Joss Sheldon tenses his stubble-coated cheeks, bobs his chin, and raises his narrow shoulders. The author of ‘Occupied’, whose brown ‘Free Tibet’ hoodie is zipped up to his neck, looks resigned. He takes a sip from his glass of tap water, looks me in the eye, and then tries to answer my question.
“The thing is”, he says. “I visited the Palestinians and I visited the ‘settlers’. I stayed in their homes, spoke to them, shared their concerns and felt their pain. And you know what? They’re not that different. Not that different at all!
“They all want peace and freedom. They all have hopes and dreams. They’re all big on ‘family’ and ‘community’. They’re all so friendly and hospitable you wouldn’t believe it. But they all live in fear of the other. And they’re all one hundred percent sure that they’re in the right”.
Sheldon glances out of the window, shakes his head, and exhales.
“Yet next to no-one sees it”, he continues. “Despite all their similarities, they focus on their differences. Minor differences. Differences of circumstances and birth, nothing more. But differences which blind them, which stop them from uniting, and which enable those with power and money to profit”.
Sheldon is talking about the month he spent in the West Bank whilst researching ‘Occupied’; a genre-busting novel that has been described as ‘magical realism’, ‘historical fiction’, ‘avant-garde’ and ‘dystopian’.
Occupied is based on the occupations of Palestine, Tibet and Kurdistan. But many of the themes which echo throughout the book are universal. These include the sort of divide-and-rule which Sheldon is speaking about.
“I wanted to make the four main characters as similar as possible”, Sheldon explains. “They all look and talk the same way. They all face the same trials and tribulations. But one is a refugee and another is a native. One is a settler and the other is an economic migrant. So they’ve all had different identities imposed upon them. And they all let those identities define them. Like in Palestine, they bicker amongst themselves. And in doing so they ignore the real issues. They all suffer as a result”.
Sheldon’s trip, which also took him to the Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan, inspired whole sections of his book.
“I didn’t want to focus on the big political issues which have been debated to death”, he says. “I wanted human stories. Stories full of hopes and fears, dreams and nightmares. And for that I had to speak to everyday people. I had to experience their lives for myself.
“So, for example, I attended a peaceful political protest organized by ‘Youth Against The Settlements’, who actively oppose the Zionist closure of central Hebron. I felt the fear, the adrenaline-pumping terror that overwhelms you when soldiers start throwing teargas in your direction. And then I saw the kids, the little kids who were just a hundred metres away, playing in the snow as if nothing was happening. It made me realise how normal that sort of thing was. I put it straight in my book”.
Sheldon speaks with quiet compassion. His voice is firm, his speech is slow and ponderous, but his manner is full of empathy. It’s what you might expect from someone whose debut novel, ‘Involution and Evolution’, glorified the conscientious objectors of World War One.
“I love the underdog”, he muses. “The little guy who does what he can against the big military machine, the overwhelming propaganda of the day, and the societal pressures to conform.
“That doesn’t have to be anything major. In Bethlehem, for example, I saw a toddler steal a strawberry from a trader’s table. His mother was about to scold him. But she saw that the strawberries were a product of Israel. So instead of reprimanding her son, she turned to the trader and gave him a dirty look. I presumed it was for funding the people who were occupying her town. At least that’s how I put it in my book! It was a tiny thing, trivial, but it was real, it was personal. That’s the kind of thing I like, the kind of thing I looked for when I visited Palestine and Kurdistan. The kind of thing which fills the pages of Occupied”.
But Israel has one of the biggest armies on the planet, it has international support from every corner of the globe, and a thriving economy. It’s a David versus Goliath situation. Surely, I suggest, a stolen strawberry isn’t going to solve anything.
“Perhaps not”, Sheldon admits. “But that mother’s action would have alleviated her feeling of helplessness. It would have empowered her. And that’s all the people of Palestine can hope for. They can’t go toe-to-toe with the military might of Israel; the Zionists are killing and evicting Palestinians every month as it is. Violence won’t solve anything. So the Palestinians need to be clever. As do the peace-loving Israelis; the 99% of the population who aren’t profiting that much from the occupation, the bloodshed, the ethnic-cleansing or the apartheid. They need to unite. Because if they do, as happened in South Africa, they’ll have the power to change the system. But if they don’t, tragedies will continue to take place each and every day”.
And that’s the dark lesson from ‘Occupied’. Set in the fictional country of Protokia, it follows the evolution of society through three distinct epochs; a halcyon past, everyday present and dystopian future. As individualism crushes communalism, and residents drift further and further apart, freedoms are lost and power is handed over to a small and distant minority.
Sometimes it feels utterly hopeless, but at other times the feint light of optimism comes shining on through.
Sheldon nods. He shrugs his shoulders once more, raises his eyebrows with a mixture of child-like innocence and wizened-resignation, then slowly lifts his glass to his lips.
“Thank-you for interviewing me”, he says. “Peace be upon you”.
‘Occupied’ can be downloaded for free from Joss Sheldon’s official website here: http://joss-sheldon.com/occupied-buy/4590835959