Some stories are so good you just want to get out of their way. Or so it seemed with “The Lemon Tree,” a documentary that captured, with two deeply personal stories, a slice of the last 50 years of Middle East history.
In July 1948, at the height of the Arab-Israeli War, Bashir Al-Khayri, six years old, fled with his family from their stone home in old Palestine. The family made its way on foot from Ramle to the tent-covered hills of Ramallah in the West Bank. They were among the 700,000 Palestinian refugees in a growing Middle East Diaspora; they lived in shelters and crowded into relatives’ living rooms, determined one day soon to return to the family’s home.
Three months later, Dalia Ashkenazi, six months old, embarked on a journey to the new state of Israel. The family, Bulgarian Jews who’d escaped the Holocaust, arrived in Ramle, now an Israeli city. Dalia would later be told that she was the only one on the boat who didn’t get sick. Israeli resettlement authorities gave the family a stone home in the center of town.
For 19 years, Bashir’s family lived as refugees in the West Bank, always dreaming of the future, when they’d return. Dalia’s went about forging a new society, always haunted by the past, which they’d barely survived.
In the summer of 1967, just after the Six Day War, Bashir decided to try to visit his house—for which his father, now blind, still had the key and the deed. Bashir made his way to Ramle and to the front step of the family’s home.
Bashir rang the bell.
Thus begins “The Lemon Tree,” a 43-minute radio documentary broadcast on “Fresh Air” for the 50th anniversary of Israel’s birth and the 1948 war. The story chronicles a slice of Middle East history through a difficult friendship, which began when Dalia invited Bashir in with the words, “This is your home.”
This was precisely the kind of story my Homelands Productions colleagues and I were seeking when we embarked on “World Views,” a series of first-person documentary narratives for public radio. Frustrated with the rise of corporate infotainment, my colleagues and I were looking for a way to cut through the stream of information and dehumanizing images absent of meaning, understanding or deeper context. Most absent, it seemed—and what radio was best at providing—was voice: stories told by ordinary people from the depths of their experience.
We started thinking about a series of stories to be told directly by the people in the midst of the news. These would be perspective-based narratives getting beneath the surface of daily events, telling the story from a deeper place than conventional reporting could. At this point (1993) there were a few examples of this emerging in public radio—Jay Allison’s “Life Stories” series, Dave Isay’s “Ghetto Life 101,” along with public television’s “P.O.V.” and the BBC’s “Video Diaries”—but our idea was to get reports from the ground, throughout the world, as stories unfolded and historical events were recalled.
We imagined, for example, a Cuban narrating her story from a raft bound for the United States. Or an African American traveling to the old slave house on Senegal’s Goree Island, reversing the journey of his ancestors. Or a Moscow investigative reporter, one of the first to write publicly about the KGB, telling a personal history of the dissident movement in the former Soviet Union. Or a Ukrainian nuclear physicist recording an audio journal of day-to-day life in the aftermath of Chernobyl. Or a New Delhi poet and an “untouchable” rickshaw driver describing their chance encounter across vast barriers of caste, culture and life experience. (Some of these ideas were inspired by experiences of my 1993 Nieman colleagues.)
But what we didn’t anticipate was how much the series—indeed the entire genre of first-person narrative—would present significant challenges not to be found in the standard news documentary. In the traditional form, the reporter (and/or producer) interviews, records sound, writes and narrates, balancing the story with competing perspectives. From Edward R. Murrow forward, this has been the style of choice for many an aspiring radio journalist. The style itself need not be dry, especially when accompanied by compelling interviews, vivid writing, a strong sense of place (Murrow’s London rooftops come to mind), and evocative use of sound. Our Homelands documentaries had taken this more standard approach, be it with street kids in Rio, an Amazon chief in Bolivia, farmers in India, or while “interviewing” penguins in Antarctica.
With a first-person story, especially controversial ones or those narrated by someone with a strong point of view, issues of balance, representation and context emerge. What about the other side of the story? What is being left out that would ordinarily be filled in by a reporter/narrator, and how can we put that context back into the piece? What happens when someone wants input, or even editorial control, in the telling of his own story? (For example, in adapting a writer’s work for broadcast.) And how, ultimately, do you find a story that is both particular and metaphorical of a larger reality?
For “The Lemon Tree,” balance was not an issue. In their own ways, Dalia and Bashir represented the fears and aspirations of their peoples. Far more complicated—for an assignment to identify a story that was somehow representative of the 50-year struggle between Israelis and Palestinians—was in determining this was the story among many to tell.
For the first two weeks, on the ground in Israel, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, I did no recording. Instead, I read and listened to history, including Israeli military accounts, Palestinian oral histories, Israel’s “new” historians (who challenge the traditional Zionist accounts), the heroes of what the Israelis call their War of Independence and the sons and daughters of what the Palestinians call their Naqba, or catastrophe. Soon I began recording similar accounts, considering the chasm between them that had scarcely narrowed in the last 50 years. But still I searched for the story and characters that would connect the narratives and tell the larger truth. I felt as much like a casting director as a journalist.
Earlier my wife, Lamis Andoni, a Palestinian journalist who covered the Gulf War for The Christian Science Monitor and the Financial Times (and was a 1993 Nieman Fellow), had described the outlines of Dalia and Bashir’s story. In 1987, at the beginning of the Intifada, Dalia had written an open letter to Bashir in the Jerusalem Post on the eve of his deportation from Ramallah. (Bashir was suspected of being an organizer of the Intifada and deported to Lebanon.) Dalia had urged the Israelis not to uproot Bashir a second time, while also urging Bashir to moderate his political views. From exile, Bashir had written a response, published in Arabic and eventually in Hebrew. Lamis knew Bashir and thought he’d be willing to talk to me.
One night, over dinner in Jerusalem, an Israeli filmmaker told me the story again. It was a powerful story, she agreed, but she didn’t think Dalia would agree to talk. Dalia, she said, felt used by people trying to frame her history to suit their political purposes.
The next day Lamis and I ran into Bashir on the street. Sure, he said, he’d be happy to sit for some interviews. And though he hadn’t seen Dalia in years, he thought she would be, too.
Bashir was right, and over the course of the next three weeks I shuttled from Ramallah to Jerusalem and back, recording five sessions with each, perhaps 15 hours of tape in all. I envisioned simply intercutting the stories: Bashir’s invitation to Dalia to visit his family in Ramallah (nearly unprecedented in 1967); Bashir’s father’s subsequent visit to the house in Ramle and the tears streaming down the blind man’s face as he touched the family’s old lemon tree; Dalia’s shock at Bashir’s imprisonment in Israel on charges he had helped plan a supermarket bombing in Jerusalem; Bashir’s revelation that his own fingers had been blown off as a child, picking up a booby-trapped mine in a field in Gaza. (Bashir had managed to hide this from Dalia for years, his left hand always in his pocket.)
In the end we decided that these stories, powerful as they were, could not be sustained for 43 minutes. I obtained archival tape (early radio accounts from the 1948 war; a CBC broadcast in the wake of the supermarket bombing) and approached a pianist to compose music to use at key moments. This gave breathing space between the words, varying the aural images and allowing time for the words to sink in. To add historical context and move the piece through time, and at the urging of Danny Miller, executive producer of “Fresh Air,” I added snippets of narration at several points in the story.
But what made the narrative work were the voices that mined the history: Dalia’s, in evocative English, and Bashir’s, read by a native Arabic speaker, Walid Haddad, so as not, literally, to lose anything in translation.
“A Festival to Celebrate Radio Documentaries”
– Johanna ZornThese voices speak to the potential of first-person narratives for radio. Though they can be fraught with complication, and the producers must often struggle with issues of balance, historical context, and the ethics of who gets to tell the story, first-person narratives can cut through the sludge of endless information to the truth as it’s felt on the ground. In this way they hold promise to be a democratizing force in media.
Of course it also helps when you have a narrative vehicle as powerfully simple as the one I encountered in “The Lemon Tree”—a stone home of shared memory. This is the house that Dalia, after the death of her parents, declared should be dedicated to the common history of the Ashkenazis and the Al-Khayris. Today the place is called Open House. During the day, it’s a kindergarten for Arab children in Israel. In the evenings, it serves as a house of encounter for Arab and Jew: a place to discuss history and to look for a way forward.
Sandy Tolan, a 1993 Nieman Fellow, is co-executive producer of Homelands Productions, based in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Among other awards, “The Lemon Tree” won the 1998 Overseas Press Club Award for best radio news or interpretation of foreign affairs. Tolan is currently working on “Border Stories,” a series of documentaries for public radio about the U.S.-Mexico border.