Flirting with complexity

Israeli writer Dorit Rabinyan discusses a knotty romance between an Israeli and a Palestinian that still touches a throbbing nerve.

Author Dorit Rabinyan holding her controversial book 'Borderlife.' (photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
Author Dorit Rabinyan holding her controversial book 'Borderlife.'
(photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
WHEN LIAT looks back on meeting Hilmi for the first time she struggles to find the right words. “How do I describe him now? Where do I start? How do I distill the first impressions created in those few distant seconds?”
She tries to revisit those opening and often elusive moments of a relationship, before it becomes layered with color, depth and difficulties. “How do I sketch his visage, the way he looked to me then, at first sight, still mysterious?” Such questions suggest Liat is toying with the notion of “love at first sight.”
Liat and Hilmi found each other while living temporarily in New York City in the months after 9/11. They came to the US to further their careers. She’s a translator and he’s an artist. Ironically, their chances of crossing paths were better in the big city than in their homeland 7,000 miles away, for Hilmi is a Palestinian Muslim from the West Bank and Liat, an Israeli Jew from Tel Aviv.
Back in the disputed land their homes are separated by a mere 40 miles, and though Hilmi can glimpse Tel Aviv off in the distance as well as the dark blue strip of sea from his city of Ramallah, getting there is another story. In New York, however, the two become inseparable. What will happen when their sojourns are up?
The story comes to us from acclaimed Israeli writer Dorit Rabinyan in her latest novel, “All the Rivers.” While it’s technically a fictional tale, Rabinyan based it on a real romance she had with Hassan Hourani, a Palestinian artist she met in New York in 2002. Hourani died tragically in a drowning incident while visiting Jaffa in 2003.
The novel first appeared in Hebrew in 2014 under the title “Gader Haya” (“Borderlife”). Since then it has been translated into over 20 languages, including the recently released English version (“All the Rivers”).
For a year and a half after its release in Hebrew, the book enjoyed positive reviews and won literary awards. But then suddenly a political tempest struck. Israel’s Education Ministry, headed by Naftali Bennett, targeted the novel in response to high school teachers who began including it on their lists of required reading. The ministry essentially banned it from the high school curriculum, charging that its message might “encourage intimate relationships between Jews and non-Jews.” The novel, it declared, “threatens to subvert our separate identity.”
A deluge of criticism ensued as domestic and international media outlets like CNN and The New York Times covered the political drama. The intensified scrutiny forced the ministry to backtrack slightly. In another statement it said, “The book wasn’t disqualified, but merely not included among the books studied.” Nonetheless, Bennett’s critics were not convinced. For them, his ministry had already betrayed a willingness to engage in censorship and trample on democratic freedoms.
THE WHOLE episode caused Rabinyan considerable suffering, especially after Bennett called her “an enemy of the nation” on Israel TV Channel 2’s evening news. In the days that followed she lived in fear as menacing figures lurked outside of her building, including members of Lehava, a radical right-wing group opposed to personal relationships between Jews and non- Jews, especially Arabs. She also received numerous death threats via social media.
Despite these dark clouds and because of them, her book shattered sales records as Israelis rushed to bookstores in defiance of the ministry. Literary heavyweights like Amos Oz, David Grossman, A.B. Yehoshua and Meir Shalev expressed their solidarity with the author. And internationally, the book fared well, quickly becoming a bestseller and making its way into educational institutions throughout Europe, the Middle East and the United States.
I recently caught up with Rabinyan to discuss – in English – not only politics, which seems omnipresent these days, but also the craft of writing, the fate of books, and the deeper, philosophical issues at the heart of “All the Rivers.”
In a café on Tel Aviv’s bustling King George Street, I am seated reading over my notes when Rabinyan bursts in, stands right above me, and peers out for anyone looking journalistic. With Radiohead blaring in the background – as Israelis gear up for the band’s recent concert – I draw her attention downward with a wave. After brief introductions, she takes a seat, orders tea, and we jump right into the interview.
We first turn to what appears as the book’s biggest weakness. At first glance, the story of Liat and Hilmi could easily be pegged as a stale Romeo and Juliet tale. Rabinyan is acutely aware of the perception. “I knew it,” she says. “I was struggling against the cliché.”
IN THE opening chapters, Liat and Hilmi quickly fall for each other and spend the rest of their time in the Big Apple attached at the hip. If the story sounds predictable early on – an Israeli woman and Palestinian man overcoming the odds – Rabinyan mobilizes attractive metaphors to keep things fresh. “Our nights are like an endless apple that grows new flesh even as we bite into it,” Liat says as her relationship with Hilmi deepens. They spend many such nights huddling together for warmth as one of New York’s coldest winters bears down on the two “Levantines.” “We lie under the blanket, embracing each other, cupped like two yolks in one egg.”
But as lovely as they are, the metaphors do not point us toward a smooth progression to the story. Rabinyan is much more intrigued by the jagged contours of reality. “This has to be because reality is complex and complexity is built into the characters; they carry the conflict and their ambivalence within,” she says. “Even though they travel across oceans and meet in the land of opportunities, they still have their molded landscapes within them, which are shaped by their education and environment.”
Rabinyan explains that “this vista of complexity” is what motivated her to refashion a well-worn love story into something more elaborate about two identities: how they brush against each other, compare, complement and contradict each other.
“I was struggling against this love overcoming all barriers. Liat and Hilmi don’t overcome all barriers. They struggle with them. They flirt with them. They face the barriers. But it is not necessarily that these borders collapse and they combine and merge into each other.
“I am talking about the fear of having no barriers or boundaries,” she continues, which makes the book less of a love story than “a drawn-out resistance to love.”
For Liat this fear weighs more heavily. As a Jew she senses the centuries-old imperative upon her shoulders: the need to maintain “fences” between the holy and profane, Shabbat and the weekday, milk and meat, Jews and gentiles. Liat’s anxiety is not a bad thing, Rabinyan says. “I respect nationhood. It’s a very natural and organic need to have your sense of belonging framed and set. It protects and defines you.”
Hilmi, by contrast, espouses a secular view of the world. I ask Rabinyan how the fictional character and the real-life Hourani intersect.
“It was one of my first astonishments as I became close with a group of Palestinians I hung out with in Brooklyn,” she says. “They were much more secular than I would ever consider myself to be.”
She describes them as educated, sophisticated, well-spoken, with great English, and progressive in their opinions. She admits to feeling a bit intimidated.
“Because I tend to anxieties, I say b’ezrat Hashem [‘with God’s help’] four times an hour,” she says with a hearty laugh. “And in a way, they were looking down on me, saying, ‘Do you believe in God, really? It’s so primitive.’ I was amazed by it.” Israelis are taught to believe the opposite about Palestinians, she adds, namely that they are extremists.
This search for novelty continues in “All the Rivers” as Rabinyan pauses over things we often pass by. While reading the book I often caught myself thinking that I’ve felt that sensation before; or I know exactly what she means. For example, Liat and Hilmi show up at a loud party one night in Brooklyn. When 2 a.m. arrives after much fun, they step out onto the snowy street and slowly make their way back to Hilmi’s apartment. Liat observes the following: “The bass lines still reverberated in our ears, cocooning our heads in a downy mass that silenced the outside world. Our feet, still light from dancing, sensed the vibrations coming up through the sidewalks as they carried us down Court Street.”
I tell Rabinyan I’ve had that experience many times, but was just too lazy to notice. “Or register it,” she says, with a laugh.
HOW DOES Rabinyan do it? “This strange craft of writing stories requires self-belief in these visions that you have,” she says. “So, to convince yourself of what you’re telling you have to go more precisely to the observation.” By holding onto the objective pictures that you envision and giving detailed descriptions of them – including the most banal and obvious things – you are able to go on and lead yourself into what becomes your own reality, she explains. And then you follow it. This kind of writing is not fictional but very actual. “In a way it’s what grounds the imagination and tames fiction,” she adds.
Writing in such a manner about New York in winter presented Rabinyan with a unique set of challenges. “I remember I was here in this heat of Tel Aviv writing about the frost of winter. I was struggling with this poor vocabulary that Hebrew allows, which reflects the heat, desert and hamsins. So, in that sense, to describe a fountain in some square in Brooklyn that had frozen like a wedding cake helps my imagination flourish, just by the objectivity of describing things in detail.”
The author’s attention to detail was also on display during the interview. She frequently took a mental timeout to locate the right word during her explanations, doing so for both English and Hebrew terms. When it came to Hebrew she would often give the origins of words, saying in a few instances, “It’s a word we use that actually comes from Arabic.”
At one point, I throw out the nice sounding phrase “social cohesion” (pure sophistry, I confess). “Social cohesion, wow, what is cohesion?” she asks. “What’s the adjective? So, cohesion is the noun of coherent?” It’s refreshing to see someone so endlessly fascinated with words.
Fortunately, Rabinyan has had ample time to expand her palette of words. She broke onto the Israeli literary scene in 1995 with her first novel, “Persian Brides.” At just 22, she says, “I was like the new literary shining star,” but quickly adds, as if addressing her younger self, “Who is she? Who are you? It’s some sort of wonder kid to whom I am no longer affiliated.”
SHE BELIEVES success arrived a bit too soon. Along with it came severe self-criticism and insecurity. “I was in a way succeeding, but alienating myself from my success. I wasn’t enjoying it and felt like I didn’t deserve it. I had deceived everyone. I was waiting for someone to say c’mon, the talent police are outside and they are going to take you away!”
While she feels better equipped to publish a major work of literature at fortysomething, she admits she now faces a different crisis. “Today, there is a domination of the screens, all those small ones, big ones and medium ones,” she says. “I’m asking myself: Is it that your storytelling skills should be kept within pages, or should you follow the arrows in adapting them to the screen?”
Even in our age of tantalizing TV series, Rabinyan claims she is still a devotee of the written word. “We cannot explore someone else’s identity from within as we do with books and literature… And we cannot do it when you don’t wear someone else’s skin as literary work invites us to do. This empathy that we can taste is so unique to storytelling via the page.” For this reason, she adds, “I try to encourage myself when it comes to writing prose. Because I do believe in it and love it. This is my home.”
Returning to Liat and Hilmi, what happens to the couple after New York? Well, you’ll just have read the book for yourself. I will say that Rabinyan’s writing propels you toward the finish line.
For now, the two Middle Easterners are still together in the city. As time ticks down to their departure dates, Hilmi throws himself into his painting, working day and night, producing one canvas after another, which he then puts up for sale. Liat keeps herself busy with translations. When time permits and they’ve unthawed, the two commence their joint explorations of the city. But is it all just a distraction? A way to avoid thinking about what happens next?
The couple goes through some fights when heated debates over Middle Eastern politics erupt, not only between Liat and Hilmi, but also involving Hilmi’s relatives who come for a visit. All this is compounded by another reality in the making, a monstrous snake that awaits them at home. The Palestinians call it a “wall” separating the West Bank from Israel, while Israelis more euphemistically call it a “fence.”
Liat grows wary as she ponders a future with Hilmi. At one point, she tells him they should just enjoy each other’s company while it lasts, for their relationship is like anything else in life, transient and ephemeral. Rabinyan comments that Liat is pushing and pulling from within, dealing with forces seemingly beyond her control, forces that lead her decisions more than her heart’s desires.
“I was much more compelled to this power than the power of love,” Rabinyan says, “much more drawn into writing about the dark side of love than the shiny, shimmery attraction.” This angle was more engaging than a story about one’s identity being swallowed up in intimacy.
This interplay of forces – with the darker ones often in ascendance – is what many of Rabinyan’s opponents missed during the ruckus with the Education Ministry. She says that perhaps her book even contains “a conservative Zionist stance,” yet one wouldn’t know it amid the cacophony of today’s hyper-politicized rhetoric and sound bites.
As our interview winds down, Rabinyan asks me if I know of Emmanuel Levinas, the French philosopher she leaned on while writing the novel. She followed his method when Liat wonders how to turn back the clock after knowing Hilmi, so she can capture his particular features at first sight.
“With this environment of generalization and nationalization of our personhood, this is maybe the most radical idea,” Rabinyan says. “It’s the fact that Liat and Hilmi go to the private, that she redeems him from this sack of ‘Oh, Palestinians’ and he redeems her from this sack of ‘Oh, Israelis.’ Levinas teaches us that to be entitled with the adjective of human, you must first acknowledge the humanity of the other, and particularize the other within multitude, the one, the specific.”
But for Levinas, she explains, gaining the other’s perspective does not mean it should dominate your own. You can carry this dual gaze and see reality as complex as it is, by observing it from two sides of the same story. Not only does it serve humanistic purposes, it also helps us better decipher our own complex reality.
Regrettably, she concludes, “By just acknowledging a dual perspective to everything, along with two justifications, you are considered a non-patriot in today’s Israel.”