By Wendy Thomas
“Mother of Strangers” (2022) by Suad Amiry begins with a girl and a suit. Subhi, a 15-year-old mechanic, has dreams of someday marrying Shams, the beautiful 13-year-old daughter of one of the workers in his father’s orange groves.
The suit, of the finest English wool and costing more than he could hope to save over many years, is a gift from a grateful customer that Subhi intends to wear at his wedding. This coming-of-age novel is based on a true story of a young man, his family, his friends and his true love set in 1947-1948 in the ancient city of Jaffa in what was then Palestine.
The volatile political climate at the end of the British Mandate and the implementation of Partition forms the backdrop, as well as dictates the circumstances of the story. Gifted in the repair of all things mechanical, Subhi is called in to fix the irrigation at the orange grove of one of the town’s most wealthy and powerful men after many other attempts at repair have failed.
In return, he receives the custom-made suit that he imagines will open up his world in ways previously unimaginable. He takes a day off of work to pick up the suit and wears it on a tour of places he wouldn’t have access to while wearing his everyday clothes, like upscale cafes and intellectual haunts. Throughout the book, the suit is always first and foremost in his mind, second only to his love for Shams.
At the month-long festival of Mawsim il Nabi Rubin the previous year, Subhi saw Shams for the first time and he has thought of little else ever since. He even keeps a picture of a bride taped above his toolbox to remind him of his dream of marriage. Complicating matters, though, is the fact that Shams comes from the peasant class, and Subhi knows his middle-class family will object to his marrying her.
With il Nabi Rubin upon them again, Subhi befriends Shams’ brother and strategically finds ways to spend time with her, eventually sharing a first kiss. As the official start of Partition approaches, however, Arab Palestinians flee in unprecedented numbers, including Subhi’s mother and sisters along with Shams and her family. What follows is Subhi’s quest to find Shams, reunite with his family and hold onto his suit while navigating the civil war unfolding in his country.
With doses of humor mixed in with the emotionally impactful losses, this is a book that evokes a lot of feelings. Deftly navigating the political landscape of the time, the author doesn’t shy away from political commentary, but it takes a back seat to the stories of the characters.
The portrayal of life during that turbulent time and place in history makes this a great read for Arab-American Heritage Month. Stop by the Smiley Branch Library in April for more books and activities celebrating Arab Americans.
Wendy Thomas is a librarian at the Smiley Branch Library. When not reading or recommending books, you can find her hiking with her dogs.