Book Review: The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan

Book Review: The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan

 

On the cover, under the title The Lemon Tree, there is a little blurb that states “An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East”. I saw those words and knew that this was a book I had to read. The synopsis on the back explains that this is a novel depicting a separate and a shared history of two individuals.

Dalia Eshkenazi Landau is the child of Bulgarian parents who escaped the concentration camps during the Holocaust and decided in the aftermath of World War Two to move to the newly formed state of Israel. They move into an ‘abandoned home’ in the town of Ramla (which the author clarifies has several names depending on the language you speak and the perspective you have). She grows up in the Zionist enthusiasm of new Israeli citizens and is proud of her peoples history and the values and ideas of a homeland for the Jewish people in the ancient biblical lands. As a student in university and as an adult Dalia questions a lot of what she grew up with and the things she has been taught as a child. “Why would someone abandon their home?” “Who was the family that lived here before me?” “Did they plant this lemon tree in the back yard?”.

The second protagonist is Bashir Khairi whose family fled for their lives in the 1948 war, fearing violence and becoming refugees in their own country. After spending years in refugee camps in both what is now Gaza and the West Bank, Bashir’s family settles in Ramallah, a city now known as the capital of the Palestinian Authority . He grows up with the rhetoric that one day his family and his people will be granted the right of return. Growing up the possibility of even travelling to Israel was not an option as the Jordanians had control of the West Bank until 1967. In that year, Bashir, his brother and cousin had the opportunity to finally travel back to their home town and see the houses their family had been forced to abandon all those years before. Bashir walks up to the door of his house and is greeted by Dalia who will have the chance to have her questions answered.

It is a truly unique case and one that is actually based on true life events. This house does exist and so do these people. They met in 1967 and started a dialogue that would span over many years until the early 2000’s. They both shared a history, had a different history and led different lives. Dalia is portrayed as a more ‘sympathetic Israeli’, who really tries to understand the Palestinian cause, feelings and actions while still remaining in touch with the basis of the non-violent spectrum of the Zionist ideology. I know that sentence sounds odd but if you read the book you will understand where I am coming from.

 

This book took me quite a while to read. The ‘story’ starts in the year 1967 when Bashir and Dalia meet, so about the first half of the book is a historical account mixed with the personal stories of their families. It sort of reads like a history textbook which I am not saying to be insulting. I enjoy history textbooks and more academic works of historical facts and events, however I am not always in the mood to read a history textbook. I understand why the author felt the need to add in that large amount of information. If you know nothing about the history of either side then this part will help you understand the current situation and the feelings that each of the characters portray in the second half of the book.

In the second half of the book which takes place from 1967-2012 is the more ‘story’ part. It shows the relationship between Dalia and Bashir and just has a more personal account of what happened to them in their lives, while still littered with the occasional sections of what is happening in the more broader context while Dalia and Bashir are trying to live their lives. What I mean by this is that the author tells you the key political figures who are in peace negotiations or getting elected to the Israeli government and those creating organizations fighting for the Palestinians like Hamas. Which again I think is necessary in order to explain the background behind Dalia and Bahsir’s opinions and relationship.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All in all I gave this book a 4 out of 5 stars on Goodreads. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, even though it took me a very long time to read it. I thought the author did an excellent job at giving both sides a voice and keeping it on very neutral ground (a feat which is nearly impossible to do). I really appreciated the character of Dalia. I did not always agree with her opinion and her idea of a solution, but I understand completely why she thinks that way and where she is coming from and I accept hers as a valid opinion. It is not a malicious, anti-Muslim, anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab opinion and actually one that ultimately promotes peace and respect for everyone, Israelis and Palestinians. Given the environment she grew up in, she has a very surprising opinion of someone who is very supporting to the Jewish Homeland and the Zionist ideology. Bashir as well was depicted as a moderate who while supporting the sometimes violent actions of certain Palestinian organizations and individuals, was never portrayed as violent himself nor malicious and hateful. Did he think Israelis has the right to live on Palestinian land, of course not but he wasn’t “They all must die” as many Palestinians are often depicted as. I also think that the author did an excellent job at showing the evolution of who the victims are as this conflict has gone on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I encourage you to pick up this book, but I think I should say this will be a slow read, and that maybe that enhances the book. There is a lot of information and I think that to truly understand the characters you need to take the time to process what has happened and what is currently happening. So again, while this book was a slow read I really enjoyed reading it and I think this is a really good book for those wanting to understand more about this region, this conflict and the people like you and me who are living it everyday. I also had kind of a personal connection with this book as it mentions places I had seen while I was in this area and it brought back the feelings I had felt, and still feel when I saw some of the things that people either choose to ignore or don’t know are happening. When Dalia crosses Qalandia Checkpoint and describes the cars lined up, not moving, trying to cross I can picture it in my mind because I too saw that scene and I can relate to what she felt at that moment.This is why I chose to include some pictures of this particular place in this post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I mentioned that the Lemon Tree is actually a real place, and the house that Dalia and Bashir lived in is a place you can visit. Dalia had the house turned the house into Open House, which started as a kindergarten for the Arab children of Ramla and has since grown into a place for Arab and Jewish children to engage in an environment encouraging positive relationships. For those interested in learning more about this organization here is the link for Open House.

Happy Reading!

Have you read this book? What did you think about it? Leave a comment below!

Disclaimer: I just want to put this first, this book is about a sensitive, complicated topic and issue and so if you wish to state your opinion do so with respect for others.

 

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