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Palestine in me, and the novel that emerged

03 May 2024

Sarah Meyrick asks Susan Muaddi Darraj about her new novel, and being part of the Palestinian diaspora


Happier times: Palestinian olive grove outside Taybeh village, near Ramallah, on the West Bank

Happier times: Palestinian olive grove outside Taybeh village, near Ramallah, on the West Bank

WHEN Susan Muaddi Darraj’s novel Behind You Is the Sea appeared in print this year, it was the fruit of six years’ slow graft. But, as a Palestinian-American writer, telling the stories of Palestinian immigrants, publication has come at an acutely painful time for her ancestral homeland.

“I feel like I can’t find my breath,” she says of the conflict, from her home in Baltimore. “It’s like an apocalypse.”

First, the novel. Behind You Is the Sea weaves together the stories of three different Palestinian immigrant families living in Baltimore: the Baladis, the Salamehs, and the Ammars, whose lives are enmeshed in often complicated ways. The characters range from the young activist in rebellion against family expectations to the young woman who cleans for a household of indulged teenagers.

At the heart of the story is Marcus Salameh, a policeman, whose sister has been disowned by their father for dishonouring the family. Towards the end of the novel, Marcus visits Palestine for the first time, where everything changes.

What was its genesis? “I was trying to write a novel about Palestinians who are living in the diaspora, and the effect of the diaspora on their families,” she says.

“I created the character of Marcus as a person who is torn between the old world and the new, between his father’s vision for him, and his own identity as a Palestinian-American. And I slowly started to assemble a cast of characters around Marcus.”

Matthew D’AgostinoSusan Muaddi Darraj

Muaddi Darraj is a well-established author: she has an American Book Award and two Arab American Book Awards to her name. She has written for children, and her earlier book for adults, A Curious Land, has echoes of the new one, in that it is formed of a series of linked short stories. Yet this is her first novel.

“In A Curious Land, those short stories are linked together, because they all take place in the same Christian village in Palestine. And you do see [familiar] characters pop up, occasionally. But this book is different because there is a narrative arc. Essentially, it begins and ends with Marcus’s struggle. It’s a comment on the way that being in the diaspora causes you to adjust your dreams.”

The multi-narrator form appeals to her. “I love playing with voice, and I love diving into a character’s psyche.” She particularly likes characters who are, on the surface, unlikeable. Mr Ammar, for example, attends his son’s wedding in fury and disapproval. “We all have a cantankerous uncle like him. I wasn’t trying to make him sympathetic. I mean, he’s judgemental, he’s homophobic, but I was trying to get to, what is his secret? He feels that his mother’s memory is being disrespected.”


THERE is a well-established Arab-American community in Baltimore, a mix of Lebanese, Syrian, and Palestinian. “This book is not exactly about that community, but I set the story in Baltimore for a particular reason. It’s a city that’s 70 per cent African-American; but, if you look at the demographic, you can see that the black population is clearly corralled into certain parts of the city.

“What I want to do is to explore the tension of a community that’s arriving from a place that was torn apart by segregation, and arrives in a place in America that hasn’t yet confronted its racial history. It’s trying to layer these problems on one another.”

The book is not simply about the immigrant experience. “I believe that it’s actually a feminist novel, and a challenge, maybe, to mainstream feminism. There are many women in this book who are strong, and their strength comes out in many different ways. There’s the grandmother, who seems to be a very conservative, traditional homebody; but she’s a very strong woman, and I consider her to be a feminist, even if she may not call herself that.

“It’s also a book in which I believe that I show my utter and deep respect to the working immigrants of America. I really tried to show what an amazing community they are.”


ALONG with many of their compatriots, Muaddi Darraj’s parents emigrated to the United States in 1967, following an earlier generation of Palestinians who arrived in 1948. Their village of origin is Taybeh, near Ramallah. Many of the 1967 refugees assumed that their stay in the US would be temporary. “When they realised they really couldn’t return, they became these bridges to Palestine, and they worked and they sent money home to their families in Palestine.

“I feel like it’s important to speak to that experience, that they slowly realised they were giving up a lot.

“And then they were faced with the reality of raising their children in America. I always say this about my own parents: I was born in 1975, and so the Arab-Israeli war was not even a decade old at that point. I think my parents realised that they couldn’t raise me in Palestine, so they raised Palestine in me. They decided to make sure that I always knew my culture and heritage.”

This approach is not uncomplicated for the younger generation. “There are many ways to be Palestinian and to love Palestine, and not just the way that our parents and grandparents imagined that we would,” she says carefully.

Muaddi Darraj used to visit Palestine frequently, even studying for a semester as a graduate student at Birzeit University. “ I felt quite at home,” she says. “Palestinians are very used to diverse communities coming through their land: it’s a crossroads of the world. There’s a great sense of hospitality and warmth. I’m lucky that I can speak and understand Arabic, at least the Palestinian dialect, as well.”

She confesses that this facility with Arabic is “a little more challenging” for her three teenage children.


AS FOR the present conflict in her homeland, Muaddi Darraj is appalled. “We are suffering loss after loss after loss. We need to grieve, but we cannot grieve because the deaths keep mounting,” she says.

“I have a dear friend who has lost over 20 members of her extended family. I have another friend who has lost over 40 members of his extended family. And the way that people are dying — they are being crushed under the rubble of their homes.”

She is beyond angry with the US administration. “I voted for Joe Biden for three reasons: Covid, Black Lives Matter, and the rights of trans children in schools. I’ve always voted for my allies. But I cannot believe that I voted for someone who is openly funding this war. It’s one of the most immoral moments in our history. And, you know, I’m just devastated.”

Hamas does not represent the Palestinian people, she insists, clearly wearied by their mention. “And, even if they did, it doesn’t justify killing 40,000 civilians. I mean, as terrible as the British Government was [during the Troubles], I don’t remember [Ireland] being carpet-bombed because the IRA set off some bombs.”

The actions of Israel amount to genocide: “Israel is trying to exterminate the Palestinian population in order to take their land. We’re seeing land grabs by settlers in the West Bank — where there is no Hamas — that are unprecedented even in settler history.

“And, at the same time, as a Palestinian, I’m still being asked about Arab-Jewish relationships. Palestinians, Muslims, and Christians, and Jewish people have no problem with each other. We do not have a cultural problem. We do not have a religious problem. We are a community that has lived in that land for centuries.

“This is a political problem. There’s an issue of land confiscation, and they’re trying to turn it into some kind of cultural problem.”

She regularly joins protests in her home city of Baltimore, and in Washington, DC. “The scene is quite active here,” she says. “I love how diverse the protesters are. It’s just wonderful to see: I think people finally understand what has been happening in Palestine for 75 years.”


ONE hope she has for her novel is to remind readers of the existence of Palestinian Christians. She grew up in an Orthodox Christian family, although she is now a Quaker. Too often, the assumption is that all Palestinians are Muslims — and that all Muslims are jihadists.

“But we have a unique history in the world. The rest of the world would not have [the Christian faith] if my ancestors had not nurtured it. In those very early days, people celebrated mass secretly in caves, and spread the gospel secretly, and died for the gospel. So, to have our community erased from history is really gross and wrong and wilfully ignorant.”

She refers to an incident when a woman to whom she was talking expressed surprise that she wasn’t wearing a hijab. “I said: ‘Well, I’m not Muslim, I’m Christian. And not all Muslim women wear hijabs, anyway.’ And she said, ‘How is that possible? You’re Arab. You’re from the Middle East. Did you convert?’ And I said: ‘No, actually. You did.’”

Meanwhile, the writing continues, alongside her day job, teaching creative writing. “There are characters that live in my head. I love putting characters into a situation, and turning up the heat on them, so to speak,” she says. She has a number of writing projects on the go, although she admits: “I’ve not been able to write very well since October 7.” The next novel will explore what happens next for Marcus and some of the other key characters in Behind You Is the Sea.

As for how she will vote in this year’s presidential election, she is undecided. “I’m very torn about it. I just know that, in this present moment, I’m really, really devastated, and feeling very betrayed.”


The UK edition of Behind You Is the Sea will be published by Swift Press on 6 June at £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.49); 978-1-80-075417-1.

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