Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
Wall of Dust is an exemplary work of contemporary fiction that merits the broadest of readerships.
Set against today’s Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Timothy Niedermann’s first novel brings understanding at the basic human level to events too often recorded with partisanship. His protagonist Aisha loses twelve of her young students when an Israeli attack helicopter misses its intended target and destroys the village school. Unable to come to grips with her grief, she one day walks to the eight-metre-high concrete wall separating the West Bank from Israel. There below an Israeli army observation post, she begins her “ritual.” Twelve stones, each with a name, and the thirteenth with none. “Ahmad,” she whispers as she timidly throws the first stone against the wall. “Nassim,” she says louder—her second stone more forcefully strikes the wall, releasing a small cloud of dust. “Layann”—a small chip marks the concrete. Nine stones later, the behemoth is still there—its surface barely blemished. As she turns to walk toward her village, Zev, a bewildered young Israeli sharpshooter, follows her in his rifle’s cross-hairs and breathes a sigh of relief when she disappears into the orchards.
When other villagers begin to watch the ritual out of concern for Aisha’s safety, she attempts to drive them off. Her thirteen stones are hers alone to throw—her pupils to name, their deaths to mourn. But when the fathers of the dead children appear at the wall, she cannot refuse their grief. She begins “Ahmad,” a chip from the wall, particles in the air. The fathers follow, naming the dead child and hurling their stones in unison. And in the chorus of bereavement, each father hears his child’s name spoken. With the passing days, more villagers join the ritual. More grains of sorrow are expunged in the rising dust.
Aisha’s actions cannot escape the attention of the belligerents. Zev readies his weapon each time she approaches the wall and only lowers it when she leaves. Dani, the post’s commander, files a daily report on Aisha’s ritual. Palestinian security men begin to watch the daily pilgrimage from a safe distance, beyond the range of Zev's rifle. And the Islamic resistance assigns one of its most trusted militants, Hussein, to investigate the phenomenon.
The Israeli security services are first amused by the reports from the observation post. But when Aisha’s daily ritual attracts the attention of the Israeli media, they decide to act. The Palestinian Authority attempts to recruit Aisha for propaganda purposes and offers her protection. Hussein is tasked to dissuade Aisha from leading the village’s men in stone-throwing when his leadership decide that her actions are inappropriate for a young Muslim woman, indeed even blasphemous. Women should not lead men, and stones against a wall are a pathetic act when armed struggle is called for—so they decide. Aisha resists her aggressors, refuses her would-be protectors, and rebukes Hussein’s entreaties to stay at home, and when her detractors threaten her, the village rallies behind her.
Wall of Dust is a multi-faceted novel. On the political level, it is uncompromising in its message of unarmed resistance to oppression, both from the Israeli occupation and from Islamic fundamentalism. On the social level, the novel washes away the stereotypes of the belligerents in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And on the humanist level, it envelops the readers in the dust of the wall, a subtle allusion to transitory human existence.
Aisha’s opponents and followers are “real,” both in their flaws and common humanity. All, whether Israeli or Palestinian, are marked by their upbringings and shaped by their fears, and anger. Amidst them stands Aisha, remarkably pure in her inconsolable grief, courageous in her simple unbending protest against the death of innocents.
Wall of Dust is not a work of fiction to be treated lightly. And it will stir controversy. However, it is a powerful allegory, which will hopefully change how readers see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Wall of Dust is published by Deux Voiliers Publishing, and will be launched on June 6, 2015 at the Prose in the Park Literary Festival and Book Fair in Ottawa. Its author, Timothy Niedermann, will also be on the In the Crosshairs (literary fiction) panel, moderated by Susan Delacourt of the Toronto Star.