A Mile in Her Shoes

I wanted to be taken there: To feel the land beneath my feet and the breeze in my hair. To taste the food and listen to the music. To learn about the history, the customs, the culture. To walk at least a mile in a Palestinian woman’s shoes.

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It wasn’t enough for me to read about the horrors in the news: The hundreds of bombings, thousands of deaths of innocents, leveling of homes and buildings. Hunger, thirst, darkness. These facts were too cold and distant. Too cerebral. I wanted to feel, viscerally. I wanted to care with all my heart.

Books have often achieved this magic trick for me: Taken me to places I would not otherwise experience in person, lifting me up and out of my life and into the life of another in another land and another time. Able authors of literary fiction are magicians in my view, rolling out carpets we willingly ride on to expand our world, our hearts and minds.

So many books have done this for me, I could never count them all. A few jump quickly to mind, though: Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, as well as his Sophie’s Choice. Such books are life-altering – and only for the better.

So last week I asked my friend Kim Malcolm, owner of Aurora Books, the new English-language bookstore here in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, for a book recommendation. I described my urgent needs: I was hungry for a novel that was meaty and meaningful, beautifully written, and transporting. I told her I wanted to go – right away – to Palestine, having never been anywhere near it (the farthest East I’ve ever traveled has been Greece) and knowing only about the devastation of Gaza in the devastating news.

Kim recommended the perfect book for me: Against the Loveless World, by the award-winning Palestinian-American author Susan Abulhawa (Simon & Schuster, 2020). The protagonist of this novel, Nahr, is a Palestinian woman in solitary confinement in a high-tech Israeli prison, whose crime was “terrorism,” presumably for siphoning off some water from an Israeli occupiers’ settlement to irrigate a thirsty almond orchard on Palestinian land.

In her many years of imprisonment and solitude, Nahr loses track of time but holds on to her humanity by remembering her earlier years. After writing on the walls of her cell with menstrual blood, sympathetic guards give her pencils and scrap paper, which she uses to write her life story – from her childhood in Kuwait, where her Palestinian parents had fled as refugees, to her eventual return to her “homeland,” Palestine, and her imprisonment.

In author Abulhawa’s able hands, this is a story of love, family ties, rich culture, delicious food, strong women, resilience, endurance, and belonging. Nahr is a spirited, intelligent, many-faceted woman, who grows from a rebellious young girl to the loving wife of an often-imprisoned-and-tortured resistance fighter. She and her saintly mother and grumpy grandmother are all believable characters whom we grow to cheer and admire.

Abulhawa drew her book’s title from a passage in James Baldwin’s 1963 book The Fire Next Time: “Here you were: to be loved. To be loved, baby, hard, at once, and forever, to strengthen you against the loveless world.”

The New York Times’ 2020 review of Against the Loveless World ends with: “In our current climate of isolationism, the transnational storyteller must do more than entertain – she must educate. In response to this demand, Abulhawa has created a spirited protagonist who lives invisibly and in opposition to her ‘loveless world,’ telling her own story on her own terms lest either her comings or goings be forgotten.”


Author Susan Abulhawa

Now that I’ve been to Palestine and met Nahr, her friends and family, I have been educated. I feel I’ve walked at least a mile in Nahr’s shoes. This book has enlarged my heart and mind. I could not recommend it more highly — especially at this time.

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  • As Kim Malcolm told me in a recent WOW interview, “Every single book in Aurora Books is one that I have either read or want to read or is loved by large numbers of other readers.” For the full interview go to: blog.bonnieleeblack.com/kim-malcolm’s-aurora-books/ .
  • You can find Against the Loveless World and other recently published, award-winning, English-language books at Aurora Books on Calzada de la Aurora #48A, San Miguel de Allende. Contact: aurorabookssma@gmail.com.

16 thoughts on “A Mile in Her Shoes”

  1. What a beautiful book review, Bonnie. Books help us connect with each other in spite of our different lives and perspectives. They make us realize we are all in this together. (And thanks for another pitch for the bookstore!)

    1. Where would we be without BOOKS (and, by extension, book stores), querida Kim?! Your book store is such a treasure in this community, and your recommendations are priceless. Thank you!

  2. Bonnie, the book sounds cathartic. Books that readdress your opinions and open your thoughts to introspective questioning are gold. Definitely have placed it on my list of must reads. The events of the last month have made me want to learn about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It seems to have been in the news on and off all my life but its only now that I feel ready to absorb its nuances. Your recommendation has come at exactly the right time. Thank you.

    1. Thank YOU, dear Loula. Yes, I feel the same as you: I’m ready now to absorb the nuances. And this book has certainly helped me do that. Yes, this is a timely book! — Best, Bonnie

  3. Beautiful, passionate review, Bonnie. This book must be great. So good you sought it out.

    Instead of watching the news on TV and computers, people could benefit 100 times more from reading a book like this. It seems almost self-indulgent just to watch the TV news when one could gain some real understanding and empathy by doing what you did. xoxo ~ Be

    1. Thanks so much, BeDear. I think people should do BOTH: read the news for the current events and also read books for the background/bigger picture. This book was published in 2020; as you well know, books take a long while to gestate. This protagonist, Nahr, had no idea of what was to come in 2023.

  4. Dear Bonnie
    such an informative and passionate book review, especially important I these very troubled days.
    I will read this book and hopefully also walk a mile In Nahr’s shoes her shoes
    mil gracias y besitos

  5. Dear Bon,
    Learning the personal stories of those involved in a struggle is the easiest and best way to understand and empathize with that struggle. That’s the magic of reading. I believe empathy will guide people to work for a peaceful solution. Now I want to read this book, which I have just learned has a long waiting list at my library. Clearly many agree with your recommendation.

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