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Write On Ottawa: Novel set in West Bank impresses

By Alejandro Bustos on November 26, 2015

51NjX7Kca0L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_While relatively new to the literary scene in Ottawa-Gatineau, Deux Voiliers Publishing from Aylmer, Quebec has already developed a reputation for releasing good books.

Of the more than 20 authors that they have published, however, a strong case can be made that Wall of Dust by Timothy Niedermann is among the best works in their catalogue.

Released earlier this year, this beautifully written novel looks at the human cost of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The story begins with heartbreak when Aisha, a school teacher in the West Bank, sees a dozen of her young students being killed by an Israeli attack gone wrong. (The Israeli helicopter involved in the assault was aiming for Palestinian militants that had previously launched a rocket attack against Israel near the school).

Distraught with grief, Aisha decides to walk towards the eight-metre concrete wall that separates Israel from the West Bank. Thus begins a symbolic ritual of throwing stones against the wall to remember her dead students.

Watching from a military post is Zev, an Israeli sharp shooter who is trying to make sense of what Aisha is doing. Other residents in Aisha’ West Bank village, meanwhile, begin to join her in throwing rocks.

Word soon spreads about the daily ritual, drawing the attention of numerous political leaders, including Islamic militants who unsuccessfully try to co-opt the school teacher into their cause.

But what do Aisha’s actions signify? Do they really offer hope, or are her actions akin to the endless struggle of Sisyphus?

“Yes, there is a lot that is Sisyphean about Aisha and her ritual at the wall. It is a very apt comparison,” says Niedermann in an email interview. “But what I hope the ending conveys is that though her ritual will continue, it has changed and in that change is the prospect that someday the ritual will not be necessary.”

The possibility of a bright future, however, is at best ambiguous. What is much clearer is how Aisha is seen by many characters as a blank canvas on which they can paint their own dreams, fears and attempts to understand the world.

Timothy Niedermann

Timothy Niedermann

The Palestinian authorities, for instance, see her as a tool to advance their cause. Many villagers use her ritual as a way to deal with their own grief. Israeli military officials, meanwhile, first find her stone throwing amusing before becoming concerned about her actions.

The one common thread among all of the characters, however, is that they are all engaged in a struggle. This can be highlighted by comparing Aisha with Zev.

“Aisha’s struggle is with despair and madness, the shattering of all her hopes by the missile — and with the possibility that hope may not be able to exist at all where she lives,” says Niedermann, who has taught writing at Yale and McGill.

“Zev is more focused on being a soldier, and thus on a tangible struggle, but he is still torn by the contradictions of being an Israeli . . . [W]anting to believe in what Israel is supposed to stand for (security and solidarity in a Jewish homeland, and his pride in defending that homeland) yet recognizing the pervasively contradictory, even hypocritical reality of Israeli society.

“The connection between Aisha and Zev is, indeed, their painful situation, but the deliberate irony is that the wall (and what it represents — the separation of Palestinians from Israelis on all levels) prevents any mutual effort to deal with their situation.”

Wall of Dust is an impressive first novel by Niedermann and another feather in Deux Voiliers’ cap. Niedermann tells Apartment613 that he recently started two new novels, and has decided to concentrate on one them as his next project. If his second novel is anything like his first, then readers are in for a treat.