Being a teenager is hard enough as it is. Layer in the loss of a beloved grandparent, gossiping relatives, a father who is a political prisoner, and the trauma of centuries of military occupation, and perhaps the only way to make sense of everything is to resort to the fantastical.
Trees for the Absentees is the coming-of-age story of Philistia, who splits her time between studies at Al-Quds Open University and her part-time job at a hammam in Nablus. Philistia was particularly close to her Grandmother Zahia, who served as both the midwife and the corpse washer for their village of Deir Sabra. It was from Grandma Zahia that Philistia learned how to prepare bodies for their entrances and exits from the physical world, and how to hold space for women naked and vulnerable at the hammam. By necessity she must recede into the background when washing the naked women before her; she is a thoughtful young woman, given to reflection about her place in the world. In her young life, Philistia has already learned that nothing is permanent: not her grandmother, her father jailed in a far away Israeli prison, or the olive trees in her village razed by occupation soldiers.
Author Ahlam Bsharat uses magical realism to illustrate how Philistia moves between the porous borders of the worlds of the living and the dead, the past and the present, and the real and the imagined as she navigates what it means to grow up in an occupied state. This blending of what is real and what is not can be somewhat challenging to parse during reading-I will admit to some confusion on my part. This novella may be under 90 pages long, but it does require that the reader take their time with Philistia’s story. Nevertheless, the translation by Sue Copeland and Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp is accessible, with touches of the original Arabic that help really ground the story in its West Bank setting. The reader, though, has to be willing to enter Philistia’s world and to let go of the desire for neatly resolved narratives.
This is the first #ownvoices Palestinian young adult literature I have read. It was not available through my home library; thank goodness for Interlibrary Loan! Public and school libraries looking to expand the global scope of their collections should acquire Trees for the Absentees. Educators exploring coming-of-age (or Bildungsroman) narratives with their students would also do well to include this book in their syllabi.
Written by Ahlam Bsharat
Translated from Arabic by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp and Sue Copeland
Neem Tree Press, 2019
Originally published 2013, Tamer Institute
Awards: 2020 GLLI YA Translated Book Award Honor Book
Klem-Marí Cajigas has been with Nashville Public Library since 2012, after more than a decade of academic training in Religious Studies and Ministry. As the Family Literacy Coordinator for Bringing Books to Life!, Nashville Public Library’s award-winning early literacy outreach program, she delivers family literacy workshops to a diverse range of local communities. Born in Puerto Rico, Klem-Marí is bilingual, bicultural, and proudly Boricua.