Several years ago, I read Leon Uris' epic best-seller 'Exodus'. At that time, I had also purchased his other Middle East based novel, 'The Haj', which roughly encapsulates the same time period as covered in Exodus, albeit from the Arab perspective. But I was hesitant to begin reading it. And so, I didn't begin reading 'The Haj' until about 10 days ago.
'The Haj' is an epic novel centered on the lives of Haj Ibrahim al Soukouri al Wahhabi (the Muktar of Tabah) and his family. It is a story that is told through a number of voices - the land itself, formerly named Palestine from the 1880s when it was a largely barren province of the Ottoman Empire, and on into the mid-1950s following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and its varied impacts on the surrounding Arab nations; and from the perspective of Haj Ibrahim's youngest son, Ishmael. Indeed, it is through Ishmael that the reader becomes witness to the life of the Arabs in Tabah, a village near Lydda and Ramle in what is today the West Bank. In Tabah, Haj Ibrahim is absolute ruler, fulfilling the role of sage, judge, and arbiter of all disputes and issues therein. And, though illiterate, Haj Ibrahim is knowledgeable about the economics of his domain through his brother Farouk (who had been fortunate enough to have been the recipient of a Christian education from missionaries, which made him both literate and skilled in accounting).
Up til he was 8, Ishmael (who was born in 1936, the year the Arab uprising in Palestine against British rule broke out; it would last for 3 years) was largely overlooked by his father and lived in the part of the household where his mother Hagar and the other women held sway. Ishmael and his mother were especially close. He was also close to his sister Nada (who was slightly older than him and figures prominently later in the novel). Ishmael, unlike his 3 older brothers, has a great curiosity about the world around him and develops a thirst for knowledge. He wants to learn, to be able to read and write. Whenever Ishmael tried to impress his desire for an education to Haj Ibrahim, he is treated with disdain. Haj Ibrahim sees no need for him to be educated because as the youngest son, he is expected to become a herder of goats. On the other hand, Hagar recognizes that Ishmael has a sharp mind and urges him to try to make himself useful to his father by finding out the true number of all his land holdings in Tabah. In the process of doing this, Ishmael learns that his Uncle Farouk has been pocketing some of the annual profits, and shares this knowledge with his father. At first, Haj Ibrahim is inclined to ignore his son's claims out-of-hand. But when Ishmael is able to present incontrovertible evidence of Farouk's deception, he begins to see that, perhaps, this son can be of use to him. Thus, Ishmael is allowed to attend school, where he becomes one of the best students in class.
The novel also explores the relationship Haj Ibrahim had with Gideon Asch, a Jewish revolutionary leader he first crosses paths with when Asch and a group of Jewish pioneers come into the area during the early 1920s to establish a kibbutz near Tabah. Though Arab and Jew are sworn enemies, the 2 men over the next 30 years develop a close, brotherly friendship that Haj Ibrahim takes considerable pains to keep unknown to his community.
But in the main, "The Haj" is a novel about family and how the convulsive history of the Middle East as played out over the past century affected family relationships and livelihoods. It makes for compelling and at times, heartbreaking reading. For anyone wanting to get a better understanding as to why the Middle East is what it is today, "The Haj" is a good place to start.