'Our Longing for Peace Is Matched by Our Fear of Peace'

An Israeli-Palestinian love affair is at the center of Dorit Rabinyan's new novel 'Borderlife,' and through it she tackles questions of Mideast politics, Jewish identity and where New York City fits in.

Dorit Rabinyan. Ilya Melnikov

Dorit Rabinyan says she is scared to death. Her new novel, “Borderlife” (“Gader Haya”), has just been published (in Hebrew), and she is shaking.

“I don’t remember anymore how it was with the previous books, but if I’d been as nervous then as I am now, I’m sure I’d remember and not repeat the experience,” she says. “Because it’s been such a long time since the previous book, expectations about the new one are sky-high. Not that I’m asking readers to be lenient because I lost my way in writing this book. But, hey, I was just a girl of 22 when I published my first novel, and only 27 when the second one came out, so in many ways ‘Borderlife’ is a debut novel.”

Not to mention the fact that it’s about a love story involving a Palestinian.

“Yes, there is also the political issue, the atmosphere in Israel. Not exactly the classic time to come out with a novel that talks about friendship and mutuality and a shared destiny. On top of which the publishing industry here is in a bad way. But I reached a point at which I told myself, ‘Okay, it’s not perfect, but this is as far as I can go with it. I can’t go on. I can’t look at these lines and these words and these characters anymore. I’ve had it.’”

Dorit Rabinyan was born in 1972 in Kfar Sava; she now lives in Tel Aviv. Her first novel, “Persian Brides,” which came out in 1995, was an enormous best seller in Israel. Her previous novel, “Our Weddings” (titled “Strand of a Thousand Pearls” in the United States), was published in 1999. The books were translated into a dozen languages and won prizes. Then Rabinyan got stuck.

In 2001, she started to write what was intended to be her third novel. She revised and rewrote it three times, and after five years, put it on the shelf. Two months later she began something new.

“After getting lost in the endless permutations of a fictional plot, I thought that this time I needed a stable structure. I thought that if I were to write something that is limited to memory, that has a known beginning, middle and end, I would be able to work my way out of this creative crisis.”

Rabinyan believes that one reason it took her so long to complete her third novel was that she had not really found her true voice in the first two works, which she wrote at such a young age. (She did, however, publish a children’s book – aptly titled, “And Where Was I?” – in 2006.)

“Borderlife” tells the story of two young people who meet in New York and fall in love. That might sound banal, except that the two are Liat, an Israeli woman from Tel Aviv, and Hilmi, a Palestinian from the village of Jifna, north of Ramallah in the West Bank. In this potential Middle Eastern “Romeo and Juliet,” the Juliet figure, Liat, doesn’t tell her family about her relationship: She knows it would be pointless.

Rabinyan started to write “Borderlife” as a recapitulation of memory, based on her acquaintance with a man she met in New York in 2002: “He was a Palestinian artist who had been living in Brooklyn for a few years. We met through a mutual friend. At first it was a journey of remembering. I wanted to write about the friendship that sprang up between us, about the mutual trust, our conversations.

“But the tool of memory in itself turned out to be too meager and basic – not enough to foment what I was looking for. I realized that in order to write a ‘true’ story, in the literary sense of truth, I needed to invent, to fabricate from myself. I understood what I had already known instinctively: that imagination is the elixir of the story, that without the fantasy element, a story lacks the power to compete with the authenticity and the plenitude of life. Only when I freed myself from a commitment to the facts and distanced myself from the way things happened in reality, did a joy of creativity return. I felt I had been extricated from the narrow strait in which I had been trapped for some years.”

Entering a minefield

To write a love story between an Israeli and a Palestinian is to enter a minefield.

“A struggle between the personal and the political occurred not only between and within my protagonists – a similar struggle took place between me, as the writer, and the story. How could I protect the relationship between Hilmi and Liat so that it would remain intimate, a private case, and not become a symbol or a metaphor, or crap like that? I did everything in my power to avoid that cliché, to polish the lens so that it would be personal, microscopic, high-resolution. It sometimes occurred to me that maybe it was my refusal to romanticize the conflict, my recoiling from that loathsome poetics, that hardened the heart of my female protagonist, that made Liat turn her back on Hilmi.”

Liat doesn’t give the relationship a chance. She knows all along that it’s temporary, she never forgets that he is a Palestinian.

“Liat is a true ‘soldier’ of Israeli education. She is obedient, practical and in full control of herself. And because of what she is, because of her fear of abandoning herself to this relationship, this is less a love story than a long journey of resistance to love. At one point she relates that at certain moments she and Hilmi are so close and intimate that she can almost know what it is to be him, to feel what it is to be him. Liat’s conflict lies in the dissolution of the boundaries between ‘I’ and ‘not I,’ on the seam between merging with the other and being assimilated into him. It’s precisely there that the alarms of anxiety go off within her, just when things become sweetest.”

Yet Hilmi doesn’t have the same qualms.

“I think he is reactive to her inner wrestling. In the face of her pessimism, which doesn’t give their relationship a chance, Hilmi seizes the position of the believer. Generally, when one person tends toward ambivalence, the other becomes more determined and decisive. And like all relationships, the division of roles is set quite early on – a contract is signed, so to speak.”

Why did you choose the title “Borderlife” [literally, “Living Fence,” in Hebrew]?

“The theme of borders and boundaries is a central element in the story – how they exist within us, in our consciousness, physically, concretely and imagined.”

Israelis have a flawed border consciousness.

“It’s not only at the political level that we suffer from that. The interpersonal lines are also unraveling all the time. The concept of [having] boundaries, which is a healthy approach and actually accords freedom rather than constricting it – by making order out of chaos – somehow did not catch on here. Which is surprising, because boundaries and limits are an essential element in Judaism. Separation and insularity are fundamentals of our culture. We separate between holy and profane, between meat and milk, and above all, between ourselves and the goyim, the gentiles.

“Fear of mixing and intermingling is part of our mind-set. Fear of assimilation, with its danger of loss of selfhood, of Jewish identity, has accompanied us throughout our history and in all our exiles: Here is where the ghetto ends, and outside is the world. I would have expected that, as a political entity, that ancient obsession would also be expressed in a need to demarcate a clear border between us and our neighbors – but no, the symbiosis is only intensifying.”

In the novel, there is a [political] confrontation between Liat and Hilmi. She insists on the need for two states for two nations, on separation, while he talks about one binational state.

“There is a great deal of talk, which is justified, about the Palestinians’ rejection of peace, but we resemble them in [our] intransigence. Our longing for peace is matched by our fear of peace. There is a conscious and unconscious concern that conciliation means merging, and in time being swallowed up in the Arab region. Thus, a prolonged situation of confrontation keeps us separate, keeps us living by the sword, but only for ourselves.

“I find this same apprehension in the political left, too, among those who favor concessions for peace. And the truth is, they have good reason to be afraid. We are living in the heart of the Arab world, amid a vast numerical majority, and the idea that we will live harmoniously here, that there will be free movement of people and goods and culture, though attractive and promising, is also threatening.”

What is the threat?

“It’s about what will happen to our identity. When a future Israel is awash in the bold, dominant colors of Arabism, who will be able to guarantee that we will not blend with them and change unrecognizably? Maybe this is the Jewish segregationist instinct, which in the Holocaust proved itself justified. For of all the communities in Europe, it was precisely there, in Germany – where the Jews integrated and assimilated and influenced the culture and the society, in the place where we most intermixed and most belonged – that the evil arose.”

Still, there is something very natural about the meeting of an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man – they’re both from the same place, really.

“There is something intense about the meeting between young Israelis and Arabs abroad. I saw it in New York, in Berlin, in London. You sit somewhere and somehow you start to talk, and you see the mutual curiosity, the wondering. Suddenly it all becomes normal, a human connection is made, as though you have overcome some law of nature – you talk, ask, laugh. Even if it’s a short encounter, against the background of the big, foreign city and the cold weather, a feeling of closeness is created. The languages are similar, there is something similar in the physicality, in the mental temperament.

“It always fascinates me to see how the Mizrahi element [referring to Jews from Islamic lands] in my identity, which in Israel is blatant and dominant, is diminished in a meeting of Middle Easterners abroad. You know, when I am invited to a literary conference in Europe, and there is also a poet from Gaza and a writer from Beirut, something of my Mizrahiness seems to lose its hue. Alongside their Arabness, I am perceived as wholly Israeli – the Mizrahi nuance is blurred.”

‘I tasted the Diaspora’

Rabinyan’s first novel was set in a village in northern Iran; her second, in a neighborhood in the Israeli town of Givat Olga. Now she has gone far afield again, to New York, which, she says, gave her a perspective on her life in Israel, a “diagonal” view of her identity.

“I tasted the Diaspora,” she says. “I felt what it is to be true foreigner. After you live for a year or two as an emigrant, without family and without context, without civil rights, without an HMO, without an ID card – you start to reassess the fact that you have a homeland, that small detail in your biography which until then was automatically taken for granted. Living abroad revitalized my perception of Zionism, rendered it more meaningful.

“The bulk of the story is set there, in New York,” she continues, “but it afforded me an indirect way to look at the situation here, telescopically, as it were. New York is a kind of outer space in which Liat and Hilmi meet. Let’s start with the fact that the distance is what makes it possible for them to meet at all, but the distance is also what makes it possible for them to see each other from up-close, on an equal footing, to discover themselves in each other’s reflection.

“New York also gave me a great deal of freedom from myself. It liberated something in me. Together with the outsider-ness, there is a great freedom in not belonging, a kind of deep satisfaction. You don’t understand or know everything; a million nuances of the local culture flow past and you don’t pick them up. The situation freed a place in my psyche. And the city was good to me, I met interesting people.”

In New York, Rabinyan relates, she became, for a time, a woman named Lily. “In my first week there, my editor and my publicist at Random House took me out to dinner. At one point I went out for a smoke, and this hunk who was standing there offered me a light and asked what my name was. I must have become tongue-tied and overwrought from the attention I was getting, because he asked, ‘Is it so hard for you to remember your name?’ Then he paused and said, ‘You look like Lily to me. Your name has to be Lily. Now let’s figure out what you do.’ Across the road there was a tattoo and piercing parlor. We decided that I was Lily, a tattoo artist from Tel Aviv.

“It’s not that I came to New York in order to toy with my identity – it somehow just happened and I played with it a bit. My whole first summer there, every new person I met knew me as Lily. Lily gave me the opportunity to be a little of someone else, not me. The game ended when my bag was stolen in the subway. It had my cell phone and all my numbers. Something snapped back into place, and from then on I continued as Dorit.”