Book Review: “In My Mother’s Footsteps: A Palestinian Refugee Returns Home” by Mona Hajjar Halaby

A Year In Palestine

“In My Mother’s Footsteps” is an account of the year Mona Hajjar Halaby spent in Ramallah, teaching at the Ramallah Friends School. It includes anecdotes from the classroom, encounters with Palestinians and Israelis with different perspectives on the situation in the Middle East, family visits, and political activism. It is interspersed with letters from Mona’s mother, describing her childhood in pre-1948 Palestine.

Hatred Contaminates The Container It’s In

The purpose of Mona’s assignment is to teach conflict resolution to pre-teen children. The conflicts they are experiencing are those common to children everywhere – misunderstandings, prejudice, bullying. The hope is that by teaching non-violent ways of exploring the seeds of these issues and finding commonalities through peaceful and empathetic communication, these children can grow into leaders who will use the same tools to help build a peaceful future for the region.

As Mona experiences life in the occupied territories, her own frustrations are apparent, and grow. There is internal conflict, as her instincts for peace and compassion clash with the pain of seeing her people’s homeland usurped and her people downtrodden. She finds connections and support, sometimes in unexpected places, to peacefully protest against injustices.

A Family’s Story

Along with her work and her political activism, Mona spends time exploring her family history, tracing her mother’s home, and sharing memories when her mother visits. She has always identified as a Palestinian, and this has has always been her home, but her love for, and bond to, this country clearly grow stronger throughout her time there.

A Hundred And Fifty Years In Palestine

Weaving through the present-day experience of life under occupation, and through Mona’s family history, is the larger scale story of the Middle East. From the Ottoman Empire, through the Balfour Declaration and British Mandate, to the establishment of the State of Israel and subsequent Arab-Israeli wars, tragic mistakes, broken promises and acts of political expediency are chronicled.

War And Peace

I found “In My Mother’s Footsteps” powerful and engrossing. The way family and national history intertwined brought both aspects to life in a very comprehensible way. I feel like I understand the region far better after reading this book. Of course a one-sided perspective is being presented, but the author’s compassion and self-awareness shine through, so I believe the account is also a fair and realistic one, accurately describing the experience of today’s Palestinians.

As a Quaker, it was a delight to be introduced to the Ramallah Friends School, and to hear Mona’s very positive experiences of Quakerism, which felt very close to my own, despite the huge cultural differences between my own West Midlands and the West Bank.

As I previewed the audiobook, I have just one small gripe, which is that the narrator, Lameece Issaq, occasionally gave confusing inflections to sentences, as if she was reading them for the first time. For the most part though the narration was excellent, very clear. The audio is book-ended with short passages read by the author – another delight.

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to get a picture of life in Palestine in the early 21st Century, and some background of how it has become so. There’s a great sadness in being reminded of how war, occupation, hatred and fear create ongoing tragedy in the lives of regular people. But there is hope too. There are people on both sides of the political/religious/societal divide who are working towards peace and reconciliation. Some of Mona’s students may soon be joining them in finding creative and compassionate answers to one of the world’s most intractable problems.

I would also recommend this as an autobiography. In many ways it is a small story, being played out on a huge stage. It’s a story that inspires me because it shows the difference any one of us could make if we commit to living out our values. While the difference made by one of us is small, together we might actually start to change the world.

Thank you to NetGalley, Bookouture Audio and Thread Books for providing this book for review.