As a young girl in Kuwait, Claire Hajaj wanted to know when the argument would stop between Daddy’s family and Mommy’s family.
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“Soon,” her mother told her. But it didn’t. As she grew older, Claire realized it wasn’t likely to end anytime – soon or ever.
Daddy is Mahmoud, a Palestinian Muslim from Jaffa, whose family lost their home to Israel’s land laws after the 1948 War of Independence that he remembers as the Nakba – "the catastrophe."
Mommy is Deanne, a British Jew whose Eastern European family fled the pogroms and had an adopted sister who arrived on the kindertransport. Her Jewish cousins in Palestine saw that same war in 1948, from the other side.
They met in Britain and fell in love, to the surprise and shock of both families. It was 1967. In the background, the Six-Day War and its aftermath were reshaping the Middle East.
“In the same way as it’s very hard to get to the origins of the 1948 conflict, I also find it quite hard to untangle the webs that surround my parents’ early relationship,” says Claire, 40, over drinks at London’s Soho House during a visit to her mother from her home in Beirut. “Heaven knows how they expected it to work in the long term or why they thought these postponed issues would stay indefinitely postponed."
Claire’s mother was never religious; but she retained her Jewish identity. When the family moved to Kuwait while Claire was still small, she recalls her mother sometimes furtively lighting Shabbat candles in their apartment and quietly conducting a Passover Seder back at her grandmother’s home in Newcastle.
But Claire was never happy in Kuwait. As the first intifada approached and anti-Israel feeling grew, her mother became increasingly scared. When time for high school loomed, the tensions in the marriage became too strong to sustain and Claire desperately wanted to be educated in Britain. She left Kuwait with her mother, leaving her parents to struggle through another decade of long-distance marriage before it finally ended in divorce.
After leaving Kuwait, Claire grew up in London’s stockbroker belt and read Classics and English Literature at Oxford. She vowed not to touch the Middle East conflict and succeeded until her late twenties, when she took a job with the United Nations in Iraq after the downfall of Saddam Hussein.
Married and expecting her first child, she decided she couldn’t avoid addressing the conflict that had torn her family apart, and give her as-yet unborn daughter the benefit of her unique experience as a Jew and a Muslim in equal measure with a shared Zionist-Palestinian heritage.
“I wanted very much to do something, to make something of this bizarre perspective,” she says.
“I gave up on the idea that I could make any kind of meaningful political contribution to peace between the Arabs and the Israelis. That seemed like a kind of fools’ paradise. So I asked myself whether there was a meaningful contribution that I, with this unhappily unique perspective, can make. This seemed like a contribution."
A fictionalized version of her parents’ parallel upbringings on either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and their improbable love affair is the basis for “Ishmael’s Oranges” (Oneworld), Claire’s compelling first novel. She pursues her star-crossed lovers through the violated orange groves of Jaffa to the dusty wasteland of defeated Nazareth, from the cramped suburbia of Jewish Sunderland to the druggy parties of London in the swinging sixties and thence to the bejeweled penthouses and torrid refugee camps of Beirut.
Claire novel was published just days before the latest crisis erupted in Gaza, plunging her back into the eye of a political hurricane. While her Jewish cousins expressed support for Israel, her Palestinian cousins protested outside the Israeli Embassy in London.
She says she feels the acute pain on both sides – and also sees the flaws in each of their arguments.
“These are two very bunkerized societies and they can’t see each other’s narratives at all,” she says. “The narratives are incredibly similar and they run on these parallel tracks and both of them tell the same stories with the same degree of emotion. The stories have the same themes - and yet they absolutely cannot see it."
“To me, watching everything that’s been happening recently it’s been like revisiting many of those themes of my childhood. It reminded me more and more powerfully how incredibly hard it is, when people take an arbitrary starting-point for their own story, how hard it is for them to look beyond the narrative they spin themselves."
“You realize that these are webs that can almost never be untangled because people choose an arbitrary starting-point and they stick to it like glue and refuse to move, because it’s part of what their core identity is built out of."
She decided to approach the theme using fiction as a tool to unlock those narratives without taking sides – or, as she has done all her life – seeing both sides.
“Fiction seemed to me to be, almost in a funny kind of way, almost a better approach than memoirs or political commentary. It’s a way that you can sneak inside these narratives and humanize the other side of the story,” she says. “I wanted to almost force people to see a counter-narrative, to feel it emotionally and viscerally, rather than have to come up with rationalizations and arguments why it couldn’t possibly be so and it’s all totally wrong.”
“I want people to be able to read through a narrative with the pain and the hopes of someone on the other side and see similarities."
“What a tragedy we find ourselves in where it’s not enough that you be right,” she says. “Everybody else has to be so irredeemably wrong. There can’t be anything to cling on to, any nugget of truth, anything of value in the argument of the other side."
The novel that will introduce readers on both sides of the divide – and neither – to worlds they probably have never encountered before.
Claire says she hopes she has enabled readers “to find a narrative where people are just people, where they do foolish things, where their societies are complex and convoluted, where their families are troubled and difficult – I think that’s going to be a challenging thing for some people to read."