“…My name, Amani, means wishes/ but I have only one. /My blood is mixed with/ the soil of our land/ and I will never leave.”
Written for students in Grades 7–8 this is the story of a girl who wants to be a shepherd in Palestine where education is esteemed and girls are not expected to watch sheep in lonely pastures. But Amani prefers the pastures to classroom and the company of her dog to urbanized school girls. The story reveals the conflict within a family; religious, gender and traditional roles are all part of the story. But after gaining the family´s acceptance and her grandfather´s trust, the outside world impinges on the family and farm life. Israeli settlers and soldier come to her valley and mountain tops. The family lands shrink, the sheep must go and Amani reluctantly goes to school Her father organizes non–violent protests against the occupier to no avail. In her secret retreat high in the hills Amani meets an Israeli boy, recently from the USA; they develop a tentative friendship but little understanding of each other´s life. Eventually, the bulldozers arrive, her home is destroyed, but her mother´s piano and the gift of olive tree seedlings to replace the destroyed orchards end the book on a note of hope.
I would not have read this book if I had not read accusations about it and its place in the Toronto school system where a Toronto District School Board trustee, Sheila Ward, who had not read the book, called on the country´s largest school board to ban the book and to suspend its involvement with the Ontario Library Association which is promoting the book as part of its province–wide Forest of Reading program. It was nominated for the 2010 Red Maple Award, one of the Ontario Library Association´s Forest of Reading programs and was named book of the year by the Canadian Library Association. So I am grateful for the media attention or I would not have heard of the book.
To me it seemed to be mainly the story of girl with problems, doubts and conflicting emotions not unlike those of many girls in the world. That it was set in the midst of an oppressive occupation of Palestine by Israel seemed secondary, but it provides an important context. Everything that happened in this setting I have witnessed myself or heard first hand personal accounts of; house demolitions, destruction of olive trees, soldier brutality are all documented and easy to find evidence of on the internet and in documented books – they are hardly new or controversial descriptions.
The author is quoted as saying: “I do feel very sensitive to (the Jewish) audience and I wrote with that audience in mind, knowing how hard it is to hear these stories. But having seen the occupation and how very hard it is for Palestinians, and being so shocked by what I saw there, I tried to tell it in a way that maybe they could hear it.”
I think she succeeded well; the characters are human and imperfect. She portrays several Israelis (in reality there are many) as supportive to justice for Palestinians, illustrates Palestinian culture to Canadian students and shows that maybe people, not governments, can solve this imbalanced and fragile situation.