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Miriam's Legacy

Miriam's Legacy

by Patricia Rantisi

Author House, 220 pages, ISBN 978-1434304124 

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Review by Timothy Biles, Editor for Bible Lands magazine:

The author, Patricia Rantisi, spent 38 years living and working in Ramallah, married to a Palestinian priest. Together they ran an orphanage where she lived and worked with children traumatised by their experiences. After the death of her husband she returned to her home in England and has turned the tales she heard and the things she saw into an historical novel full of the powerful emotions expected from a people who have known the loss of home and family and the degradation of life as an exile or a refugee. The inspiration of the book probably arises from the young people she had ‘mothered’ in Ramallah where she obviously sensed a spirit of courage and pride. It is this spirit which finally makes the terrible tale not only readable but gives it nobility.

The book’s characters may be fictitious but the events, locations and dates are all too real. The author shows how the lives and fates of Palestinian Christians and Muslims are intertwined, making it clear that it is the Israeli occupation, not Islam, that threatens Christians in the land that was Palestine. Her story also explodes the myth that Palestine was ever ‘ a land without a people’.

The story covers almost a century and is told through four generations of one family. The two stars are Farres of the present generation and his great-grandmother Miriam through whom the life and times of an earlier and happier generation is revealed. The story begins in 1982 in the refugee camp at Shatila, not far from the capital of Lebanon. Hundreds of Palestinian refugees were attacked and murdered by Lebanese militias as Israeli soldiers stood by, including Ariel Sharon, later to become Prime Minister of Israel. As a young boy, Farres is witness to this massacre and the horrors that followed. His father has already been deported, and Farres finds himself responsible for his mother and sisters. His great-grandmother, Miriam, just before she dies, hands over a string of glass worry-beads, the ‘legacy’ that gives the book its title. He receives it from her and understands her wish that he must never, never forget Palestine their homeland and that if he ever is able to return, to bury the legacy there.

The author then flashes back to a village in Northern Palestine, during the dying days of the Ottoman Empire, where Miriam grew up as a simple peasant girl. She marries very young and she and her husband Amin start to raise a family in a farming community. They are Muslims, but it was a time when Jews, Christians and Muslims lived and worked together in relative peace and harmony, hence the close friendship between Miriam and Majida, a Christian girl. But storm clouds gathered, the events of 1948 are described in graphic detail, the incursion of Zionist forces into Haifa and northern Palestine, the forced evacuation of the indigenous population to southern Lebanon and the refugee camp of Shatila, which became home for Amin and Miriam and their extended family. Having lost home and belongings, they are determined not to lose their dignity and they are always living in the hope that it will not be long before they can return to their beloved homeland.

The story reverts to modern times and to the young Farres caught up in the violence of the ’80s and the times of siege, deprivation and near starvation. He is critically wounded but his life is saved by a British doctor who later enables him to travel to England and undertake medical studies. It would spoil the story for readers to tell what happens to him in England, suffice to say humour and pathos are well mixed and the excesses of modern British culture do not always compare favourably with the austerity of his culture. It is not giving away too much of the story to say that Farres is eventually able to fulfil his great-grandmother’s dying wish. The story has an emotional and challenging conclusion, and yet it is not a conclusion because for the Palestinians still in exile nothing is concluded, the tragedy is unresolved.

This is a very clever book, the literary device of ‘flashbacks’ to Miriam’s earlier age works well and enables the author to carry the reader through the best part of a hundred years, all the way with the hopes and fears of one family. This book could only have been written by someone who has absorbed herself in the Palestinian story. Readers will see a history unfold, but in the most readable way and with the tragic elements balanced by dignity and heroism.


Featured in Bible Lands magazine, Advent 2009