Masha Gessen and Nathan Thrall on The Whole Story of Israel and Palestine
In Conversation on Thrall’s Book, A Day in the Life of Abed Salama
In Nathan Thrall’s A Day in the Life of Abed Salama, the struggle over Israel and Palestine is told through heart-wrenching story of a tragic accident that killed Abed Salama’s five-year-old son, Milad. The book is granular in its recitation of the daily injustices that make up the lives of the roughly 3.2 million Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank and even-handed in detailing the intractable narratives of the region. Hailed for his “severe allergy to conventional wisdom” (Time), Thrall offers an indelibly human portrait of the struggle over Israel/Palestine and a new understanding of the tragic history and reality of one of the most contested places on earth. Thrall was in conversation with Masha Gessen earlier this month at the Center for Brooklyn History; their conversation is condensed and shared here.
Masha Gessen: This book is a staggering achievement. It’s particularly staggering because it’s so short, but it’s such an extraordinary work of history, it’s an extraordinary work of prose, it’s a couple of love stories, it’s a beautiful work of nonfiction that breaks through something that I’ve been thinking about a lot, which is that when you talk about the occupation, when you talk about Israel/Palestine, you always come up against the question of what the audience knows and who you’re talking to, and I think this makes Israel/Palestine really peculiar in the range of contemporary topics. Pretty much everything else that I’ve had to deal with, you kind of know what people know and what they don’t know if they read the papers, if they watch some television, if they maybe come to book events, if they read books. Yet for people living in the United States, for people living in Israel, the possibilities of not knowing are boundless. This is a book that makes that impossible. And it does it in a genius way, which I’m going to try to get to in this conversation, but really, have to read the book to understand just how brilliantly structured and told it is.
To start with, can you tell me about where you live and how you came to know Abed?
Nathan Thrall: I live about two and a half miles away from Abed in a neighborhood called Musrara, which is just outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. Abed lives in a town called Anata that has been partially annexed, so part of it is officially part of the sovereign state of Israel as far as Israel is concerned, and part of it is considered the West Bank, the unannexed part of the West Bank. Together with a Palestinian refugee camp called Shuafat, all of it lies within a walled ghetto. It’s surrounded on three sides by a twenty-six-foot-tall concrete wall, and on the fourth side by a different kind of wall that runs down the middle of a segregated road that’s famously known as the “apartheid road.” When the accident happened, I was living in Jerusalem, and I had been driving past this walled ghetto on a weekly basis, sometimes on a daily basis, and not paying it much mind. I think most people are that way. It was very easy to ignore this place that’s part of the city that I live in but with a radically different existence on the other side of that wall.
The way that Abed and I met is that when I started to investigate the accident, a very close family friend told me that one of the parents was a distant relative. She put me in touch with a relative of Abed’s, who put me in touch with Abed, and I found myself in his home.
MG: There were several families whose children died in the accident. You chose Abed and his family. There are many characters in the book, but the book, of course, is called A Day in the Life of Abed Salama, and it begins with an extremely close telling of Abed’s story. Why?
NT: When Abed finished the book, he asked me the same question. There are a couple of reasons. One of them is just the connection I had with him. The other is that the ambition of the book was to tell the entire story of Israel/Palestine through this single event, and I could only do that through Abed. He comes from a family that is very prominent in the town of Anata and who himself lived a life of activism in the First Intifada, who experienced imprisonment and torture. He was even forced by the system in which he lives to choose a wife at one point just to keep his freedom of movement and his job, to try and marry somebody who had the right color ID that would allow him to keep his job. So that’s why this is a day in the life of Abed Salama.
MG: What was the process like for you?
NT: A lot of the conversations felt less like interviews and more like therapy. Abed and I cried a lot together. I would come home and relay stories—Abed’s stories but also those of other characters, those of some of his relatives—and tell them to my wife, who would weep as I relayed the stories. It was a very intense process, emotionally, reporting the book. And I felt a tremendous responsibility because of the trust put in me.
MG: How many hours of interviews did you record? How long did this whole process take?
NT: Probably well over a thousand hours. It began in 2019, so we’re four years later.
MG: The writing approach, and I assume this was very much intentional, it’s what we call in the trade the “close third.” You’re always, and sometimes claustrophobically so, in the head space of the person who’s going through their life, and there isn’t a whole lot in quotations, unless we’re actually witnessing dialogue. So it’s written very much in the way a novel is written. You don’t see very much of this approach in non-fiction, although I’m partial to it. What kind of interviewing do you have to do in order to get to that? And what kind of questions do you ask? How do you get to what people smelled and what they saw?
NT: In this particular case I have to say that I don’t think it was any great virtue of mine. It was that many of these people were hungry to speak about something that nobody wanted to talk about around them. There was a cloud of silence in many of these homes around the accident. There were many times where I convened family members, and they said this was the first time they were talking about it since the weeks after the accident had happened. So in a number of cases, it just came pouring out. But it also took tremendous patience and trust and cooperation from people. Like Abed, who had me ask him things like, “what did you smell,” over and over again and come to him with very minor, specific details.
MG: Chapter 11, which describes the actual accident, comes in the middle of the book, which fascinates me as a structural decision. Can you talk about how you figured out the structure of the story?
NT: The structure of this book was the greatest challenge, and one of the reasons it was so challenging is that I was trying to balance two chronologies. The ambition of the book is to tell the whole story of Israel/Palestine; I’m also taking a character like Huda and telling the story of the Nakba. I have to tell the story of the Nakba before I tell things that follow the Nakba. On the other hand, Huda can only enter the picture when Huda actually enters the accident, and all these people came upon the scene of the accident at different times.The ambition of the book is to tell the whole story of Israel/Palestine… I have to tell the story of the Nakba before I tell things that follow the Nakba.
So this was a big puzzle. It wound up also meaning a lot of prioritizing and cutting. My temptation as a writer is always to include everything, but in order for the book to work, I really needed to keep tightly focused on the accident and not allow those historical interludes to go on for very long.
MG: We know that there’s an accident from the very beginning of the book, but by the time we get to really understanding how the accident happened, the word “accident” seems totally inappropriate. I’d love to hear you talk about that. Because to me it seems that that’s what the book is about. It’s about how it’s not an accident.
NT: Well, I’m glad that you think that’s what the book is about because that is what the book is about.
I was interviewed recently by an Israeli journalist. In Chapter 11, I mention a character named Salem, who went into the bus. He acted truly selflessly and went repeatedly on his own into this burning bus and rescued dozens of children, and afterward he had a meltdown and was screaming at everyone and anyone in his vicinity—at the emergency service personnel, both Palestinian and Israeli—he screams at them, “You killed these kids. Why didn’t you come?”
The Israeli journalist read that passage back to me and said, “So you’re saying that Israel wanted these kids to die? That Israel tried to kill these kids? That they knew that the bus was burning and they deliberately didn’t come?”
And I said, you’re reading what Salem said to these Israeli soldiers, and that’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that the entire set of circumstances that happened on this day were the predictable outcome of an entire apparatus that put a wall around this community; the total neglect of the tens of thousands of people who live in it; a partition of the West Bank into Areas A, B, and C not allowing the Palestinian Authority to come onto the road where the accident took place, but at the same time Israel not caring at all about what happens on this road. It’s patrolled by Israeli police but entirely neglected. And in addition, just the very fact that this enclave that Abed and his family live in has this crazy system where some of them have green IDs and some have blue IDs in the same family. The municipality doesn’t provide them with a school, forces the kids to either go through a checkpoint for hours (and the parents are frightened to have their kids interact with soldiers) or go to a dilapidated school in a former goat pen or, as these parents did, to pay to send their kids to school in the technically unannexed part of the West Bank.
So that is the real cause of all of the delayed response and everything else that transpired on that day. That’s what the book slowly unravels.
I just wanted to add one thing. There is an overriding logic driving all of those micro-decisions, which is a very simple logic, which is: to keep as many Jews in the heart of Jerusalem and as few Palestinians. That dictated the route of the wall, and it’s an explicit goal of the state, to keep as high a proportion of Jews inside Jerusalem as possible. And the lives of these people are affected in a thousand different ways by that central goal.
In many of my conversations with parents involved in the accident, there was a real focus on many, many micro, proximate causes and almost no discussion of what was prominent in my mind, which is this macro structure that made this tragedy, which would be a tragedy anywhere, so much worse because of the unique circumstances of who the victims were and where it took place. There’s this famous David Foster Wallace graduation speech where he tells the anecdote of fish—one fish says something like, “How’s the water?” and the other fish says, “What’s water?” That’s a little what it felt like talking to people about the causes of this accident, because they were all thinking about the driver, and the weather, and the materials that the bus was made of. But what about the fact that these kids had a play area just on the other side of the wall that they couldn’t go to, and instead they had to follow the snaking path of the wall to the outskirts of Ramallah in order to go on an excursion?
MG: One of the things that I love about the book is that it forces you to make that conclusion that it’s not an accident. You don’t quite spell it out.
One of the things that really struck me is that by diving deeply into Abed’s life, and Huda’s life, we see over and over again how gradual this process of restricting people’s freedom was. In addition to fish in water, there’s the boiled frog syndrome—all those horrible allegories we use for describing that thing that we do as humans, which is that we adapt. When you write about what life was like when these people were younger and how there weren’t these color-coded IDs and how there wasn’t this sense of constant terror and, most important, how slowly the fear for their children’s safety descended on them. By the time you get to the actual scene of the accident, I think you’re terrified for all of your characters’ children all the time.One of the things that really struck me is that by diving deeply into Abed’s life, and Huda’s life, we see over and over again how gradual this process of restricting people’s freedom was.
Audience: Can you imagine a future that looks different and better?
NT: One of the main goals of this book is to take us away from a conversation about hypothetical futures. Those futures may come or they may not come. They certainly look very, very far away. But there is a certain comfort that a lot of people have with having this debate: “What ought that future look like? One state, two states, confederation, let’s debate it. Of course this present situation is horrible; there’s no denying it. It’s awful. But it’s temporary. Let’s focus on how to get out of it by agreeing all together on what that future state ought to look like.”
I feel that this very conversation actually facilitates the ongoing oppression and suffering that we see. The ambition of doing narrative work like this is to force people to confront the reality that those conversations allow them to ignore. People don’t want to talk about Huda being powerless to protect her teenage boy from being arrested at one in the morning for throwing stones at an occupying soldier and being entirely powerless to do anything to even find her son over the coming days after his arrest. Instead they want to talk about one state and two states and all the rest of it.
Nathan Thrall’s A Day in the Life of Abed Salama: Anatomy of a Jerusalem Tragedy is available now from Metropolitan Books.