25th Trillium Award

On Writing, with Michael Riordon

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Michael Riordon

Michael Riordon, a resident of Prince Edward County, is a talented author of non-fiction books. His most recently published book is Our Way to Fight (Between the Lines), which tells the story of non-violent activists on both sides of the Israel-Palestine wall, seeking to offer solutions to create a liveable future in the area. Using his knowledge and experience, Michael uses Our Way to Fight as a way to speak out. Today, Michael tells Open Book about his new book, reveals how he became involved in Israeli/Palestinian peace efforts, explains the experience that will always stay with him and tells us about how fear was his greatest challenge when writing the book.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Our Way to Fight.

Michael Riordon:

Our Way to Fight emerges from a journey to see what grounds for a just peace I could find in Israel-Palestine. The book documents creative grassroots organizing on both sides of the wall. In thousand-year-old olive groves, besieged villages and checkpoints, we follow closely the lives and work of non-violent activists: crises that stirred them to act, inspired campaigns to transcend the wall and the military occupation, risks taken, small victories.

Still, the Palestinians remain under brutal siege. The people in charge talk and spin, but offer nothing new. Quietly but insistently, Our Way to Fight offers tenuous paths to a liveable future.


How did you become involved with the Israeli/Palestinian peace efforts?


Much of my work explores the worlds of people who live and die beneath official notice. Each voice challenges the loud monotone of the official version, and honours the riotous diversity of human life.

In 2001, I met an Israeli anthropologist from Jerusalem. As she evolved from observer to activist at home, she became my first trusted guide to the tormented land that many call holy. Learning more, I wanted to know more. Eventually I needed to go see for myself, to see beyond the wall that arrests vision. Then, as the Indian writer Arundhati Roy says, ?The trouble is that once you see it, you can't unsee it. And once you've seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out.?

Our Way to Fight is my way to speak out, my way to fight.


What was the experience of researching this book like? How much time did you spend "on the ground", and how did you make connections with the people you interview?


The book emerges from four years of intensive exploration, two journeys through occupied Palestine and Israel by train, bus, van and foot, and encounters with more than 60 extra/ordinary people building foundations for a just, enduring peace. I reached people through their networks, where if you earn the trust of one, often they will connect you to others.

As it happens with each of my books, the research process was one of continual revelation. As most people do in North America, I grew up absorbing the official version of the Middle East: brave little Israel surrounded by Arab terrorists. What I found instead were people, on whichever side of the wall they happen to have landed by accidents of birth, just people who insist on seeing and thinking for themselves. Despite the overwhelming persuasive and punitive power of the occupying state, still they refuse its terms: to not know, to not care, to regard The Other as enemy, to accept that there is no alternative, to settle into the easy refuge of cynicism.


Can you describe an experience you had during one of your visits that will always stay with you?


Israeli activist Daphne Banai took me to visit friends of hers, a Palestinian shepherd family in the occupied Jordan Valley. She wanted me to see for myself what very few Israelis ever see, let alone people in the rest of the world. Scorching heat, a curtain of dust, stony fields, concrete slabs with a stark warning from the Israeli military in Arabic, Hebrew and English: ?Danger. Firing zone. No entry.?

The Palestinian shepherds live under a patchwork of old grain sacks and tattered plastic sheets held aloft by a few poles. It has to be portable; since 2002 they have been evicted four times by the army. The Israelis want this land, Daphne tells me, all of it.

One son had just returned from buying water in the village, three hours? drive each way on the ancient tractor. He has to go twice a day. In this place where water is life, Palestinians are forbidden to drill wells.

Another son reported that when he was tending their small flock of sheep on the other side of the settlement a month ago, settlers came with soldiers and beat him. ?Then just for fun,? Daphne translated, ?they surrounded the sheep, making smaller and smaller circles with their jeeps until they ran over three of the sheep.? She added, bitterly, ?For people who have so little, three sheep could be their income for a whole year.?

Whoosh. A grey-white rocket with stubby wings streaked low overhead, disappeared down the valley. I?m the only one who looked up. Another followed, then another. This was the first time I had witnessed remote-controlled drones in action, pilotless aircraft used here for surveillance and bombing.

Under their blank scrutiny, we sat in a pool of shade, drinking sweet, spicy sage tea from small jars. One of the daughters brought us a pair of goat kids, just born, their eyes not yet open. Daphne and I held the small, woolly bodies with improbably long bony legs. Watching us, the children grinned with delight. Except for the youngest, who just watched with a steady gaze.

This girl, now three, was born on one of the nights when soldiers destroyed their dwelling. Her parents named her Sumud. It means endurance, or holding your ground.


What was the biggest challenge in the research and writing of Our Way to Fight, and how did you get around it?


My biggest challenge was fear — my own. Not fear of Palestinians as it turned out, but of countless young, heavily armed Israeli soldiers and police who are everywhere, vividly illustrating the mix of fear and power that fuels a military state.

I got around my fear — or at least kept it in check — by travelling whenever possible with people who knew the ground, and the limits. So, for example, at the Qalandia checkpoint I stayed close to — or rather behind — an Israeli grandmother as she fiercely confronted soldiers harassing Palestinians. When I was on my own, I remained sharply alert, and hoped for the best.


What's next for you?


I?m working on a new book/blog project, Bacon?s Garden. It will explore the deepening fault lines between nature and science, and the dangerous ways in which human power contorts both. I'm pursuing this inquiry through the lives and work of contemporary scientists in several countries who question or challenge the way science has evolved, who controls it, what it generates and at what cost.

Michael Riordon is the author of An Unauthorized Biography of the World: Oral History on the Front Lines, Eating Fire: Family Life on the Queer Side and Out Our Way: Gay and Lesbian Life in Rural Canada (Between the Lines). He has also had numerous articles published and produced award-winning documentaries. He lives in Prince Edward County.

For more information about Our Way to Fight please visit the Between the Lines website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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