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The Old Ladies of Nazareth

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 25.02.2006:

This Week in Palestine

March 2005

By Naim Attallah Quartet Books, London, 2004,

This is a lyrical tale of powerful simplicity, which reads like a fable. It is the moving story of two wonderful old ladies who lived in the Holy Land, in the biblical small town of Nazareth in the 1940s. Wardeh and Jamileh are sisters – one is a widow, the other a spinster. They live frugally and carefully in tune with their surroundings, adapting to the rhythms of nature to eke out a living. Following the Allied victory in Europe, unrest over the founding of a Jewish state in Palestine boils up once more. Wardeh’s grandson, ‘the boy’ as he is referred to throughout the book, is sent from Haifa to Nazareth, then considered a haven from the hostilities, to live with his grandmother and great-aunt. He quickly becomes the object of their love and care and their raison d’être. Wardeh has a difficult relationship with her son, who was very short-tempered and quick to deal a blow to whoever was in front of him when he was angry, including his children. He thus instilled fear and apprehension in those around him and who tried to avoid him whenever possible.

In his poignant and touching autobiographical portrait, Naim Attallah captures the sisters’ courage and loving kindness, as well as the purity of their existence. He evokes a way of life in a small Palestinian town that is fast becoming a thing of the past.

Attallah is an astute Palestinian-born businessman, publisher and film producer, known in particular for his flamboyance and love of beauty. The Old Ladies of Nazareth – an appetizer for the sequel, The Boy in England – reveals a man who is unpretentious and humane. He is appreciated by many as a man who nurtures and encourages the talents of others.

His is something of a rags-to-riches story. Attallah went to England aged 18 “with a shilling in his pocket.” He had to quit his engineering studies for lack of funds; the Home Office said he could only stay in the country provided he find unskilled work. So he became a steeplejack at a power station which was, “very dangerous and frightening.” He went on to work in the City as a foreign exchange dealer, then a banker.

Although motivated by desire for success and money, he also wanted to do something creative, believing that people are more important than profit. Attallah achieved his lifelong ambition of becoming a publisher in 1976 when he took over Quartet Books. He was one of the first publishers to establish a ‘Middle East & Africa’ list. Controversial titles like Tony Clifton & Catherine Leroy’s God Cried (about the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which caused a furor) and Jonathan Dimblely & Donald McCullin’s The Palestinians, or novels by then-unknowns Amin Maalouf, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Naguib Mahfouz and Hanan Al-Shaykh, were published alongside Julian Barnes, Dennis Potter, Maeve Binchy, Alethea Hayter, Diana Athill, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Leni Riefenstahl, Derek Jarman and Philip Mansel.

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