Sometimes, we become so invested in the way we’ve framed an argument that it’s nearly impossible to see the subject childishly, foolishly, or anew. Palestine vs. Israel has become one such argument. Illegal immigration is another. Proponents and critics have little to say that manages to break through the trenches, barbed wire, and loudly held positions.
But writer and architect Suad Amiry has a new book that can help us re-see our arguments: foolishly, childishly, anew.
Amiry may be familiar to some American readers for her tragicomic memoir Sharon and My Mother-in-Law. Her second book, Nothing to Lose But Your Life, doesn’t directly address North America. But Amiry does dedicate the book not just to Palestinians, but also to (illegal) Mexican immigrants, Africans, African Americans, and Turks.
Dedications finished, the foolishness begins: To understand the situation of undocumented Palestinian workers, Amiry is trying to flatten her breasts. That’s because she’s going along on a dangerous border crossing from her home in Ramallah (Palestine) to Petah Tikva (Israel). As the book opens, she’s playing dress-up, imagining how she might make her middle-aged woman’s chest pass for a man’s: “Neither their size nor their texture really helped: they were way too big, way too wobbly and way too soft.”
After a little more mirror-gazing, Amiry seems satisfied with her costume. But, despite her efforts, Amiry’s gender, education, and social class are recognized immediately by her skeptical undocumented companions.
Amiry’s book thus joins the tradition that Creative Nonfiction has called [End Page 143] “stunt nonfiction.” CNF notes that, while Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent Nickled and Dimed may be its best-known recent example, stunt nonfiction is not a new genre: Ten Days in a Mad-House (1887) describes Nellie Bly’s time in a New York lunatic asylum. John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me (1959) details what happened when he turned “black.”
In the opening pages of Nothing to Lose, Amiry establishes her credibility with a breezy tone and an almost too loosely styled English. She calls herself a coward, and “a pretentious bourgeois, a romantic, and a leftist.” She positions what she’s doing as both serious investigative journalism and as a game she’s playing with “Palestine’s Big Boys.”
With or without these qualifications, Amiry cuts a bizarre figure. She is an academic, a memoirist, and an out-of-shape middle-aged woman. It’s one thing for a middle-aged Barbara Ehrenreich to scrub toilets; it’s quite another for Amiry to be running for her life with these mostly young men. At times, the reader wants to rub his eyes and wake up: Is this woman out of her mind? What exactly does she gain by risking her life, and the lives of her companions, in this way?
But the book’s wild improbability is also its greatest strength. Its core weakness, on the other hand, is its failure to provide sufficient context for Amiry’s trip. Who are the workers she is crossing with?
The interested reader can dig up information: The Israeli human-rights group B’Tselem offers a primer on undocumented Palestinian labor. B’Tselem explains that from 1967 until 1993, Israel administered—and, the organization says, underdeveloped—the Palestinian economy. Palestinians thus had to look beyond their borders for work:
On the eve of the  Oslo peace process, some 115,000 Palestinians worked in Israel, and unemployment in the Occupied Territories had declined to under five percent. These workers . . . supported hundreds of thousands of dependants.
In March 1993, the Israeli government shut down Palestinians’ access to Israel “until further notice,” though many Palestinians with special permits continued to work in Israel. Plants and animals also continued to cross from one side to the other.
From 1993 on, the Palestinian Authority failed—in some ways on its own [End Page 144] demerits, in many ways hobbled by Israel—to develop its pseudo-country’s pseudo-economy. Just...