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  • Martyrs' Crossing
  • Written by Amy Wilentz
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780345449832
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Martyrs' Crossing

Written by Amy WilentzAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Amy Wilentz

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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

“SOPHISTICATED AND SUSPENSEFUL . . . TAUTLY WRITTEN . . . Wilentz knows the world she writes about very well, and her descriptions have a solid specificity that lends authority to her fiction.”
–The New York Times Book Review

“At a closed Israeli checkpoint, Marina, a Palestinian mother, clutches her ailing boy, desperate for access to Jerusalem and its doctors. When a young Israeli soldier waits too long before deciding to disobey orders, a martyr is born. Thus begins a graceful, painful, illuminating novel of the Middle East. . . . [Wilentz’s] prose tugs at the reader. . . . The characters are magnetic. . . . [This] is a very human tale of regrets, revenge, and the elusive nature of absolution.”
–Entertainment Weekly

“SO PRECISE, SO STARTLING, SO UNFORGETTABLE. . . . These characters are all pawns of history and politics, but Wilentz makes them live.”
–Los Angeles Times

“MAGNIFICENT . . . Wilentz writes with a prose style reminiscent of The New Yorker’s highest ambitions: crystalline, pure, faultlessly communicative. . . . Like the best documentaries, Martyrs’ Crossing allows us unprecedented access to a little-understood and often misrepresented part of the world.”
–Chicago Tribune

“A BRILLIANTLY RESEARCHED MEDIDATION ON THE CRISIS IN THE MIDDLE EAST . . . Martyr’s Crossing matches Damascus Gate in the quality of research and the mass of intriguing characters–and yet it remains a lean thriller.”
–The New York Observer

Excerpt

She wanted to be lifted away from here by angels,
plucked up into the empty sky. Failing angels, she would
accept any transportation--no matter how mean, no matter
how low. The crowd was squeezing the breath out of her,and Ibrahim 's
hand kept almost slipping away. Marina picked him up so that she
wouldn't lose hold of him. He turned and twisted irritably in her arms.
There was too much old sweat here, there were too many bodies close to
hers, and the whole thing made her feel like retching, like running. Too
many people were breathing down her neck, and whose breath was it? No
one who knew her, no one she wanted to know. Strangers,foreigners, was
how she thought of them, really, even though they were her own people,
standing packed around her. Finally, she was sharing their predicament.
She had always thought she wanted to.

They were all treading dust out here on the Ramallah road under the
blue winter sky, and Ibrahim was inhaling it, too, like fire. It was scratchy
air. He coughed and coughed again, and squirmed in her arms, trying to
see what was happening. He was pale and feverish,but there was strength
in those little legs. Marina looked down at his flushed cheeks. She looked
through the dust up at the sky and saw a string of faded plastic flags
fluttering over the road, crisscrossing it. There was a picture of the
Chairman on one side of each flag, and on the reverse, a picture of a jowly
commando who had been assassinated more than ten years earlier.

She felt an elbow grind into her side. No one liked to be this close to
his fellow man--she could say that with certainty. A car alarm yowled.
The crowd was approaching the yellow sign: PREPARE YOUR DOCUMENTS
FOR INSPECTION. The sky overhead was clear, but there was a threat in
the clouds piling up far out to the west over the distant sea. The wind
whipped through the cypresses that scrabbled up a hill behind the low
stores and houses. Straining toward the rickety watchtower that
overlooked Shuhada checkpoint, the faces of the crowd, upturned and
expectant,were like faces in religious paintings,the faces of believers waiting
for a miracle. Just let me through, Marina thought. A man next to her
coughed in Ibrahim 's face.

Next time, get him out of there and over to us as fast as you can, Dr.
Miller had said. He needs to be on the machines. He needs drips you can 't
always get at your hospitals. He needs our nebulizers.

She held Ibrahim tightly with one arm, and pushed his hair back from
his eyes. He felt hot and he looked frightened, and this was a boy who did
not scare easily. Not even when they went to visit Hassan in the prison on
the other side. In order to see Daddy, they had to get through the
checkpoint, find a taxi, drive into Jerusalem--and then, at the prison, pass
through a reinforced steel door while men with big guns watched them
and asked questions.

Marina was used to the rituals of crossing over. But today was different.
The press of bodies made her feel faint. In the months since Hassan was
arrested, she and Ibrahim had become accustomed to lining up. It was more
or less civilized. With the right papers you almost always got through--if
you had the patience. Sometimes the soldiers didn't check at all; they were
naturally unsuspicious and lenient with mothers and children. But if they
did run her through the computer, she was ready with her passport and with
Ibrahim 's medical file from Hadassah Hospital. There would be a few
questions about Hassan, because prisoners always turned up on the computer.
But then, right through. Marina looked like what she was, a Palestinian, but
she was an American citizen, born in Boston, with what had always been a
foolproof passport.

But nothing works forever, especially here. Early this morning, there
had been two bus bombs in downtown Jerusalem. Bodies had been blown
all over a square. These were the first attacks in a long time,and now the
checkpoint was like a place she'd never visited before. Marina had never
seen a complete closure before, a <i>towq</i>,it was called in Arabic. They
hadn't done one in years, and she'd never believed they could do it, not
really.

Could they? No one knew, not even her doctor in Ramallah. She had
run to him this afternoon, when Ibrahim seemed to be getting sicker. The
medications he had been expecting for more than a week had been
delayed again. Get yourself into Jerusalem, the doctor told her. With
your passport, it should be all right.

Turning away from his of fice door, Marina flagged a cab and headed
for the checkpoint. Traf fic to the crossing had slowed to a stop a half mile
from the Jerusalem line. She got out to finish the trip on foot.


Facing the crowd in the shadow of the watchtower, Lieutenant Ari
Doron flicked away his cigarette and tried to decide on a few next steps.
In the old days, he might have panicked. But he was a harder man now, he
didn 't wilt when confronted. That 's why his superiors used him for
checkpoint duty when the situation got bad. And today it certainly was
dangerous. The crowd had grown larger as more and more were refused
permission to cross. It was hot out for this time of year, and Doron felt
damp beneath his heavy bulletproof vest. He pushed his hair up under his
cap and drank some tepid water out of a plastic bottle that was standing
on one of the sand-filled, plastic roadblocks the army had set up at the
intersection three years ago, as a temporary measure. By now,the
checkpoint had become a permanent part of Jerusalem's geography. Since the
peace was declared, Doron thought. He tried to brush some of the dust
off his shoulders.

Today's disturbance was going down like clockwork, each notch up in
the violence coming according to schedule. It was like a drill for the
checkpoint soldiers, the angry crowds of rock-throwing young men. Doron was
used to it. It started with children, the little boys who slipped through legs
and whipped around the crowd and were having the best time, you could
see it. It was only a matter of minutes before the young men joined in. They
used slingshots, which Doron considered fair practice in the land of David.
He wondered whether these were the kind David had used to kill the giant.
The contraption looked like a holiday noisemaker, and the Palestinians
spun it from the hip so that if you were up close, which you tried not to be,
you could hear it whipping the air. The slingshot could send a rock flying at
what seemed like the speed of a bullet.

Usually,the soldiers waited until a rock hit its mark, until there were
enough men throwing stones, so that they weren 't firing into a gaggle of
schoolboys. First they shot into the air. Rubber bullets. Then they tried
tear gas. When the tear gas didn't work, the soldiers would shoot in the air
again, which also never worked, and then they 'd begin shooting in earnest,
over the heads of the crowd if their aim was good, into the crowd if it
wasn't. By then,the men would be angry and nervous and ready to shoot
for real, but Doron always tried to avoid this stage. He had never used live
ammo at a checkpoint, and could not imagine the situation in which he
would give that order. Rubber bullets were bad enough. Or there were
sound bombs, a kind of grenade that did not explode but could generally
be counted on to send a mob hurtling away. Doron also tended to go extra
heavy on the tear gas. He didn't want casualties on his record. Things
could escalate quickly into something really bad, something he didn't want
to see, didn't want to deal with, didn't want to be responsible for.

Doron had seen the crisis building today as the politicians pulled the
closure tighter and tighter. The Palestinians here at the checkpoint were
trying to get into Israel for all the usual reasons: work, work, and work.
There had been closures before, as punishment for acts of terror, and yet
they would still come, desperate to get through, and every day, some of
them made it, because usually the closure was not airtight, and there was
room for lackadaisical enforcement,there was room for leniency--even
sympathy, on occasion.

Like most of the officers in charge of the checkpoints today, Doron
had asked headquarters to loosen up --he could feel the place turning into
a flashpoint as the pressure built. But Tel Aviv kept tugging on the
drawstrings. Responding to terror, the government said, the two bus
bombings all over the television,the two suicide boys, dressed up like Israeli
soldiers, who packed their kit bags with explosives and got on the buses
and blew themselves up. Whose brothers or cousins might explode
tomorrow at the mall, the movies, the grocery store. Fifty killed and
scores wounded, in two minutes. So no passage between the West Bank
and Israel. No movement among the towns and villages of the West
Bank. Even the most urgent cases would be judged harshly today.

The stone throwers were close. Doron called in to headquarters.
There was trouble at several of the other crossings. It sounded chaotic
over the phone line. He heard other phones ringing and the sound of
someone cursing loudly. He hung up and had his men advance a few more
meters in front of the watchtower, hoping they would look tough and
determined, even though right now he had only seven men on shift, if you
didn't count the other two he had diverted to watch the dry, deserted wadi
a hundred meters away. Sometimes enterprising Palestinians would walk
or drive around the checkpoint through the dry riverbed behind it. The
Israelis knew about these violators, but usually ignored them. Today, the
wadi was off-limits. Nine men total, a reasonable number. The
checkpoints were not supposed to be war zones.

Zvili came up to him. It amazed him that checkpoint duty always
meant working with guys like Zvili.

"They 're closing in," Zvili said. He sounded excited.

"They are far away," Doron said.

"We might have to begin firing," Zvili said. He knew that Doron
shied away from this.

"I don 't think so, not yet." Doron looked at Zvili. The little man had
a hard look on his face, like a gargoyle. These little guys shocked Doron
with their toughness. They were ready for anything. Unlike Doron.

"Well, what do you suggest?" Zvili asked him.

"Nothing," Doron said. "Nothing yet."

"So we're just going to sit here like target practice?" Zvili spat on the
ground. He was a gremlin, but he was scared. Doron could see it in his
posturing.

"No, we're just going to sit here like grown-ups until we see what 's
developing," Doron said to him. His tone was condescending, the vocal
equivalent of patting Zvili on the head." For all we know, this is business
as usual, but a little more intense. Anyway, they 're still too far away to
hurt us."

Doron prided himself on his new maturity. He was an old hand,
temperate and calm, having found himself --sometime after his twenty-
eighth birthday--suddenly quite able to distinguish between a problem
and a crisis. Was it a run-of-the-mill melee, or "a situation "? Making that
judgment was the essence of Israeli military professionalism. Doron
checked the time and calculated how long it would be until nightfall.
Even the most violent crowds tended to disperse at sunset. It was a matter
of keeping the boys at bay until the earth's rotation came into line with
your military strategy. It would be almost an hour, not soon enough. He
noticed the dust rising. It made his eyes itch. He sniffed at the air. He
listened. A car alarm was going off. From this distance, about a hundred
meters, he could only make out beetled brows, and kerchiefs around
noses and mouths. It always looked in photographs as if they were seeking
anonymity, but in fact it was protection against the gas. The gas slowed
them down--it prolonged the time between the hurling of the rock that
smashed a soldier's cheek, and the shooting that would repel the stone
throwers. That was the only use for the gas, as far as Doron could see. It
never really put an end to things.

He nodded to Zvili, and Zvili prepared a tear-gas cartridge. The
young men were moving in closer, their pitching arms back. Doron
nodded again.

Zvili fired off the cartridge. It soared up into the air and then
plummeted down like the tail end of a firework, exploding on descent. The
crowd opened up around it. Breaking through the ring of those who were
fleeing, a young man with a kerchief around his face ran up to the
spewing cartridge, picked it up, and galloped toward the checkpoint like a
strange tribal smoke-dancer,stopping finally a few meters from Doron 's
line of defense to hurl the cartridge back at the Israelis. Doron coughed
and bent over, and tears bit at his eyes. He felt for a second as if he were
going to black out, the stuff was so fucking strong. Should have shot him,
he thought. When Doron stood finally after the cramp in his lungs had
abated, he saw the boy scampering back into a rejoicing crowd.

Doron wished these battles did not have to be so intimate. He
coughed into the back of his hand. There was something too much like
children's games about being at such close quarters with the enemy. It was
like hide-and-seek, or a color war. They ran up to you, you chased them
back. They conked your guy, you conked theirs. You got to know each
other by the end of a day. You could take the measure of certain
individuals. He hated seeing their joy at a wounded soldier, and wished he could
take the same raw pleasure in their injuries. He wanted to want them dead.
But God, he just wished that these people had stayed home today. He
wished that they would stay home every day.
Amy Wilentz|Author Q&A

About Amy Wilentz

Amy Wilentz - Martyrs' Crossing
Amy Wilentz won the PEN/Martha Albrand Prize for nonfiction and the Whiting Writers Award, and was a nominee for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1990. She is the author of The Rainy Season and has written for The Nation, The New Republic, and The New York Times. She was the Jerusalem correspondent for The New Yorker from 1995 to 1997. She lives in New York City with her husband and three sons.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Amy Wilentz

Kate Manning
and Amy Wilentz have known each other since 1980 when Amy was an editor at The Nation magazine and Kate was a lowly intern, a fact Amy never let Kate forget. However, when Kate was offered the "job" of housesitting an old French farmhouse outside Avignon, Amy suddenly became Kate's best friend, and came along. While in France, Manning and Wilentz wrote many beginnings of novels, countless short stories, and they began the practice of reading and editing each other's work. The two writers still trade chapters, now using their children-- who, incredibly, are friends and classmates--as couriers.

Kate Manning: People familiar with your work before Martyrs' Crossing know you as a journalist, a chronicler of Haitian life and politics, an essayist for The New Yorker on the Middle East, and writer of trenchant commentary on many subjects. But I happen to know you've always been a closet fiction writer. Why did you choose fiction to tell this particular story?

Amy Wilentz: For practical and probably mundane reasons. My first book about Haiti was about a place that American readers really don't know about. The Mideast was different. I was new there, and relatively unsophisticated. I was not immersed in an academic way. I didn't have the proper credentials to write a good non-fiction book. There are already lots of very bad non-fiction books about the Middle East, and only a few great ones. No one needed another factual tome on the conflict there. And you're right, I've always wanted to write novels.

KM: Martyrs' Crossing is your first one, and over the course of the three years it took you to finish, it often seemed to some of your friends and family that it was excruciating and difficult for you to write. Was it?

AW: I really loved writing it. Loved it.

KM: Liar.

AW: I loved it in retrospect of course. During the writing it was often painful. You think: How in the world do I get Doron out of this mess? Or you think: What would a husband possibly plausibly say to his wife in this situation? And it seems so daunting, day after day, answering these questions and doing it with some verve. The key to writing a novel is to create at least one character whom everyone will love, so that when he is not there, you want him back. Once I had Doron and George and Ahmed and Marina living and breathing, it became easier. Now I'd like to write the book all over again. I loved my characters so much and I feel lost without them. I don't know where to go now without them.

KM: At the risk of sounding like girls choosing their favorite Beatle, who is your favorite character?

AW: Ahmed. He's self-centered and self-important and smart and so easy to write because of that. I understood him. He didn't have a soft side, so he was flatter and easier to write. He's based loosely--very loosely-- on a real person, a former PLO fighter who is now a Bethlehem political figure, and who really was camping up on a mountain, in a tent, protecting the area from Israeli occupation. But in vain. Eventually he left, and the place is now an Israeli settlement. John Le Carre used him in Little Drummer Girl, too, I'm told.

KM: Who was the hardest character for you to write?

AW: Marina was the hardest. The write-what-you-know theory in fiction is that the closer a character comes to yourself or your situation the easier it is to write. Marina is supposedly me, in that she's a woman with a child, roughly my age. But my tendency is not toward self-disclosure. Marina had been through a terrible trauma and it's difficult to portray a mother going through that without lapsing into melodrama. So, I concentrated on the physical details. You don't write her thinking, I am so sad, you concentrate on her folding the laundry and wondering Why am I so incompetent at doing the very things which only yesterday were automatic? It's hard to stay away from cliche when writing about mourning or jealousy or anger.

KM: Or love. Or happiness.

AW: Ugh. Love. Happiness. Happiness should be banned. It's too hard to write it well.

KM: How did you make such good fiction out of a political situation that confounds most people?

AW: You have to be very careful not to put too much politics in it. You write around the politics and write instead about people. You put the politics in the characters' situations. The plot of Martyrs' Crossing is based on political circumstances. This story could not happen without the conflict and pain of the Middle East being what it is. So in that sense the politics are unavoidable. In fact, the politics gives you a firm structure to hang your plot on. The inherent conflict makes the plot go. And I didn't set out to write some apology or some allegory or some heroic fable of good triumphing over evil. For example, people ask me: Why did Doron want to make restitution to the Palestinian mother? He wanted to because that was the kind of man he was, that I made him be. His character is tested by the political situation. I made Doron someone who cared because that made him interesting. He should care. Anyone who watches a child suffer would care--should care. People have argued with me about this, saying, Why should he be so guilty? He was just doing a job. He's acting on orders. He is an instrument of the state. But of course, soldiers do care, and I wanted to show how the soldier--this soldier, anyway--is human.

The problem--anywhere that politics is so violently felt--is that the human is divided from the political. This is the schizophrenia of politics: that the Tutsi is as human as the Hutu, the Palestinian as human as the Israeli. Some readers have come away with the idea that Doron is going crazy, dressing up in Palestinian clothes, searching out Marina in Ramallah; but I think he's normal. To me he's the only sane one. He comes to see the other side as human and that's what leads him to his suicidal situation in the end.

Both sides, Palestinians and Israelis, have told me that there is no soldier like Doron in real life. Israelis are so tough they can't admit that one of theirs could have guilty feelings, which they see as a sign of weakness. Palestinians, on the other hand, see Doron as an attempt to humanize an unfeeling occupying force. But really, I think he does exist. And Martyrs' Crossing is, after all, a novel, not an attempt to progandize, fix, find a solution, to lay blame. It's just a novel. A story about real people in a real place.

KM: Do you protest too much? Your book is quite political, in its own way. Doesn't fiction have power? What can fiction do that non-fiction cannot?

AW: It can create a soldier like Doron. It can marry the personal and the political.

KM: So he's one of the martyrs of the title--human beings sacrificed--or used--for a political purpose, as George muses so painfully and amusingly, too, at his grandson's funeral: "The Palestinian People . . . He could always predict when The Palestinian People would enter the speeches of Palestinians." He's tired of the idea that somehow the death of a child is a noble thing. It's quite funny, the way George thinks, and I like how he uses his sense of humor as armor against pain.

AW: It's fun, figuring out how to have humor in a book that's not about a humorous subject, such as George's cynicism and his sense of the absurd--waving at the upside down goldfish in his hotel fish tank, being somehow pleased at the discomfort of his protege. George's scenes with Marina were fun for me to write since they were based on personal experience. Especially because my own father died some years ago and I miss him terribly, it was a pleasure to put parts of him in a character, teasing him.

KM: And I notice you conveniently made him a widower, so you didn't have to write a wife/mother character. Do I remember correctly that in the first draft, George had a living breathing wife? Explain some of the wrong turns you took and why you made changes.

AW: Yes, George had a wife, but I offed her. She got in the way of his interior monologues. She was extraneous. Also, Doron had a girlfriend. She was first called Becky, and then she was called Noa. I liked her. The scenes I wrote between her and Doron gave the novel glimpses of secular Israeli life; non-military and non-religious, the way life is led by most young people in Israel. Doron and Noa were watching TV and having a pizza party and listening to trance dancing music, smoking cigarettes, having sex. But I cut her because she interrupted the plot. She was a pointless female who was only there to be had sex with and it was bad for her! She wasn't enjoying her role, or the sex, and she felt used, so I offed her. Almost all my sex scenes got cut, thankfully. I also had a character, a Palestinian guy from the refugee camps, who was a suicide bomber. But he was way too stereotypical, and he evolved into the grimy lawyer, Sheukhi.

KM: You left Jerusalem when you were only halfway through the book. Was this liberating, or did it make your task more difficult?

AW: There is a kind of nostalgia and an elegaic feeling that I had after leavingJerusalem that contributed to my writing in a way I like. Sitting here in my New York apartment with the construction next door and the sounds of the subway made me long to get away to the world I had left. You're building a world when you're writing, and when you're far away, you're not constrained by reality. There's a tendency among readers who know a place to say Oh, there's no such thing there! She should know that! But that irritates me because in fiction, as long as it's credible, there should be license.

For example, I don't think there really is an Army headquarters in Jerusalem, and it's certainly not called The Building, as it is in my book. But who cares? My fiction needed it. It could exist. Still, there are some bad things writers do, such as describing a place as a city of broad avenues when in fact it's a warren of narrow streets. You do need a certain degree of faithfulness to reality, and since I was writing for a large population of people who've been to Jerusalem and who would love to see it on the page and read about it, I put lots of things in the book to amuse them. But some people have hated it, me writing about dirty playgrounds that smell of dog shit and are full of trash. They saw this as an attack on Israel. They're the ones who only go to the Western Wall and stay in their hotels and never get a feel for the rest of Israeli life. My friends, the moms in the smelly playgrounds and the people in offices with rusting desks, loved those parts, because those parts felt real.

KM: What are you going to write next?

AW: I'm waffling between a novel that would be more personal, with a first-person narrator, set here in the US, or something set abroad, more like this book. I feel more comfortable with this kind of book. Can we talk about boy and girl fiction?

KM: It seems to me most of our conversations are about boy and girl fictions of one kind or another. So explain what you mean.

AW: What I mean is: Martyrs' Crossing is very much a guy's novel. It's full of history and politics and explosions and what, I'm told, is a rather ripping plot, amazingly enough, since plot is something I hate thinking about. So for me, the idea of writing a so-called girlish memoir/ confession about family life is not entirely appealing. A coming-of-age book? How hateful. I say: skip writing entirely when we are coming of age. I am so glad I missed that. There is one side of my personality that is drawn to things I think of as girl subjects: love, domesticity, family encounters, growing up--but I think plot lies elsewhere. The novelists I love are capable of finding plot anywhere--Trollope, for example, George Eliot. But they write against a broader background than many novelists today.

KM: There's so much navel-gazing and self-help-group fiction around.

AW: The navel-staring is so alienating to me. Aesthetically. Although I love Proust, who wrote one long navel-staring story but made it into a broad social and political portrait. The reason I really dislike most modern self-regarding fiction comes from a moral feeling I have that it often results in a kind of narcissism, a selfishness, and ultimately, who cares???

KM: Right, who cares? Why do readers like it, except to confirm some banal truth about themselves?

AW: Yes, but plenty of Americans will look at a book set in Jerusalem or any other place that's not here, and say: Who cares what happens there? You remember how I used to describe Martyrs' Crossing as a "comic sex romp through the Middle East?" That was a joke about making people care. It's my job to make them care. The way to do that is to write good characters, strong plotting and a lot of steamy, seedy atmosphere. Sex scenes would help, too. I'm saving them all for my next book.

KATE MANNING's first novel, Whitegirl, a story of race, identity, and love, will be published by the Dial Press in March 2002. She is a two-time Emmy-award-winning producer, writer and reporter of television documentaries made for WNET, the public television station in New York. She graduated from Yale University in 1979, and lives in New York City with her husband and three children.

Praise

Praise

“Powerful and poetic . . . [Wilentz’s] storytelling propels you headfirst into another world.”
–SUSAN ORLEAN
Author of The Orchid Thief

“With intensity and skill, Amy Wilentz manages to show us the internal life of characters who are usually seen as journalistic subjects, those struggling in the complex and highly charged world of the Palestinians and Israelis. A deeply personal and tragic incident is at the center of this novel. The backdrop is one of political and social conflict, but the subject turns out to be the wider one of being human–of the difficulty of enduring loss and of trying to live by one’s beliefs when all the world seems to be against you.”
–SUSAN MINOT
Author of Lust & Other Stories

“The strength of Martyrs’ Crossing . . . [is] its authentic and persuasive portraits of people trying to find their way through, and possibly past, the traps of history.”
Time
About the Book|Discussion Questions

About the Guide

One rainy night at a Jerusalem checkpoint, Israeli Lieutenant Ari Doron is ordered to refuse a desperate, young Palestinian mother and her sick boy passage into the city. The incident leads to a series of riots, and Doron finds himself pulled into the bitter political aftermath as battles and bus bombs explode around him. He is drawn to Marina, the boy's American-born mother. And though she is on the other side of the bloody struggle, she finds herself thinking of Doron as "her soldier." In another place, at another time, they might have been lovers.

Discussion Guides

1. Who are the martyrs of the title? How does the author use the idea of martyrdom--dying for a cause--throughout the interwoven stories of her characters? What is the author's attitude toward such martyrdom?

2. Who are the heroes of Martyrs' Crossing? Discuss how Yizhar, Ahmed, Shuekhi, Zvili, Doron, George Raad and Hassan, too, each act according to (or in spite of) personal codes of honor, morality, and patriotism. In a conversation between Yizhar and Doron, Yizhar says, "I despise heroes . . . Heroes act, and other people suffer." Which character comes closest to the author's idea of a hero? What constitutes a hero for our time?

3. As Marina is crossing the checkpoint with masses of Palestinians, she thinks They were her own people, standing packed around her. Finally, she was sharing their predicament. She had always thought she wanted to. Is Marina a certain kind of American naif? Or is she politically committed in a way her father is not? Is her marriage to Hassan the result of naivete? In what ways has her American upbringing left her unprepared to return to her people? Do Americans romanticize the struggles of disenfranchised people? Do Americans romanticize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Why do you think the author chose to give Marina an American past?

4. Underlying the stories in Martyrs' Crossing are the twin questions of what constitutes home, and, what is the meaning of home? George thinks of his friend Ahmed, (Chapter 10 p. 113) "It had been decades since they leaned against each other in this familiar way, not considering politics and the oceans that divided them. Possibly, George thought, this is the meaning of home." Hassan (p. 153) has been teaching Marina about her homeland, saying "You call yourself a Palestinian?" How is the idea of home different for the various characters in this story? What is your idea of home?

5. In this story, people who are ostensibly on the same side do not appear to trust each other. Allies are enemies and foes might be friends. Doron and Marina, for example, seem to understand that in other circumstances they might have more in common than not. George and Ahmed are described as friends in the early part of the book, and by the end, George is described as Ahmed's "greatest enemy," because of differences in what they believe. Doron thinks: I am the enemy, I am the enemy, and he asks Yizhar, "So are we enemies now?" (p. 195) Which characters seem to you to be worthy of the term "enemy"? Which characters seem truly at cross purposes? Which are truly dangerous, and to whom? Who is worthy of trust, and for whom?

6. What are the different ways in which the death of Ibrahim becomes fodder for both the Palestinian and Israeli political machines? Discuss the uses of human tragedy for political purpose. Is this inevitable? Justifiable? How does this kind of propagandizing escalate or ease tension?

7. Discuss George's relationship with Ahmed. Throughout the book, George dwells on his childhood friendship with Ahmed. After Ibrahim's death, George thinks, "If Ahmed was insincere under these circumstances, then Palestine was lost to George." (p. 56) How does their friendship evolve over the course of the book? Do the two men have the same goal? The same beliefs?

8. Examine Yizhar's brand of loyalty to Israel. He spins the death of Ibrahim in the press, (p. 72) and Wilentz writes, "Yizhar felt no remorse. His version of the story was not a lie." Is Yizhar lying? Should he feel remorse? In Yizhar's job, where is the line between good and evil? Discuss the differences between Yizhar and Doron.

9. Is there a particular politics or ideology underlying the story in Martyrs' Crossing? Is the book more sympathetic to one side or the other?

10. "Our little Ibrahim was not a brave Palestinian freedom fighter," George says at his grandson's funeral. (p. 178) "If you want to place blame for my grandson's death, look in the mirror as well. Look at yourself and the Authority." Because of that speech, the lawyer Sheukhi believes George Raad to be a traitor. Sheukhi has one rule, (on p. 185) "Never criticize a fellow Palestinian in public." Yizhar, too, seems to have a similar rule about his fellow Israelis. What are the uses of loyalty in a political conflict? Is this unwillingness to criticize one's own a good impulse, or a bad one? What other examples--say, in police departments--of this unwillingness to criticize one's own can you think of? Discuss the characters' choices in terms of moral absolutism and moral relativism. Is George a traitor to his people? Is Doron a traitor to his?

11. Sheukhi makes a choice. Doron makes a different kind of choice. Both men feel a need to act. Contrast their choices.

12. James Baldwin wrote, "We are trapped in history, and history is trapped in us." How are the characters in Martyrs' Crossing trapped in history? How is it trapped in them? Do you believe human beings can escape the trap of history? If so, how? Who in this story comes closest to escaping? What historical traps have a grip on Americans?


  • Martyrs' Crossing by Amy Wilentz
  • January 02, 2002
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Ballantine Books
  • $15.00
  • 9780345449832

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