Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East

Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East

by Sandy Tolan

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781596913431
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 05/28/2007
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 46,575
Product dimensions: 5.48(w) x 8.28(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Sandy Tolan is the author of Me & Hank and Children of the Stone. As cofounder of Homelands Productions, Tolan has produced dozens of radio documentaries for NPR and PRI. He has also written for more than forty magazines and newspapers. His work has won numerous awards, and he was a 1993 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and an I. F. Stone Fellow at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He is an associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Read an Excerpt

The Lemon Tree

An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East
By Sandy Tolan


Copyright © 2006 Sandy Tolan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-58234-343-8

Chapter One


The young Arab man approached a mirror in the washroom of Israel's West Jerusalem bus station. Bashir Khairi stood alone before a row of porcelain basins and leaned forward, regarding himself. He turned his head slightly, left to right and back again. He smoothed his hair, nudged his tie, pinched his clean-shaven face. He was making certain all of this was real.

For nearly two decades, since he was six years old, Bashir had been preparing for this journey. It was the breath, the currency, the bread of his family, of nearly every family he knew. It was what everyone talked about, all the time: return. In exile, there was little else worth dreaming of.

Bashir gazed at his reflection. Are you ready for this journey? he asked himself. Are you worthy of it? It seemed his destiny to return to the place he'd mainly heard about and mostly couldn't remember. It felt as if he were being drawn back by hidden magic; as if he were preparing to meet a secret, long-lost lover. He wanted to look good.

"Bashir!" yelled his cousin Yasser, snapping the younger man back to the moment in the bus station men's room. "Yallah! Come on! The bus is leaving!"

The two men walked out into thelarge waiting hall of the West Jerusalem terminal, where their cousin Ghiath was waiting anxiously.

It was nearly noon on a hot day in July of 1967. All around Bashir, Yasser, and Ghiath, strangers rushed past: Israeli women in white blouses and long dark skirts; men in wide-brimmed black hats and white beards; children in side curls. The cousins hurried toward their bus.

They had come that morning from Ramallah, a Palestinian hill town half an hour to the north, where they lived as refugees. Before they embarked, the cousins had asked their friends and neighbors how to navigate this alien world called Israel: Which bus should we take? How much is a ticket? How do we buy it? Will anyone check our papers once we board the bus? What will they do if they find out we are Palestinians? Bashir and his cousins had left Ramallah in the late morning. They rode south in a group taxi to East Jerusalem and arrived at the walls of the Old City, the end of the first leg of their journey. Only weeks before, these walls had been the site of fierce combat, leading to devastation for the Arabs and the occupation of East Jerusalem by Israel. Emerging from the taxi, the cousins could see soldiers stationed at Damascus Gate, the northern entrance to the Old City. From there the three men turned west and walked away from the ancient walls and across an invisible line.

From the Old City, the cousins had walked west, away from the ancient shrines, across the line of an old boundary between nations. Until a few weeks before, this line had divided West Jerusalem and Israel from Arab East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Now, after defeat of the Arabs in the Six Day War, Israeli forces occupied the West Bank, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Golan Heights and were redeployed to defend the new frontiers. Bashir and his cousins had thus found it easy to cross the old no-man's-land and into a territory simultaneously old and new. They had trudged in the heat for several miles, down crowded lanes and past stone houses that seemed oddly familiar. Finally the narrow streets had given way to busy, modern avenues, where the West Jerusalem bus station had come into view.

Bashir and his cousins hurried across the concrete terminal floor, past the station agents pushing tickets through metal bars, past the kiosk selling candies, gum, and newspapers in a language they could not recognize. On the platforms at the far end of the terminal stood buses bound for lands they had only heard about: the forests in the north; the southern deserts; the coastal plain. The three men held their tickets to al-Ramla and hurried toward platform ten, where their bus, painted in waves of aqua and white, was ready to take them home.


The young woman sat alone at the kitchen table. Sunlight streamed in through the south-facing windows of the stone house. The morning was clear, Dalia Eshkenazi remembered, and the quiet would have been broken only by her sips from a steaming mug of tea or the crunch of her teeth on black bread spread thick with Bulgarian cheese.

In recent days, life in Dalia's home and her hometown of Ramla had returned to normal-as normal as could be expected, at least, in the Israel of 1967. The air raid sirens had at last fallen silent, and Dalia's parents were back at work. Dalia, on summer break from Tel Aviv University, now had time to contemplate her emotions of the last few months.

First had come the unbearable tension and the trauma before the six days of war. Alien voices broadcasting from Cairo told her people to go back where they came from or be pushed into the sea. Some Israelis thought the threats were funny, but for Dalia, who had grown up amid the silence of unspeakable atrocities, it was impossible to fully express the depths of fear these threats awakened. For a month before the war, it had felt to her that the end was coming. "Not just the disintegration of the state, but the end of us as a people," Dalia remembered. Alongside this fear was a determination, born from the Holocaust, "to never again be led like sheep to the slaughter."

Late on the first night of war, Dalia learned that Israel had destroyed the enemy's air force. She knew then that the outcome of the war was essentially decided. Dalia believed God had a hand in Israel's survival and compared her own feeling of awe and wonder with the feeling she imagined her ancestors had when witnessing the parting of the Red Sea.

Dalia's parents had never been religious. They had grown up in Bulgaria, married in 1940, survived a pro-Nazi government, and moved to Israel after the war. Dalia was eleven months old when she arrived. Dalia's family had been spared the atrocities in Bulgaria by acts of goodwill from Christians she was raised to admire and remember. Now, she believed her people had a destiny on the land of Israel. This was partly why she believed what she had been told: The Arabs who lived in her house, and in hundreds of other stone homes in her city, had simply run away.


The 1965 Leyland Royal Tiger let out a low rumble, then a burst of exhaust, as the bus driver downshifted to descend the hills west of Jerusalem. Inside sat the three cousins, riding toward their hometown. They had boarded the bus in prior agreement not to sit together. First, this would eliminate the temptation to speak to one another, thus reducing any suspicion among the other passengers about their identity. By sitting apart, each cousin could also have a window seat, to take in every inch of the journey home. They sat three in a row, absorbing the scenery.

Bashir wasn't sure if he wanted the trip to go quickly or slowly. If it went quickly, he would be in al-Ramla sooner; but if time slowed down, he could more fully take in each bend, each landmark, each piece of his own history.

The bus roared up the curving highway toward the crest of the famous hilltop at Qastal; here, a great Arab commander had fallen in battle nineteen years earlier, breaking the back of his people's army and opening the road to the Holy City for the enemy. Beyond the hilltop, Bashir could see stone minarets of the mosque at Abu Ghosh, one of the few Arab villages that remained standing on the road between Jerusalem and the sea. The village leaders had collaborated with the enemy here, and their village had been spared; Bashir looked upon Abu Ghosh's minarets with mixed feelings.

The Royal Tiger sped down the hillside, easing up as the mountain walls closed in, then opened to a broad valley below. Eight centuries earlier, Bashir's Arab ancestors had battled the Christian invaders in hand-to-hand combat, repelling them for a time. Along the roadside, Bashir looked out the window to see the burned carcasses of vehicles blown up nineteen years earlier, in a more recent war, and the wreaths and fading flowers laid alongside them. The Israelis who placed these wreaths here were honoring what they called their War of Independence; to Bashir this same event was known as the Nakba, or "Catastrophe."

The bus entered the valley, slowed, turned right onto a narrow highway bisecting rows of irrigated wheat fields, and angled up a low rise. As they passed near Latrun, Bashir suddenly recalled a journey made in haste and fear two decades earlier. The details were elusive; he was trying to remember the stories from when he was six years old, events he had brooded about nearly every day for the last nineteen years.

Bashir glanced at his seatmate-an Israeli man absorbed in his book. Looking out the window meant nothing to this man, Bashir thought. Perhaps he'd seen it so many times. Decades later, Bashir would recall feeling jealous of the man's inattention to the landscape.

The bus hit a bump-it was the railroad crossing. Simultaneously, the three cousins experienced a familiar sensation, grooved into memory by a repetition two decades distant. Bashir and his cousins knew they had arrived in al-Ramla.


Dalia finished rinsing the morning dishes, wiped her hands on a towel, and walked to the kitchen doorway, which opened onto the garden. In recent days, since the end of the war, she had been carrying on a silent dialogue with God that she began as a child. Why, she thought, would You allow Israel to be saved during the Six Day War, yet not prevent genocide during the Holocaust? Why would You empower Israel's warriors to vanquish its enemies, yet stand by while my people were branded and slaughtered a generation earlier?

For a child, it was difficult to comprehend the trauma of the people who surrounded her. Only after probing could Dalia begin to understand. She had asked her mother: How were the people branded? Did they stand in line? Did it hurt? Why would anyone do these things? Over the years, Dalia's curiosity would fuel her empathy. It helped her understand the silence of the children she grew up with-children she would invite home after school and try to cheer up with her elaborate skits and solo performances in the garden.

Through the doorway, Dalia looked out at the jacaranda tree her father had planted amid the flower beds. As a girl, Dalia had loved to water the deep red Queen Elizabeth roses, with their overwhelming perfume. Near the jacaranda stood the lemon tree. Another family had planted that tree; it was already bearing fruit when Dalia and her parents arrived nearly nineteen years earlier. Dalia was aware she had grown up in an Arab house, and sometimes she wondered about the previous residents. Had children lived here? How many? How old? In school Dalia had learned that the Arabs had fled like cowards, with their hot soup still steaming on the table. As a younger child, she hadn't questioned this story, but the older she got, the less sense it made: Why would anyone voluntarily leave such a beautiful house?


Bashir, Yasser, and Ghiath emerged from the bus into a hot, glaring world at once bizarre and familiar. They could see the old municipality building, and the town cinema, and the edge of the neighborhood where they were raised. But none of the streets seemed familiar, at least not at first; they all had new names. Most of the old buildings were covered with brightly colored signs in blocky, indecipherable Hebrew lettering. On some of the building archways, the remnants of the original flowing Arabic cursive remained.

Suddenly Yasser, the eldest, spotted something he knew: the old neighborhood butcher's shop. He quickly walked inside, his cousins following, and threw his arms around the butcher, kissing both his cheeks in the customary way of the Arabs. "Abu Mohammad!" Yasser shouted in glee. "Don't you recognize me? Habibi, my dear friend, I recognize you! We meet again!"

The Jewish butcher couldn't have been more startled. Abu Mohammad had left many years before. "You are right, habibi," the man told Yasser, stammering awkwardly in the language of his visitor. "Once there was Abu Mohammad. Now, no more Abu Mohammad. Now, Mordechai!" The butcher invited his guests to stay for kebab, but the cousins were too stunned by the man's true identity and too distracted by their own mission to accept his offer of food. They walked out, flustered.

"You were pretending you know everything here!" Ghiath teased his older cousin as they left the shop. "You don't know anything here!"

The three men turned a corner and found themselves in the quieter streets of the neighborhood where they once played. They felt at ease and happy, and they forgot their earlier admonitions about speaking to one another and conversed openly in their mother tongue.

They came upon Yasser's house and approached the door; Yasser stepped forward to knock. A woman in her forties came out, looking at them strangely. "Please," said Yasser, "all we want is to see the house we lived in before."

The woman grew agitated. "If you don't leave the house, I will call the police!" she screamed. The cousins tried to calm her, explaining their purpose. The woman continued shouting, taking a step forward and shoving them back. Neighbors began opening their doors. Eventually the cousins realized they might soon find themselves in trouble with the local authorities, and they retreated in haste.

Yasser drifted along in a silent daze. "It was as if he had no soul," Bashir recalled. "He was a walking body, nothing more."

"I cannot accept such a feeling," Yasser said finally. "It is something that I really cannot bear."

Soon they came upon the house where Ghiath had grown up. Outside was a large sign they couldn't read and a guard armed with a machine gun. The two-story stone house was now a school. The guard told the men to wait while he went inside, and a moment later the principal came out and invited them in for tea. She introduced herself; her name was Shulamit. She told them they could walk through the rooms when the class period ended, and she left them in her office to wait.

There they sat, silently sipping their tea. Ghiath removed his glasses and wiped his eyes. He put them back on and tried to look cheerful. "I can't control my feelings," he whispered.

"I know," Bashir said quietly. "I understand."

When the principal returned, she invited them to tour the house. They did so, Ghiath crying the whole time.

After their visit they left the house and walked in the direction of Bashir's old home. No one could remember exactly where it was. Bashir recalled that it had both a front door and a back door that faced a side street. It had a front gate with a bell, a flowering fitna, or plumeria, tree in the front yard, and a lemon tree in the back. After walking in circles in the heat, Bashir realized he'd found the house. He heard a voice from somewhere deep inside himself: This is your home.

Bashir and his cousins approached the house. Everything depended on the reception, Bashir told himself. You can't know what the outcome will be, especially after what had happened to Yasser. "It depends," he said, "who is on the other side of the door."


Dalia sat in a plain wooden chair on the back veranda of the only home she had ever known. She had no special plan for today. She could catch up on her summer reading for the university, where she studied English literature. Or she could peer contentedly into the depths of the jacaranda tree, as she had done countless times before.


Bashir stood at the metal gate, looking for the bell. How many times, he wondered, did his mother, Zakia, walk through this same gate? How many times did his father, Ahmad, pass by, coming home tired from work, rapping his knuckles on the front door in his special knock of arrival?

Bashir Khairi reached for the bell and pressed it.


Excerpted from The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan Copyright © 2006 by Sandy Tolan. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 69 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
required reading for anyone who wants to gain a better understanding of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.The book is the extraordinarily moving story of two families on each side of the conflict, who managed to appreciate and respect each other's humanity..I could not put it down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A terrific exploration of the palestinian israeli situation put in such a way that one sees the human beeings involved not just the politics.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"The Lemon Tree" was the right book at the right time for me. This year in late February, I came back from my second pilgrimage to the Holy Land convinced that I was woefully ignorant of the history of Palestine since the late 1900's. I knew I had some work to do. This book helped provide a good outline of that history, and did so in ways I found unique. First, the history is given in the context of the personal and family histories of two people, Dalia, an Israeli Jewish woman, and Bashir, an Arab Muslim man. In 1967 Dalia was a 19 year-old college student living in Ramla (al-Ramla in spoken Arabic), Israel, and Bashir was a 26 year-old lawyer living in Ramallah, the West Bank. Dalia and Bashir met at the house in Ramla where they both spent some of their childhoods, but at different times. Why Bashir was no longer living in the house of his childhood represents the heart of the conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. The second feature of "The Lemon Tree" which is different from other books which cover the same history is that Dalia's family were refugees from Bulgaria. The other materials I have read did not mention the emigration of Bulgarian Jews. Before I read "The Lemon Tree," I knew nothing about Bulgaria's treatment of the Jews in World War II. Bulgaria found ways to keep their Jewish citizens out of Hitler's death camps. Their emigration proved to be important to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. The book ends in 2005. I came away disheartened at the intractability of the conflict and yet deeply moved at the humanity of these two people who over a thirty-eight year period tried again and again to understand each other's perspective. They even found ways to make a little difference for peace in what they did with "their" house. There are many Dalia's and Bashir's in Israel/Palestine. That gives me hope. I closed the book wondering how Dalia and Bashir are doing now, hoping they are well.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This well reviewed book was historically well documented and convinces the reader that it is accurate. Classified as a novel, there is little story until page 149 or so. The story is lovely, moving, and thought provoking but if the reader wants history, I'd suggest reading history. Many are more clearly written than this.
The_hibernators More than 1 year ago
Fantastic history and engaging biography Ostensibly, this is the (true) biography of the friendship between the Israeli woman Dalia Eshkenazi and the Palestinian man Bashir Khairi. However, the book also focuses strongly on background information--providing a wonderful history of the Israel-Palestine conflict since the 1940's. I was hugely pleased by this book for two reasons. First, the friendship between Dalia and Bashir was touching because they both had such strong nationalistic feelings. Somehow, despite their very different views, they were able to remain on good terms for many years. That's touching to me because many books with this let's-make-peace message tend to be about people who are all about love and peace and aren't as strongly influenced by their negative emotions as Dalia and (especially) Bashir. This is a friendship that was difficult to maintain, and yet it prevailed. The second reason I loved this book is because of the wonderful history of the region it provided. It's supposedly a "balanced" view--and it is, in the sense that it recommends justice (and sacrifice) be made by both sides. However, I'd say the book tended to be sympathetic towards to Palestinians. This SLIGHT bias is necessary in this case because many people in the Western world are over-exposed to the Israeli side and don't realize the Palestinians have a side at all. This book is highly recommended to anyone interested in the conflict.
curious100 More than 1 year ago
This book opens a window on the Middle East conflict by putting it in human terms. A friend gave it to me more than a year ago and I couldn't put it down; it's enlightening and absorbing. It has since become the lens through which I view new developments in the ME. I've given the book to several friends, who have also found it to be a touchstone on ME issues. The main story traces the stories of two families - one Arab and one Jewish. Their stories control the storyline. The author, Sandy Tolan, provides historical and political information as context for the main story making the well-researched story captivating rather than dry. It does offer perspectives, drawn from the experiences of two people - one from each family, who engage in a decades-long conversation. But it is not didactic and preachy. It is an enlightening book that has stayed with me since I read it more than a year ago.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this for a book club -- so it wasn't a book that I just picked up because it looked intriguing. It prompted a great (if uncomfortable) conversation. However, when reading it I found that I had mixed feelings. There are sections that read like a pure history lesson and were very slow. They provided important context, but I can't say that I enjoyed them. I felt like I was reading a class assignment. The sections talking about the two families were much more compelling to me. The book provides information and a perspective that isn't completely in line with the typical American view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was an eye-opener. It also left me feeling rather hopeless about a resolution.
AER More than 1 year ago
Tolan in this book does a marvelous job of weaving an accurate and concise history of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict with the human face of the tragedy. He selects a survivor of the Holocaust of European Jewry in World War II and a Palestinian family and one of its sons who lost everything in the 1948 War when Israel was reestablished. He traces the encounter of these two protagonists to the present. He writes on how they changed and suffered. The lemon tree in the Palestinian home now lived in by the Jewish family is the central heartbreaking metaphor for the entire book. It should be required reading for all people wno want to understand the conflict. AER
lefty68 More than 1 year ago
Having been familiar with some of the recent literature dealing with the Israeli/Arab conflict, I found this book to be absorbing, informative and unbiased in its approach. I could not put it down once I started reading it ot find out how it ended. I hope that many will read this book and hopefully gain a better understanding of the tragedies on both sides and hopefully work to solve some of these differences.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I think this book is a fantastic read. It held my attention and made me want to learn more about the region and its peoples. This book does a great job in revealing the formation of Israel and the displacement of the Palestinean peoples. This book does not replace the comprehensiveness of a text book - but it does give history a heart and is a fantastic supplement.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Thanks of Dr. Kevin Boyle suggestion, I read THE LEMON TREE: AN ARAB AND JEW IN THE HEAR OF THE MIDDLE EAST. I cried. The Jews for over two thousand years have been pushed from nation to nation. Jews, you liv handed here with these restrictions Yes, I could understand that one Jew could understand what it meant to be homeless espeically after the Holocaust. How one Jew and one Arab tried to make a difference The Lemon Tree gives shade and fruit to all without asking about religion or race. A Lemon Tree could become a symoble for new understanding. Drinking lemonade under its shade perhaps difference can be forgotten and a new future will take shape.
Anonymous 5 months ago
Opened my mind to Palestinians’ perspective and historical ties to their land. Fair, equal, right, wrong are explored in the lifetime of sharing between two political enemies with ties that bind them.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wow keep writeing
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a detailed story of the history of the modern Israel/Palistine conflict told in the form of a historical novel. I would have liked more character developement and story line rather than such a thorough explanation of the events but the book has helped me understand the conflict and the reasons why peace is so difficult to acheive. I particularly like that there is no real bias toward either side and I come away with sadness and compassion for both sides.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
huckfinn37 More than 1 year ago
The Lemon Tree isn't a lemon. It is an good book. It is a fair minded book that leaves readers with both sides of the story. I hope someday that there will be peace. However, I am not sure that there will ever be peace. The Lemon Tree gave me much to ponder about the Middle East. I am glad that the book ended with the replanting of a lemon tree because it gave me hope.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was not a book that I could sit down and read for a long time but I am glad I took the time to read it. It was recommended by 3 different people whose opinion I respect so I figured it was worth the time. It will give you a new perspective of the Israel / Palestine conflict.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Octlow More than 1 year ago
A great book that follows the lives of 2 individuals (Dalia Ashkenazi and Bashir Al-Khayri), their families, and a common home they both lived in at different times. The book begins with the year of 1948 in Palestine in the town of al-Ramla (later referenced as Ramla by Jewish inhabitants) and Israel’s Independence e or in the Palestinian view, called the Catastrophe. Bashir and his family had resided in al-Ramla for 12 centuries until 1948 when they were forced from their homes, shoved to a refugee camp and continue to reside to this very day. Dalia Ashkenazi is a newborn, a refugee from Bulgaria that immigrates with her parents to Palestine during the Zionist Movement. Consequently the home in al-Ramla one day occupied by Bashir Al-Khayri and his parents and siblings, in 1948 becomes the possession of Dalia Ashkenazi and her family which they occupy. I felt this is one of the first books that has given an open and unbiased look at the history and conflict of the birth of Israel as an independent state. I was also left with the feeling that there will never be a resolution to this situation. And finally I was struck by the ruthless and viciousness of Israel and its people. Once you read the book you may notice that the Palestinians since 1948 have been treated the same way as the Jews were treated by Nazi’s during WW II. Very sad summary of a peoples group.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago