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Joyless in Gaza : GAZA, By Gloria Emerson (Atlantic Monthly Press: $19.95; 224 pp.)

May 12, 1991|Elizabeth Becker | Becker, a former foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, is the author of "When the War Was Over," a history of the Khmer Rouge

Stories of early Christian martyrs stoned to death, pierced with arrows or thrown to the lions have been a staple source of nightmares for generations of Catholic children. Even though they eventually are rewarded in heaven, the saints live in a frightening world where devils torture well-meaning priests, mothers lose their children and gentle virgins are slaughtered.

"Gaza" by Gloria Emerson, a memoir of one year spent on the Gaza Strip, harkens back to those stories of suffering women and men in the desert lands of the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths. In the modern-day plight of the Palestinian people of Gaza she has found the descendants of the earlier martyrs and has told their story with some of the same tragic-epic dimensions that infuses religious works, conferring upon these people a sort of secular sainthood. Emerson is one of those rare writers who still believe in heroes, and in saints.

In her introduction, Emerson says that "This small book . . . was not written in the hope of denigrating the Jewish state, only to illuminate, as so many others have done, why there is a revolution that will persist for years until the Palestinians have their nation."

Emerson uses her elegant storytelling skills to describe the victimization of the Palestinians rather than a expose a revolutionary situation. This is not a book of closely reasoned argument or a careful reconstruction of history, nor is it balanced in any sense of the word. Emerson shows little patience for the Israelis who have occupied Gaza since 1967. Her message seems to be that no matter what the historical or political reason for the present situation, the Palestinians deserve to be treated as human beings with all the rights and dignity that implies.

Emerson takes on the intifada, the Palestinian uprising inside Israel, as a narrative of stark good and evil. She is an activist with the instincts of a novelist. She begins at her hotel, where she finds drama--or dread--around every corner. In the garden of her hotel "where the wild cats leapt on the rattan chairs, some men in Gaza spread out their lives for you as though they were bloodied, torn banners of an old regiment and meant much more than a single story."

This could stand as the motif of her book. From the hotel, Emerson gathers stories and insights, then moves on to the hospitals, the prisons, the refugee camps, the apartments and finally to the monuments and graveyards to gather more stories to weave together the "banner" of this people doomed to suffering.

A well-known lawyer named Raji Sourani is one of the first heroes in the book, and her treatment of his story sets the tone of this memory of one year chronicling the intifada in the small strip of Gaza on the Mediterranean Sea. Sourani has been jailed and tortured for defending Palestinians in Israeli military courts. Through Sourani and his clients, Emerson describes the plight of the Palestinians as a disposessed people, who through a series of martial laws, taxes and economic reprisals, are being humiliated, injured, jailed and sometimes killed by the state of Israel that will not allow them to be citizens in their own homeland.

Emerson describes the lawyer in terms of awe. "He was the historian of too much misery and knew it and yet held to a happier opinion of human nature than others could manage."

Sourani also is a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and an open admirer of its leader, George Habash, a fact that Emerson notes without elaboration. A complicated figure, Habash is what journalist-author Thomas L. Friedman calls a hard-line guerrilla leader who argues for a Marxist-style class struggle against the Arab bourgeoisie as well as the Jews of Israel. Why a saintly lawyer supports Habash in 1989 after the mistakes, betrayals and crimes of the PLO leadership is one of several difficult questions I wish Emerson had addresed.

Instead, Emerson largely suspends critical judgment of the Palestinians and in the process portrays the Israelis as seen through the Palestinian prism. Here is her account of how a 13-year-old girl and client of Sourani lost her eye. "It happened in a schoolyard: The soldiers were close and the pupils sent up a hail of stones. One man sighted her and fired. It was thought that he aimed at her face. 'She was known for her beautiful eyes,' said Mr. Sourani."

"Gaza" has a sense of mission, as did Emerson's book, "Winners and Losers." In that work, she single-handedly brought the despair of the Vietnam veteran to America's attention in 1976 long before America wanted to listen. She visited small towns and made carry-out chicken joints sound as full of pathos as any French cafe. She won the National Book Award for her efforts, and the gratitude of veterans, many of whom remember her as their first champion.

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