CHICAGO: Outside of Nablus, in the village of Deir Sabra, lives Philistia with her mother and siblings in Ahlam Bsharat’s novel “Trees for the Absentees.” Her father sits in an Israeli prison, where he has been for five years, as Philistia attempts to move forward with life, studying at Al-Quds Open University while working at a hammam in Nablus. Her job helps to keep her mind occupied away from the uncertainty of tomorrow.
Philistia is a strange name, according to Bsharat’s main character, and she is no ordinary girl. She lives somewhere between reality and imagination. Her spirit is as free as her mind and she places great emphasis on remembering what her Grandma Zahia’s wisdom has taught her.
Award-winning author Bsharat is able to pull readers into a novel that moves delicately between a young woman growing up, the occupation that looms overhead, and the historical struggle to keep and hold on to Palestine. She weaves spirituality and religion in a realistic way to ground her main character’s life. The struggle of her characters does not only come from those who are not physically present, but the circumstances that their absence leaves behind.
Exploring her ever-evolving mind while also giving time to the ghosts she occasionally sees, Philistia is able to explore the history of the land and how it repeats itself. She is inquisitive, that is why her mind can explore places that aren’t always obvious to others. With the delicate translation by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp and Sue Copeland, Philistia sees her country and her life through ghosts, questions, and her imagination. Weaving history and the present together helps propel her into the future where she does not live in black and white, where she knows that she’s had to grow up too fast, but where she will continue to plant trees for the absentees while she can.