Edward Mackinnon reviews Alan Dent's new book
I started reading Alan Dent’s Palestinian Tales a short time before the recent protests against the forced expulsion of Palestinians from their homes in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem, the demolition of Palestinian homes and the displacement of Palestinians by Zionist “settlers”.
Western news media invariably refer to these events and the brutal repression that followed as “clashes”, a term that is as euphemistic and misleading as the familiar references to what is called the Israeli-Palestinian “conflict”. For the same news media the massacre of civilians in Gaza by a high-tech army is a slightly regrettable detail in a story of “violence” on both sides.
We clearly need alternative sources of information to understand what is happening in the part of Western Asia that we call the Middle East. And we need to know the history of Palestine, going back at least to the Balfour Declaration of 1917, an accord between antisemites and Zionists (antisemitism and Zionism are of course two sides of the same coin, both believe that Jews cannot and should not live in the same society as non-Jews), and particularly the period after the Second World War when Britain’s mandate for Palestine came to an end.
Alan Dent knows this history in detail and, remarkably, has written not a historical essay but a series of short stories spanning the time from the post-war period to the recent past.
The stories deal with events, sometimes foregrounded, sometimes alluded to, such as Zionist terrorism directed against the British at the end of the British mandate, the trial of Zionists for crimes of rape, the poisoning of the Palestinians’ water supply, false-flag operations like the Zionists’ killing of Jews on board the Patria and their killing of Jews in Iraq to encourage the flight of Jews to Israel, the Sabra and Shatila massacre, the Oslo Accords and the Intifada. More or less familiar names such as Ben Gurion, Begin and Arafat appear alongside forgotten victims of Zionist terrorism like Lord Moyne, Folke Bernadotte and Andre Serot.
The central figures of the stories include British engineers, soldiers and diplomats at the end of the British mandate, American journalists, an Israeli prostitute, British Jews, a Zionist rabbi, Zionist soldiers, and a Palestinian family.
The author always displays a sure grasp of historical events and, what is even more important for a storyteller, is able to convey how these events impinge, with ineluctable logic, on the life and psyche of the people involved. His style is lucid, his characterisations are skilful and his dialogue is always vivid and uncontrived.
Several of Alan Dent’s Palestinian Tales are set in the crucially important period between the ending of the British mandate over Palestine and the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, which was accompanied by Al Nakba (“the catastrophe”), the expulsion of three-quarters of a million Palestinians from their homeland. These stories graphically illustrate some of the events of a time when Zionist terrorists assassinated British soldiers and civilians and sent letter bombs to British government ministers in a (successful) campaign to prevent the creation of a democratic Palestine for Muslims, Jews and Christians and even to prevent partition in favour of a Jewish state.
One story is about the murder of a British chemical engineer working in the oil industry, another is about the discovery of a bomb in the Colonial Office in London. The strength of these stories lies in the way they evoke the mood and the reactions of the time. The helpless bewilderment of the family of the dead British engineer finds expression in comments which are echoed in a slightly subtler form by our mainstream media today: the Jews and the Arabs hate one another, they are always at one another’s throats, they’ll never stop fighting. Or more crudely: the Jews are troublesome and the Arabs are ignorant. This is the vox populi, summed up in the comments “We’re best out of it” and “Let ’em fight their own battles”.
Only the father of the dead man refuses to equivocate and, raging that “the Jews killed my boy”, he collapses and dies too, an indirect victim of the events in Palestine. Was he stating the unvarnished truth or giving voice to prejudice? Naturally Jews as a whole were not to blame. And Jews enjoyed massive sympathy in the UK after the horrors they had suffered at the hands of the Nazis. It is this sympathy that contributes to the confusion experienced in the other story by the cleaner who discovers the bomb in the Colonial Office: “Those poor Jews who suffered so much and now had no home ….. They should have a place to live. They should be welcome. Why couldn’t they live in Britain or France? … She couldn’t work it out and it troubled her”. And yet the bomb planted by Zionists in the Colonial Office could have killed her. And letter bombs were being sent to British politicians. Her sense of goodness and truth has been shaken. “Why couldn’t the Jews and the Arabs live together in Palestine?”
Two other stories show how Jews could fall victim to Zionist terror. The refusal of a Jewish tailor in London and a Jewish prostitute in Palestine to cooperate with Zionist terror groups has fatal consequences for them. The pressure put on the London tailor, who is torn between his faith and his sympathy for the project of creating a Jewish state in Palestine, anticipates a dilemma faced by many Jews in the UK today.
The story about the Patria is based on a historical event, the sinking of an ocean liner carrying Jewish refugees to Palestine in 1940 by the Zionist terrorist organization Haganah in the port of Haifa, resulting in the death of some 200 refugees and about 50 crew and British soldiers. Haganah committed this atrocity because the British authorities wanted to transfer the ship to Mauritius as the refugees did not have entry permits. The main focus of the story is on the way in which Zionist journalists publish a fake explanation of the tragedy, tarring the British as antisemites by alleging that the passengers had blown themselves up in order to avoid deportation. We are then shown the reaction of a British soldier on reading the reports. It is one of dismay and confusion: “What was he caught up in? What were they all caught up in?”
There is an interesting parallel between Dent’s story and the US author and screenwriter Irwin Shaw’s short story of 1947 The Passion of Lance Corporal Hawkins. In Shaw’s story Jews arriving at the Haifa dock after the end of the Second World War are to be transported by the British to Cyprus. The story is told from the viewpoint of a British soldier, who is caught between sympathy for the Jews from his experience of seeing Belsen concentration camp and on the other hand the antisemitic prejudice of his fellow soldiers, a sentiment attributed to the British soldiers by an author who held Zionist views.
Other Palestinian Tales show the logical consequences of the early Zionist terrorism, not only the atrocities with their nameless victims, but also the everyday hardship, distress and humiliations suffered by Palestinians in their occupied country. The story Four Days in Hebron describes the fear in which a Palestinian family is forced to live, as a mother gives birth while the family’s dwelling is practically besieged and defiled by Jews celebrating a national holiday.
The author’s main focus in these stories is on the atrocities and cruelty of the Zionists who have colonized Palestine. The continuities with the present “conflict”, as our media describes what is happening today, are only too obvious. The Palestinian Tales perform an important function in documenting in literary form the history of a project of colonization and ethnic cleansing in which Britain has been, and continues to be, closely involved.
Alan Dent: Palestinian Tales, published by Otium Press, London in 2021 and also available from the author at: 100 Waterloo Road, Ashton, Preston PR2 1EP.