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The Right to Return

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May. 20, 2008
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  For some, the adage “home is where the heart is” is a hackneyed platitude; for others, it’s a wrenching expression of an almost filial bond. In Milwaukee native SandyTolan’s 2006 nonfiction book, The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew and the Heart of the Middle East, a Palestinian returning to his ancestral home in Ramla uses such visceral terms to describe his connection to the land from which he was expelled 20 years earlier.

  “We were exiled, but we left our souls, our hopes and our childhood in Palestine,” he says. “We left them in every corner, and on every grain of sand.” He arrives to find a Jewish student—a daughter of a Holocaust survivor—living in the house. Instead of turning him away, she invites him into what is now her home, and an unlikely but enduring friendship is formed.

  Tolan’s book appeared at a time when media coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict still fell short of fairly conveying the Palestinian side. “The media reinforces the uber-narrative,” says Tolan, allowing for a few salient exceptions. “It’s breathtaking how little the suffering of the Palestinians is reflected. We know the Holocaust, but we don’t see that the ‘Nakba’ is as much of a reality to the Palestinians.”

  The term “Nakba” means “catastrophe” and refers to the thousands of Palestinians who fled following Israel’s War of Independence. The book gives equal credence to both the meager lot of the Palestinians and the dire suffering of the Jews fleeing Europe, but more remarkably showcases the common thread between the two sides: their desire to call some place their home. A conflict that’s become synonymous for most with arbitrary boundary lines and startling statistics suddenly acquires an unforgettably human face.

  Tolan comes to the Islamic Center of Milwaukee, 4707 S. 13th St., on Tuesday, May 27, at 7 p.m. For an exclusive online interview with the author, go to the books section of www.expressmilwaukee.com.

  Also this week, award-winning journalist and author Simon Winchester comes to Milwaukee to talk about his new book, The Man Who Loved China. It concerns the eccentric British biochemist Joseph Needham, who is widely attributed as having changed Western perceptions of China.

  Years before China had taken the Great Leap Forward and was in the midst of a Japanese invasion, Needham landed on the nation’s much-beleaguered soil. It made a profound impression and led him to write one of the most ambitious accounts of Chinese science and civilization ever written. Winchester’s book brings Needham’s eccentric personality and absorbing adventures to life. What’s more, it comes at a time when China’s role as an economic behemoth is unquestionable and its human rights record is under greater international scrutiny than ever. Needham’s gripping adventures may serve as an effective means of contextualizing the country’s contemporary role as a global leader.

Winchester comes to the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop in Shorewood on Thursday, May 22, at 7 p.m.


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