkins observes, "the America that General Washington led into revolution in 1775 would have been a vastly different place--a poorer and weaker place, much less capable of waging a successful revolt.... Blacks and their works were present in the Revolution as essential elements both of its strengths and of the Virginians' greatness."

 

Rather Fight Than Switch?

 

In his introduction to Smoke in Their Eyes, Michael Pertschuk quotes from chemistry Nobelist M.F. Perutz writing on the threat of biological weapons (well before anthrax appeared in the mail): "In 1995, the last year for which official statistics are available, the number of people killed by tobacco in the United States was 502,000, of whom 214,000 were aged between thirty-five and sixty-nine.... It seems to me that the still-prospering tobacco industry poses a proven threat to health and life that is many thousand times greater than the potential threat of bioterrorism." And it's the lessons Pertschuk (a Nation editorial board member) has learned in decades of fighting this pernicious threat--he headed the FTC under President Carter--that form the basis of the book.

Pertschuk parses the story into four phases. First is the approach to settlement of state suits--from the earliest attempts by Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore to recoup billions in Medicare costs from the industry to the exchanges and deal-making in building a coalition of antitobacco forces. Second, he discusses the June 20, 1997, settlement itself, complete with behind-the-scenes maneuvering by various coalition leaders to scuttle or strengthen it along the way. Next he discusses the rise--and fall--of the McCain bill the following year. (That bill would have strengthened public health provisions of the settlement, but it fell three votes short of the sixty necessary in the Senate to bring it to a vote.) Last, he turns to lessons of the settlement and its aftermath.

While acknowledging significant gains, Pertschuk also notes that "as of this writing, only six states have met or come close to the Centers for Disease Control guidelines for a minimally adequate state [tobacco control] program, and only fifteen states have allocated more than half of what CDC has set at a minimum." He concludes that "the collective leadership of the tobacco control movement, heroes all, nonetheless blew the opportunity of a lifetime."

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