A Jar of Magic Olives and a Palestinian-American Girl’s Search for Home

Ida in the Middle offers YA readers an immersive introduction to the occupation of Palestine. It is also a story of personal transformation.

Eleanor J. Bader Feb 9, 2023

When a Zionist club is formed at Andrew Jackson Middle School in Oldbridge, Massachusetts, shy, awkward, 12-year-old Ida begins to feel increasingly uncomfortable around the other kids in her class. As the only Palestinian in her grade, she is frequently bullied and has noticed that the jeers and insults tend to escalate whenever the media covers violence in the Middle East. Even more disturbing, despite her parents’ complaints, the administration has done nothing to protect her.

Instead, the principal suggests that Ida transfer to a private school and arranges a scholarship to enable her attendance. Sadly, things are no better at Riverview, and Ida continues to feel out of sync with her peers. 

It’s a familiar feeling for many young folks, Palestinian and not, and Nora Lester Murad’s young adult novel, Ida in the Middle, captures adolescent angst with palpable precision. Still, Ida feels particularly off-kilter and, unlike her more carefree siblings, she is stressed and troubled. This middle child of achievement-oriented parents is struggling to find a way to make her family proud of her. And she is clueless about how to do it.

Murad does a terrific job of presenting Ida, her parents and two sisters in a way that is wholly believable. The family’s financial and cultural struggles — as well as their love for one another — make them easy to root for. But Ida in the Middle is not just  the story of an immigrant family’s trials. 

Ida’s newfound pride in her people and their history is inspiring.

As the story unfolds, Murad uses magical realism to zero in on the political situation that prompted the family to leave Palestine years earlier. Ida learns the realities of Palestinian displacement — stemming from the Nakba and its aftermath — after eating a handful of “magic olives” from a jar packed and shipped to the United States by her aunt. After swallowing the tangy fruit, she is transported to Busala, a small town near Jerusalem where the majority of her relatives live. There Ida “meets” family she had previously only known through Zoom or phone calls, and gets introduced to the indignities of present-day Israeli occupation: Unprovoked missile attacks, border checkpoints, relentless surveillance, the bulldozing of homes, and erratic access to electricity, water and necessary medical care. 

As Ida experiences day-to-day life in the village, she begins to understand and is empowered by Palestinian resistance and the many strategies that members of the community use to fight back against repression. To Murad’s credit, this part of the story is highly nuanced. Not only are Palestinians presented as a diverse people with diverse ideas about how to live with and oppose Israeli control, but Murad ensures that Israelis are also presented as holding a range of outlooks. This includes some Israelis who fervently oppose the violence and rancor of the Israeli Defense Forces.

Ida is changed by bearing witness to the violence and oppression she “experiences” in Busala; her newfound pride in her people and their history is inspiring. It also makes for a gripping and poignant story. 

All told, Ida in the Middle offers YA readers an immersive introduction into life under occupation. This, however, is also a story of personal transformation. By the time Ida “returns” to Oldbridge she is bolder and more solidly grounded in her identity as a Palestinian-American student and daughter. 

Magical realism, of course, can be hokey, but Ida in the Middle uses the tool effectively. Indeed, as Ida’s understanding of Palestinian history increases, her desire to connect with her culture also increases and she becomes a fierce defender of Palestinian human rights. Her newfound knowledge is then used to educate her classmates and teachers about the brutality of the current Israeli regime. Call it the miracle of the olives. 

Ida in the Middle 
Nora Lester Murad 
Crocodile Books
152 pages; November 2022

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