Stephanie Saldana’s A COUNTRY BETWEEN is a love letter to her first son, Joseph, and a chronicle of the years she and her growing family spent living on Nablus Road in Jerusalem. Nablus Road, the “seam” between Palestinian Jerusalem and Israeli Jerusalem, is full of characters and personality, and Saldana beautifully evokes their years living there. She describes a “one-street village with thousands of visitors who pass[ed] through daily,” and brings this cast to life. In one street, there is the world.
Nablus Road is even more than the world – it is all the worlds that have ever been. It was “not so much a single story as it was a palimpsest, cities and eras written over one another in time.” Saldana knows a lot about the history of the Middle East and her sensitive understanding of the region where she lives and the intricate, complicated map of its history animates A COUNTRY BETWEEN. When she describes the various nooks in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, for example, this deep knowledge shines off the page.
This tension – and interplay – between the large and the small is at the heart of A COUNTRY BETWEEN. The book is about huge, sweeping things – religious, historical, and political conflict in the Middle East – and about small, humdrum ones – the details of a marriage and life with young children. In describing both, Saldana makes the case that the tiny is enormous.
Saldana’s own family of origin plays into the story in A COUNTRY BETWEEN also. Her father’s experience facing cancer is defining for her, and I found myself wondering if the title of the book referred not just to a physical place in the world but also a moment in a life: Saldana is in between Palestine and Israel, and also between motherhood and daughterhood. She talks about how “to live in Jerusalem was to be drawn instead into holiness in time” specifically referring to the shifting tectonic plates of the region’s politics and history, but I read it also about the holiness of being a daughter and a mother, of the ways that every day life as an adult can be full of the sacred even in the smallest things.
Saldana’s writing is gorgeous; it is clear she is a poet. In one short letter to Joseph, she says that on Nablus Road they “stroll[ed] through love and languages.” A COUNTRY BETWEEN is such a stroll, through love, language, worlds, religions, and family life. I highly recommend this beautiful book.
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