Thafer Allam is the perfect colleague: intuitive, discreet, likable and understated. Any other combination of character traits would have created an overbearing personality in this story of ethnic longing and homecoming. But when Allam, a widower with four children, elects to leave his high-powered law firm in the United States to take a temporary job as counsel to the Arab oil-producing states, his employers wish him well even as they ardently count on his return.
Visions of Palestinian terrorists conjured up in the American news and entertainment media notwithstanding, you cannot help but be on this gentle character's side as he boards the plane for a return to the unknown. He was only 15 when, uprooted from his Palestinian village, he began to make his way in the world alone. He is not sure what he will find on a quest that takes tangible shape only in his expressed wish to visit his long-lost mother. What the reader finds is a human sojourn so sympathetic that even the Jewish author Milton Viorst describes this work as shedding the "warm light of understanding on the tragedy that has befallen the Palestinian people in our time."
Scattered Like Seeds is compelling from the first page, when Allam flashes back to boyhood memories of British soldiers waking his mother and siblings in the middle of the night. They tore the place apart looking for terrorists. This, of course, was back in the 1930s, before President Harry Truman transferred imperial ownership of the Zionist dream to the United States. The terrified boy later heard his parents arguing over whether to stay or go, when armored cars full of armed Jews drove by their home, warning over loudspeakers that those who stayed would meet the same fate as the residents of Deir Yassin. The very name of that doomed village inspired unspeakable fear: Armed Zionists had blindfolded and executed the residents down to the last child. The bodies were doused with gasoline and set ablaze. Allam has never spoken of these horrors to his children and rarely spoke of them to his late wife, Mary Pat, whom he had met and married shortly after reaching America. But at midlife, memories come rushing back, along with vague longings to revisit the past.
What keeps the book from being merely a folk tale or transparent vehicle to inform about Israeli injustice to the Palestinians is its sophistication. Dallal brings to bear his insights into the way adults behave in the workplace, leaving the reader with a richness far beyond the unadorned prose. Subtexts of every exchange are subtly brought to light with all of their sexual, emotional or Machiavellian tensions.
At the time of his return, Allam has been away from the Middle East for decades. No mere pleasure trip this. His destination is not the streets and villages he knows. The offices of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) are in the center of the city of Kuwait. The atmosphere is formal, almost contrived, like a royal court. No doubt the various ministers gathering from their oil-rich states fancy themselves the equals of royalty.
Allam's position in Kuwait mirrors author Dallal's own experience as legal counsel to OAPEC. Diplomacy in the extreme is required as he picks his way around the land mines of office politics, not to mention international policy blowouts. Simultaneously, Allam meets up with some of his relatives, who also tax his considerable reserves of discretion as they pressure him to abandon America. Return to your true home, they whisper, evoking memories of his father, a celebrated Arab resistance fighter.
Allam's internal battles are never far from the action as he struggles to explain America's role to Arabs who will never understand, all while wondering if he himself will ever understand whether he belongs in America or here. A pivotal moment occurs at the border with Israel when he attempts the visit with his mother. He is stripped, humiliated, rebuffed. Once again the Israelis change the pattern of his life.
Later, when his children join him, daughter Kathleen demands to know why he withheld the details of his boyhood from them. He grapples with his thoughts and can only grope awkwardly for words: "Tell her the truth, he admonishes himself. Tell her about your feelings of guilt, about your desire to be Americanized, about your sense of shame for your own people, and about the confusion you had about the person you wanted to be." The eyes of his children are on him. The Arab woman in Kuwait he has grown to love has her eyes on the fight for the homeland. Psychological dramas like these allow Dallal to weave discussions of politics and international relations into the background.
This sensitive novel can be enjoyed on many levels, despite its over-reliance on dialogue almost to the exclusion of description. Not even a shallow understanding of the Middle East conflict is necessary to follow the plot because the story unfolds unwaveringly from Allam's point of view. Those who enjoy seeing Israelis always as the good guys, Arabs always the villains, may feel their blood pressure going up as the Palestinian viewpoint, for once, gets center stage.
For all that the Middle East is the essential backdrop of this tale, the book is also the launching of Shaw J. Dallal as a writer. He is, like his central character, a quiet observer whose senses, including the sixth, are always recording. This first novel, written from the heart, is autobiographical in tone and in some of its details -well worth sampling, as authentic as the Palestinian dress of embroidered linen that Allam uses to disguise an abused American wife he smuggles out of Kuwait at the book's end. You are left with the feeling that he smuggles his memories out of his homeland and from the deep recesses of his mind. The act makes for a quietly compelling political novel.