Book Review: Thorn and Clove – Yahya Sinwar’s jailtime novelization of Gaza history

Hesham Taha, Sunday 11 Feb 2024

In perhaps the first example of a novel written by an Arab political prisoner during his incarceration, current Hamas Chief Yahya Sinwar’s Thorn and Clove is a semi-autobiographical novel that tells the history of the Gaza Strip.

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Shawk wa Qurunful (Thorn and Clove), Yahya Sinwar, 2004, pp.335

The novel starts just before the 1967 defeat, before which the strip had been under Egyptian administration. Ahmed, the narrator, has a friendly view toward Egyptian soldiers, believing the Arab armies will crush Israel and liberate Palestine so that its refugees can return to their homes. However, he is shocked when they are defeated. 

He recounts the start of the resistance against Israeli occupation, describing the throwing of bombs against Israeli army patrols, which faced great difficulties in entering the streets and narrow alleys of the Al-Shati refugee camp, the setting of the novel. However, Ahmed’s father and uncle are killed while fighting the Israeli army.

After this, he finds himself living in a house with his mother, brothers, sister, and grandfather, along with his cousins whose mother has left them after getting married.  

Ahmed develops a political awareness through Mahmoud, his older brother who joins the PLO while studying in Egypt, but who is detained after returning. His cousin, Ibrahim, plays a similar role, albeit with a purely Islamist touch. Ibrahim frequently meets a character called Sheikh Ahmed, a stand-in for Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, one of the founders of Hamas who was assassinated by Israel in 2004.

These two characters, and their influence on Ahmed, stand in stark contrast to Hassan, Ibrahim’s brother. Hassan, who has behaved badly ever since childhood, escapes to Israel where he cohabitates with an Israeli girl before returning to Gaza to spy for Israel. Eventually, he is killed by Ibrahim. With this character, the author is showing that just being the son of a freedom fighter does not necessarily make one patriotic and noble!

The novel, in its 30 chapters, also displays the hard choice for some displaced Palestinians to work in Israel. Some saw it as an opportunity to better their living conditions for their family, while to others it was treason!

Ahmed describes the brutal savagery of the Israeli occupation and the innovation and resilience of the Palestinian resistance. For instance, when occupation authorities close the Islamic University, professors give lectures in different mosques. 

It seems that almost every Palestinian youth is detained at one time or another by the occupation forces for at least a month. During these detentions, Israeli military interrogators employ the most barbaric forms of interrogation.

As readers, we do not learn how Ahmed becomes acquainted with these developments. In this context, Ahmed raises questions about unrestrained retribution and public executions of collaborators and traitors. He acknowledges that they can go too far, but also points out that intellectuals and jurists do not concern themselves with creating frameworks for identifying acts of treason.

The author highlights the differences between the Islamists and the PLO by portraying heated debates in Ahmed’s house between Ibrahim and Mahmoud. In these debates, Mahmoud presses Ibrahim about why the Islamists do not contribute to the resistance like other factions, especially the leftist ones. 

The narrator describes the intense disappointment in Gaza following the meagre impact of Saddam Hussein’s missiles launched against Israel during the 1991 Kuwait war.

Ahmed also recounts several feverish attempts to smuggle firearms and ammunition into Gaza, which were nearly impossible, despite the importance of doing so.

As a literary device, Sinwar uses the character of Ahmed to represent the patriot Palestinian who does not belong to any political faction although he has a religious (Islamic) leaning like most Arabs in general and Gazans in particular. 

In addition, Sinwar uses Ahmed’s innocence toward the Islamist resistance to convey through him events in an unbiased, objective manner, relying on the character of Ibrahim, Ahmed’s cousin, to recount this perspective. 

Ibrahim is responsible for identifying Israeli agents, which leads to him having to kill his brother, Hassan. One of the bitter ironies in this context is the killing of Fayez, Ibrahim’s close friend Fayez is killed at the hands of the resistance after he collaborates with Israeli intelligence during the first Intifada. However, there were mass demonstrations on the street as the people thought he was a martyr!

It is worth pointing out that Sinwar was responsible for identifying Israeli agents in real life and that “Abu Ibrahim” was Sinwar’s nom de guerre. 

Throughout the novel, the life of Gazans is characterized by simplicity and modesty, whether in their apparel, food, or even love. In one scene, a young Ahmed sends his mother to propose on his behalf after receiving just a look from a love interest. 

The novel also shows Palestinians’ insistence on obtaining university degrees even under the harshest living conditions.

The narrator answers a pressing question about the West Bank inhabitants’ reluctance to participate in acts of resistance until the outbreak of the first Intifada in 1987. The explanation offered is that if the combined armies of three Arab countries could not defeat Israel, how could they? Hence, they embraced the policy of live and let live.

The book also explores the divide between Palestinians over the Oslo accords in 1993.

On one hand, Mahmoud sees it as a path towards regaining the lands lost in 1967 and argues that the factions should show self-restraint and refrain from attacking Israel. On the other, Ibrahim considers it a waste of the blood spilled by the resistance.

After the accords, Ahmed and his family receive a shock as many PLO members and diaspora Palestinians return.

He discovers that he has two twin half-brothers – Majed and Khaled – and that his father was not killed in the aftermath of 1967. Instead, he remained in the West Bank, re-married, and had the two twins, before being killed in the Black September conflict in 1970. This revelation is a horrendous blow to Ahmed’s mother who is forced to take them into her house. 

Due to the Oslo commitments and pressure from Israel and the USA, the Palestinian Authority is obliged to detain a number of resistance members, but the PA goes too far and tortures them.

After Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995, confrontations between Palestinians and the Israeli army flare up following Netanyahu’s government reneging on its Oslo commitments, validating Ibrahim’s stance.

During the Second Intifada, the Israeli army assassinates Ibrahim with a missile after he bids farewell to his wife Maryam, Ahmed, and Ahmed’s sister. In the final scene, Ahmed ventures out holding Yasser, Ibrahim’s son, and Mahmood carrying Israa, Ibrahim’s daughter, both men raising a Kalashnikov rifle, in a symbol of Palestinian national unity and the importance of armed struggle.

As an epilogue, Sinwar mentions that the novel was written in 2004 inside an Israeli prison in Be'er Sheva while the author and his companions were still suffering.

As for the title, in my opinion, the whole life in Gaza comprises pains and hardships represented by the thorn, amalgamated with a clove which is a source of joy.

This novel should not be considered a novel in the traditional sense. The text consists of descriptions of military operations interspersed with events from the social life of its protagonist. In parts, the author writes for pages on these operations without any mention of the main plot, driving the reader to boredom.

However, Sinwar is not a novelist and the book can be appreciated as a chronicle of Gaza after 1967. In addition, Sinwar did not restrict his scope to Gaza only but he shed light on the West Bank people and acts of resistance there

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