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Both/And 

Dualities migrate through a stunning Jordanian family tale.

With recent world events, many people are hungry for information about the Middle East--from its politics to its people and culture. Masha Hamilton's new novel, Staircase of a Thousand Steps, would be a good place to start to get an authentic feel for life in a small Jordanian village.

Each scene is meticulously described in sensual terms. The taste of bread cooked with sweet basil, the oily smell of a plant you cannot wash off, the feel of the air in a room seeming to vibrate, and the sound of rain drumming a hopeless, warning melody awaken all the senses.

Although a carefully crafted group of people populate this village, the central character of this novel is duality: traditional and modern values, masculine and feminine, older and younger generations, conformity and rebellion, rational thought and mystical vision, desire and satisfaction, danger and safety.

But do not think that this is just a dreamy tale of a rustic village. This book reads like a thriller. Danger hangs over every word.

The story is told from the perspective of each character and spans four generations of a family immediately preceding the 1967 war with Israel.

Jammana was born in a village north of Jerusalem and west of the River Jordan. Her story is that of a girl moving from the traditional ways to modern life. She inherited the gift of visions from her mother's clan. The gift skips generations, and with each generation the visions change.

Visions of her family's past are in Jammana's dreams. Because the dreams are incomplete she must ask her family what really happened and force them to confront the reality of their lives. Her most troubling dream is that of her grandmother dying in childbirth, attended by her grandfather and the village midwife. She knows that "people invariably shy away if she reveals that the histories of others lodge in her mind like footprints clinging to a beaten trail." With her youthful innocence she fearlessly asks for the truth.

Jammana has been told that every person is made of dust and one other ingredient. Her grandfather Harif, made of the wind, also received the gift of visions. His were visions of future misfortunes. The villagers have ostracized him thinking that he causes their misfortunes. They remember that Harif's grandfather conformed to the stability of village life because he was able to predict good events as well as bad. Harif survives by taking his sheep out to graze, thus avoiding the village men.

Jammana's mother, Rafa, is made of the sky. She is angry with her husband and tries to return to her home village to escape him and his plan to leave the problems of the Middle East behind by emigrating to America. Her husband is made of stone and participated in a mob revenge murder of a Christian man. Rafa has taken the dangerous step of rebelling against the dominance of a man.

Faridah, made of fire, is the midwife of Jammana's grandmother and mother. She is an outsider allowed to live in the village as an herbalist and midwife. The villagers suspect a secret love between Faridah and Harif. Both were present at the death of Harif's wife. Faridah's constant defiance of tradition causes a constant threat from the village men. Only her great skill with women in childbirth provides her safety.

Flying above all these stories are the helicopters and fighter jets preparing for the war with Israel. A soldier has talked to the head man of the village because he suspects there is an informer. Perhaps someone should be sacrificed by the village to assure their communal safety.

At the same time, traveling across the desert on a camel is a mysterious Bedouin. He stops outside the village to set up his tents and take a turn at the local spring. He is known to Harif and is invited into his home for coffee. Harif tells Jammana the tale of how, long ago, he was maliciously sent away by the villagers on a chore and was hopelessly lost in the desert. The Bedouin found and saved him. Interspersed with the telling of this tale is the description of each step Harif takes to prepare the coffee. He roasts the beans in a ladle, spills them onto a mortar to grind, drops the grounds into a pot of steaming water, adds cardamom, filters the spout with a leaf and pours it into a cup. The coffee is the life of everyone, everywhere, for all time: hot like love, bitter like death.

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