My Brother, My Land: A Story from Palestine by Sami Hermez with Sireen Sawalha

Redwood Press

Review by Brian Tanguay

When Great Britain was granted responsibility for Palestine under a League of Nations mandate in 1920, it limited Jewish immigration in order to maintain peace with Arab factions. These restrictions were in place during World War Two when millions of European Jews were desperate to escape Nazi persecution. Britain’s reluctance to modify its immigration policy compelled Jews in Palestine to engage in acts of terrorism to change British minds. Groups like the Irgun and the Stern Gang carried out assassinations and bombings, including the murder of Lord Moyne, the British Minister for the Middle East. 

Terrorism is defined as the unlawful use of violence and intimidation to achieve political ends, usually employed where there is an imbalance of political or military power, as existed during the British Mandate. When political means are either unavailable or repeatedly fail to achieve results, when treaties are abrogated or ignored with impunity, when all other means are exhausted, creating fear and uncertainty in one’s persecutors through calculated acts of violence often creates openings. Because they were fighting for a Jewish sanctuary against the backdrop of Hitler’s Final Solution, the Jewish terrorists who blew up trains and murdered British soldiers were depicted as freedom fighters, heroes, rather than cold-blooded killers. A few of them went on to become Prime Minister or occupy high positions in the military and government. 

Context always matters. 

In 1947, the United Nations proposed a partition plan to create a Jewish state, a Palestinian state, and an international zone around Jerusalem. A year later the Nakba happened. For Palestinians the Nakba is known as the catastrophe, when more than 400 hundred Palestinian villages were depopulated by force — ethnic cleansing as we call it now — and an estimated 700,000 people were displaced. The Nakba, along with the Six-Day War in 1967 and the Oslo Accords in 1993, changed the map and altered the lives and hopes for generations of Palestinians. 

Palestinians have repeatedly demonstrated the capacity to resist, but their endurance has come at an enormous price in blood and loss, dispossession and disappointment. To enforce its supremacy Israel has built a severe garrison state with steadfast and generous international support, primarily from the United States.

When Hamas shocked Israel and the world by launching coordinated attacks against Israeli settlements and military outposts on October 7, 2023 — a deliberate, ferocious and, yes, unforgivable act of terrorism — many reacted as if the attacks came out of the blue and were totally unprovoked. Not so. Decades of antecedent causes and effects breached the border before the first Hamas shot was fired. The world has forgotten many of them. Palestinians have not.

My Brother, My Land is a collaboration between Sami Hermez and Sireen Sawalha, and the story they tell takes place long before October 7, though it’s of a piece with this long and sorrowful history. It centers on one large Palestinian family who were displaced in the Nakba but did something unusual: they returned to live in occupied territory, subject to the edicts, whims, and depredations of a relentless occupying power. 

Through alternating voices — Sami’s narrative and Sireen’s recollections — the reader experiences the land on which the Sawalha family tends fruit trees and harvests olives, and the home in which they experience births and deaths and milestones. The house itself is a wood and plaster symbol of the Sawalha’s fortitude and will. Over the years family members join the diaspora and leave for other places, but a Sawalha core remains, including Sireen’s parents. 

As the book’s title implies, Sireen’s younger brother is the focal point. Born in 1974, Iyad has few avenues by which to alter the circumstances of his life or that of his family and neighbors. Determined to remain and reclaim what was taken by force, Iyad is stymied at every turn by military checkpoints, concrete walls, fences, barriers, laws and lethal force. Palestinians are confined, prohibited from traveling freely, and always subject to search and interrogation. Every day is a reminder that the heavy fist of the oppressor is never far away. Boys like Iyad are particularly vulnerable to beatings, arrests, or imprisonment for real or assumed offenses. 

Relentless repression is what compels Iyad to join Islamic Jihad and ultimately use violence to change the immutable status quo. 

In the eyes of the Israeli authorities, Iyad is a terrorist, a killer; to his neighbors and friends and family, Iyad is a hero, a courageous freedom fighter who stands against the grinding repression meted out by the Israeli colonizer. In truth he has no choice but to live a dual life: one as a hunted terrorist and the other as a loving brother and devoted son. Iyad is presented as fully human, complex, a rational man driven by his circumstances to irrational deeds. Above all he is a man who knows, and accepts as inevitable, that choosing to resist guarantees his life will end in prison or violent death. His family knows this as well, and it hangs over them as a constant anxiety and fear; it’s also a direct risk to their physical safety and the sanctity of their home. 

Everybody knows what’s at stake when a young man joins the resistance and begins living in the shadows. They’ve seen and lived it many times. The village graveyard is full of martyrs. 

I found My Brother, My Land difficult to read at a time when Gaza is under ferocious military assault that could render this frequently devastated sliver of land unrecognizable and uninhabitable. Thousands of Palestinian civilians have been displaced, injured or killed. The anguish in Sireen’s recollections is palpable and resonant, and speaks to all the families who are experiencing similar emotions now. Reporting from media outlets like The Nation, Democracy Now, and The Intercept, and the investigation of the International Court of Justice, make clear how dire the humanitarian situation in Gaza is. Basic necessities are so scarce that surviving day to day becomes the ultimate act of resistance.  

My Brother, My Land humanizes Palestinians, a people whom we too rarely see, hear or trouble ourselves to understand. Their endless struggle for autonomy reminds the world of the transcendent universal human longing for recognition and dignity.