He has come here, to the land of the forgotten, in order that he may forget, that within their story he may perhaps find his.
—Jeff Talarigo, In the Cemetery of the Orange Trees
When you open In the Cemetery of the Orange Trees, you enter “the land of the forgotten” and forget your story as you absorb theirs. Their stories blend into dreams, full of fantastical beasts in impossible situations, and you become immersed in Gaza, a participant in tales both enchanting and haunting, and of which you have no control.
Through a collection of linked stories, Jeff Talarigo blurs the line between reality and imagination, allowing the reader to feel the heat of Gaza and inhale the scent of the sea. Through a bird’s-eye view of the Gaza region, we walk through the streets of Jabaliya with sheep and goats, and cry into pillows with Palestinian children. Allegory becomes truth as we delve deeper into the intricate tunnels of life in Gaza, where a cast of characters come alive and challenge us to believe in good, despite evil.
It’s easy to slip into In the Cemetery of the Orange Trees, but not easy to resurface. The meanings and emotive metaphors linger, a slow burn that brings you face to face with the injustices imposed on a people impossible to forget. Talarigo writes like a poet, with melodic prose, and these magical stories read as fiction but are digested like truth, creating a world both mesmerizing and terrifying.
The characters—from Shafiq the veterinarian to Zajil, the octogenarian storyteller; to W-2, the sheep; to Khalil, the book-eater—we meet through revolving first-person and third-person narration that brings laughter, hope, and love into a world encased by oppression and senseless violence. The collection’s mythical characters are empathetic and enlightening, despite there being no fairytale endings. Instead, the harsh realities of those living under the occupation of the Gaza region threaten every story, every character. The reader also feels the Occupation, knowing that they are waiting at every corner, in every shadow. The reader is challenged to accept each story, and storyteller, for what they are—whether a carrier pigeon, fatherless child, or a red woolen sheep—in that moment, because we know, like those telling their tales, that no moment is promised.
One of the most captivating tales, “Border Shearing,” is told by W-2, an Egyptian sheep who finds himself carted off to be “chosen by a family, have [his] throat slit, and served for the feast of Eid,” a fate he and his fellow sheep understand and accept. Even with the inevitable lingering, W-2 finds acceptance as the morning call to prayer rings out, hoping that “a good family, a family of stature,” chooses him for their feast. “For the most part,” the sheep says, “I believe that we sheep handle our mortality a hell of a lot better than humans.”
The fate of W-2 changes when he finds himself upside down in the underground tunnels and whisked into another world: the Gaza Zoo. As he adapts to life in his pen, he builds friendships and opponents, experiences care and challenges:
[S]leep does not come easily. I am distracted by dreams, nightmares even, where every time I begin to relax a child comes up and begins petting me or someone snaps a photo, which leaves tiny galaxies on the inside of my eyelids and they bob there, not allowing me the rest that I need before it all begins again in a few short hours.
But as he begins to adapt to his new home and transition to life after the impending death for the feast of Eid, the Occupation invades and we are left questioning if he has actually escaped his fate or, in fact, found a worse mortality:
I sleep very little on this night. It is not the anticipation of the children coming to the zoo that makes me restless, rather it is the scouring of fighter jets, fiery tails spitting out their ass-ends, and the bombs they launch, although striking other parts of the Gaza Strip, still clatter the cages in the zoo. I remain under the tree and cover my eyes with my front hooves, but this does little to help, in fact, it just makes it more uncomfortable for me. I would like to hurry over to the gazelle, but I feel safer under the cover of the tree.
This acceptance of fate, and a monstrous fate at that, rings through each story. When faced with the monstrous, we are usually shocked, our first reaction wild and guttural, but often, we adapt. With the end a constant threat but not entirely upon the characters, the monstrous becomes common, and they adjust their way of living. They live only in the present, absorbing and emitting what love and beauty they find before them because the year, the week, even the minute, is not guaranteed. Captives in the moment, the persecuted inherit stories and lessons from generation to generation, passed along with hope amid despair, peace amid violence.
Despite the heaviness of the subject matter, it is not a politically heavy-handed book. The use of animals and innocents as narrators makes the tales more compelling as much as it makes them more monstrous; perhaps Talarigo uses the animals of Gaza as narrators to exemplify the innocence of the inhabitants caught up in this generational strife. Letting the reader get close to these animals, and other narrators like children and the elderly, builds extreme empathy for some of Gaza’s most vulnerable characters. The fable form further exudes that innocence—making the narrators’ pain more convincing.
The American as a character is an interesting inclusion. In short vignettes woven through the book, we see the American escaping his own traumas by finding his purpose in the people of Jabaliya:
These are the people and it is their stories, their stolen histories, their secrets, their tall tales that he must tell. This is the greatest thing he can do, he thinks. This is the place he wants to be, but, he knows, achingly, that all over the world there are people like the Palestinians, and that he will not stay.
In some ways, the American bridges the gap between the privileged and the oppressed—he is able to observe and absorb the Gaza stories, without claiming a place in Gaza.
The entire work is thematically heavy, adding to the mystique, building a strong sense of place and character. In “A Two Cigarette Story,” which holds the secret to the title of the book, Shafiq retells a story his grandfather once told him: as a child he would tie injured birds to a string and then sell them for entertainment. Captivity emerges as a trope in this story, as in all stories: the bird cannot escape, as the people cannot escape. W-2, the red-woolen sheep, cannot escape the zoo, as he cannot escape his fate. The people of Gaza are captive, stripped of their dignity, their characters deformed, their homes lost. Homelessness—not only the loss of their domiciles, but the loss of their histories, the loss of their fate, the loss of stability—comes through with vigor. And yet, despite all of this, what surfaces most evidently is hope and faith, and an overwhelming sense of perseverance.
In the Cemetery of the Orange Trees inspires and transforms the reader. Once you enter this land, you cannot leave. Jeff Talarigo has created an important piece of literature, an homage to a people deserving of beauty.
About the Reviewer
Aurora D. Bonner is an environmentally charged writer and artist living in the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania. In 2018, her writing has or will appear in Hippocampus Magazine and Under the Gum Tree. In addition to other past publications, she has won first place in creative nonfiction at the 2016 Pennsylvania Writers Conference. She is currently working on a memoir, and is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Wilkes University. Follow her at @aurora_bonner or aurorabonner.com.