We’ve heard the African proverb of what happens to the grass when elephants fight, but what of the donkeys and ibexes, the boars and hyenas, the cows, camels, jackals, and gazelles, when hominids take up arms against each other? Penny Johnson’s Companions in Conflict strives to answer this question, interrogating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the eyes of large mammals, domestic and otherwise, whose commercial licenses are revoked, migration routes are barricaded, and find themselves on an increasingly regular basis bombed, exiled, or jailed.  

Don’t worry, homo sapiens, you’ll find this book interesting because it’s about you, too. On every page of Companions in Conflict, we come face to face with our human selves—infiltrating the lines and the spaces between them, occupying territory that’s not really ours. From Mahmoud Darwish wishing he were a donkey to Kafka’s jackals exhorting travelers in the Holy Land to murder Arabs with sewing scissors, Companions in Conflict, overrun with beasts of the imagination, surveys centuries of narratives that we’ve spun about ourselves, our relationships to other species. Even our piecemeal efforts to rescue these mammals—a vegan Israeli refusing to enlist in the army unless she’s issued synthetic boots; PETA calling for terrorists to stop using donkey bombs—remain oddly oblivious to the endangered among our own species.

Somehow, Johnson ends this nonfiction tragicomedy on a high, if tremulous, note, invoking Terry Eagleton’s notion of “hope without optimism.” “[T]hose animals who are the most like us,” she writes, “in their ability to adapt, survive, and even thrive amid our garbage and detritus . . . will persist and flourish.” She calls for “Acts of environmental imagination,” not just to “reviv[e] a desolated landscape” but also to “resurrect . . . memories, preserve . . . what is left, [and] envision . . . possible futures.” Deep in the Negev desert, wolves and hyenas—historic enemies—have been spotted hunting together, getting along. Maybe we shouldn’t read too much into this. But then again, maybe we should.

Melville House.

—Review by Mekiya Walters