The Israeli army invaded Ramallah in March 2002. A tank stood at the end of Raja Shehadeh's road; Israeli soldiers patrolled from the roof toops. Four soldiers took over his brother's apartment and then used him as a human shield as they went through the building, while his wife tried to keep her composure for the sake of their frightened childred, ages four and six.
This is an account of what it is like to be under seige: the terror, the frustrations, the humiliations, and the rage. How do you pass your time when you are imprisoned in your own home? What do you do when you cannot cross the neighborhood to help your sick mother?
Shehadeh's recent memoir, Strangers in the House: Coming of Age in Occupied Palestine, was the first book by a Palestinian writer to chronicle a life of displacement on the West Bank from 1967 to the present. It received international acclaim and was a finalist for the 2002 Lionel Gelber Prize. When the Birds Stopped Singing is a book of the moment, a chronicle of life today as lived by ordinary Palestinians throughout the West Bank and Gaza in the grip of the most stringent Israeli security measures in years. And yet it is also an enduring document, at once literary and of great political import, that should serve as a cautionary tale for today's and future generations.
This short, powerful book should be required reading for anyone who has ever wondered what it's like to be an ordinary citizen living in a war zone. Shehadeh's view of the volatile Israeli-Palestinian conflict is certainly not neutral, dealing with his emotions and experiences during Israel's incursion into his West Bank city during the spring of 2002. It is, however, remarkably balanced for a man in his situation. Under curfew and trapped in his home, Shehadeh, a lawyer, writer and human rights activist (Strangers in the House), concentrates on conserving his food supply, distracting himself with his legal work, trying not to wonder when his wife, who is out of the country, will be able to get home, and trying not to be angry. "I've learned how to create small spaces of my own in which to live," he writes. "I'm continuing to exercise for half an hour by vigorously walking around the courtyard with appropriate music blasting. Today it was Shostakovich quintets." Intermingled with his rage at Israel's right-wing government and at the Arab world, which expresses sympathy with the Palestinian plight while treating it as little more than a reality TV show, is the realization that something has to change. "The Israelis are being hit and have casualties and our life has been brought to a standstill. We are killing each other. We have to stop. This is what is important, not what the outside world thinks."