by Nathan Thrall, 2023

Cover photo for A Day in the Life of Abed Salama

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction, 2024!

A Day in the Life of Abed Salama is a true story that occurred in 2012, a tragedy involving a bus full of Palestinian school children occurring just outside Jerusalem. The bus collided with an 18-wheeler semitruck on a highway during a horrific rainstorm, while taking the children on a field trip.

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If you have young children, it’s a scene you’ll be familiar with: your five-year-old son is jumping out of his skin with excitement about the class trip the next day. “Baba [Father], I want to buy food for the picnic tomorrow.” So Abed takes his son Milad to the shops to buy an orange drink, a tube of Pringles, and a chocolate egg, his favorite treats to put in his backpack for the next day.

The next morning Haifa, Abed’s wife, got Milad dressed in his school uniform and off to school while Abed slept. When he finally got up, he saw that the weather was dreadful—sheets of rain and wind gusts so strong that people on the street were having a hard time walking upright.

Abed had the day off from his job at an Israeli phone company, so he hopped in his car with his cousin Hilmi, off to buy meat from a friend who owned a butcher shop. While he was there, he got a call from a nephew. “Did Milad go on that outing today? There was an accident with a school bus near Jaba.” Abed’s stomach drops.

They both jump into Hilmi’s car and drive in a panic toward the accident site, hampered by horrible traffic and police blockades. As they got closer, Israeli police wouldn’t allow cars to go any further, so Abed jumps out and carries on by foot. Hilmi, believing it’s probably just a minor accident, circles back and heads home.

When Abed finally reaches the accident site, he sees the school bus “flipped on its side, an empty, burned out shell…no children, no teachers, no ambulances.” He learns that it was the parents who arrived first and transported the children to various hospitals, without the benefit of the paramedics or their medical facilities inside the ambulances. He learns that some children were burned to death; others lived, but were burned beyond recognition. He learns that it took the Israeli and Palestinian fire departments and ambulances more than 30 minutes to arrive, and by the time they did, all victims had already been evacuated.

What happens in the intervening hours, as Abed tries to find Milad, defies belief. The demeaning system that the Israelis have set up to govern the Palestinians in their own land, that dictates who may live where, who may travel where and when, defies understanding. Starting with the first intifada in December 1987, the Israelis set up a convoluted system of permits and colored identification cards with labyrinthine restrictions associated with each one: orange IDs, green IDs, and blue IDs, with checkpoints along each road and within all the occupied territories. The ability to pass through them depended on the color of your ID, what part of the occupied territory you were born in, how old you were, your gender, and whether you had ever been detained or arrested. A blue ID gave a Palestinian the greatest amount of freedom: you could live in and pass through Jerusalem; with a green ID you could not. An orange ID marked you as someone who had been arrested or been in prison and was the most restrictive. Over time, the meaning of the orange and green IDs flip-flopped and meant the opposite of what they used to. Often, for a married couple, the husband had one color of ID and the wife had another.

This was what daily life was like for a couple where husband and wife had two different colors of ID cards:

“Abed’s brother Nabeel was married to a woman in Dahiyat a-Salaam who had a blue ID. Because Nabeel held a green ID, he was not allowed to live in the areas annexed to Jerusalem, so the couple lived in Anata. But they had to maintain an apartment in Dahiyat a-Salaam so that Nabeel’s wife could retain her Jerusalem residency and her blue ID. Periodically, Israel sent inspectors to check that she was really living there. The inspectors and their vehicles were well known in the area, so the residents would start making frantic warning calls as soon as they were spotted. When Nabeel’s wife got such a call, she would rush over to the apartment. For the crime of living with her husband just down the road, she could be cut off from the rest of her family and the city in which she had been born and raised.”

In the case of an emergency such as this school bus crash, a parent’s worst nightmare, the inability to race to the hospital and/or the morgue to find out the fate of your child is inconceivable. This ID system alone meant that even though some children were taken to Jerusalem hospitals, some of their parents were not allowed passage to the hospital to inquire about them or visit them. Or, the husband could go but the wife could not. Or, neither parent could go, so they had to send a cousin who had the correct color ID card.

In addition to Abed and his search for his son, the book focuses on several other families who were affected by the bus crash and who granted interviews to the author. The accident had a devastating effect on many families at that school, permanently changing lives and tearing apart families, even those whose children survived the crash. The author also weaves in the personal stories of first responders and other unsung heroes of the day.

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This book was released on October 3, 2023, four days before the Hamas attacks on Israel on October 7, 2023. I had preordered a copy of the book based on early reviews, so I was listening to it when news of the attacks broke. I was already deep into my anger at the unjust system of permits and colored ID cards that appeared to be nothing more than a demeaning, demoralizing means of control, a power-hungry lording of one nationality over another.

When the attacks took place before a shocked world, and I see the overwhelming wave of empathy and support for Israel, my sympathies are yanked back in the opposite direction. But still, I finished the book. And I remain torn. I challenge you to read this book, and others like it (The Lemon Tree; We Could Have Been Friends, My Father and I; Mornings in Jenin), and read as many newspapers as you can, then decide for yourself where your tipping point lies.

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