Scattered like Seeds
By Shaw Dallal
New York: Syracuse University Press, 1998
“Scattered like Seeds” is an autobiographical novel by Shaw Dallal, a professor of Islamic Studies at Syracuse University. Dallal, like the novel’s protagonist, served as a legal counsel to the OAPEC in Kuwait; he is a Palestinian who experienced the 1948 diaspora as a young man.
This is Dallal’s first novel, and it faithfully delineates the history of the Palestinian tragedy from the perspective of the main character Thafer, a successful lawyer and nuclear physicist who achieves, in the 1950s and 1960s, the American dream. He lives an affluent suburban lifestyle with his beautiful American wife and their four unbelievably courteous children. Thafer, a white-collar ambassador for cultural assimilation, is the epitome of civility, integrity, and enlightenment.
But all of Thafer’s beliefs and successes are called into question after the 1967 war, when he must re-confront his identity as a Palestinian. The Arab defeat wounds him deeply and forces him to remember his own history as a victim of Israeli aggression. Thafer begins to feel drawn to his roots and takes an opportunity, after his wife dies, to become the chief legal adviser for OAPEC in Kuwait. The novel takes place during his stay there, offering an inside look at some of the tumultuous events leading up to the Arab Oil Embargo: the disastrous devaluation of the dollar in 1972, the attack on Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, and the 1973 Egypt/Syrian defeat.
In his renewed relationship with the Middle East, Thafer visits his relatives in the refugee camps. He sees the squalor of Sabra and the anger of the PLO youth in Beirut. He re-encounters the discrimination that Palestinians face in the Gulf States. At the Allenby Bridge he is strip-searched and denied entry to the West Bank to visit his aged mother. His resentment of Israel re-ignites, but so does his resentment of Arab institutions, which he discovers to be deeply flawed. He is pleasantly surprised, however, at the graciousness, eloquence, and civility of many Arab oil ministers.
Through these experiences, Thafer feels a need to somehow contribute to his national cause. As the son of a great Palestinian hero, Thafer’s friends and relatives view him as the returning prodigal son who must join them in the struggle to win back Palestine. He remains confused, however, about both his identity and his role in the struggle. Ultimately his stronger identification with his adopted country, where his children live, inhibits any sort of direct intervention on behalf of his people.
Told with great care in an even-handed manner, “Scattered like Seeds” is not what one would call a “novel of the imagination.” Metaphorical language and symbolism are all but absent; and yet the novel remains eminently readable and believable. Its aims are unabashedly pedagogical — dialogue is often used as a mere tool for the disclosure of historical and political perspectives. However, its overt didacticism stems from its mission: to relate the crucial events of modern Arab history from an Arab perspective, in a language that most middle-class Americans could easily absorb.
If there is an underlying political moral in the book, it is that the diaspora itself has forced passivity and even inertia upon Palestinians. By scattering refugees to the far-flung reaches of the globe, where they acclimatize and grow roots, the diaspora has made recovering the homeland virtually impossible. Though imbued with a saccharine quality, “Scattered like Seeds” would still make an excellent introduction to Palestinian history for a certain segment of Americans. It illustrates clearly why many Arabs, although loyal, law-abiding U.S. citizens, carry an enduring bitterness and a terrible unquiet in the center of their precarious lives.
This review appeared in Al Jadid (Vol.5, no. 27, Spring 1999)
Copyright (c) 1999 by Al Jadid