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Miss Alice and the Palestinians : THE LORD by Soraya Antonius (Henry Holt: $17.95, 218 pp.)

April 24, 1988|Bridget Connelly | Connelly is associate professor of rhetoric at UC Berkeley. and

Filtered through the ironies of retrospective narrative, Soraya Antonius tells a story set in Jaffa and Jerusalem 50 years ago. This "simple, straightforward story" reads as a psychological mystery as it is uncovered by the narrator, a young woman journalist who interviews the elderly British spinster, Miss Alice, the missionary school teacher in Jaffa in the 1930s, in an attempt to write a newspaper series on life a generation earlier.

The interviews take place in the present, a present in which "events" have led to such bloody warring that it is almost impossible for the journalist to reach Miss Alice, living only 25 kilometers away. Trying to answer her interviewer's questions about what happened, and why it happened, the kind, loving Miss Alice belongs to a generation that "doesn't understand things in those terms; they were secure, no inflation or civil wars or the unbelievable crumbling of the whole fabric of life. They thought life was lived in peace unless one was in the army; it never occurred to them that they were laying the foundations of another 100 years' war, with its wreckage, mattresses and stoves and babies piled into wheelbarrows and pushed by stunned women from danger zone to danger zone."

This is the story of unwitting dispossessions, of the little quotidian events in the lives of Palestinian villagers who exist oblivious to their doom, unseeing, assuming that this is just one more in a long series of occupations. But one person sees it all. Tareq, the sensitive lad Miss Alice taught in her school, has powers beyond the ordinary. He becomes the seer, the conjurer. In his magic shows, he warns symbolically: A British officer's stiff bowler transforms into a keffiya-- the black-and-white check scarf worn by Palestinian peasants and laborers, adopted by the townsmen after the British banned it as a symbol of nationalist resistance (still today worn as the emblem of the dispossessed Palestinian). Invited to entertain the children at the Christmas entertainment at the Government House, Tareq pulls an emperor's-new-clothes trick: The head colonial officer, always dressed with tight emphasis, descends the steps of his home to greet his guests when the lights go out, and suddenly, in the flash of a shooting star, appears stripped naked. Some present saw it, others didn't. All the Palestinians saw it. Miss Alice saw it. And Challis, the police chief, saw it.

Challis, an ugly man, physically repulsive to all, fears being laughed at, and he displaces his "knife-like resentment" on to those who openly show their disgust. Hearing that Tareq once said that the "Ingliz policeman looked like the yolk of a fried egg, bald and glistening," Challis is a man obsessed. In finely attuned perceptions on the psychology of power and relationships, the story of Challis' relentless revenge leads to ultimate tragedy as Tareq, the Seer, is eventually hanged for inciting rebellion.

This first novel by the Jerusalem-born journalist, Antonius, is complexly powerful. Its haunting symbols linger as one reads the front page news about the latest "event" in the Middle East.

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