The Israeli-Palestinian Romance That Doesn't Dare

Yitzhak Laor
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Dorit Rabinyan.Credit: David Bachar
Yitzhak Laor

In Dorit Rabinyan’s new novel, “Borderlife” (Gader Haya, Am Oved Publishers, 344 pages; in Hebrew), Liat, the Tel Aviv woman who is the book’s protagonist, spends a year in New York toward the end of the third decade of her life, thanks to a scholarship. She has Israeli friends there, and through a Jewish acquaintance she chances to meet Hilmi, a young Hebron-born painter who lived in Ramallah and then in New York.

The second intifada has sputtered out. Israel has reoccupied the West Bank. Liat and Hilmi fall in love. Liat hides her love from her Israeli friends in New York and from her family in Israel. But they both share with their American friends. Liat lets her sister in on the secret in phone calls (during these calls Hilmi is asked to leave the room, even though he doesn’t understand Hebrew).

As summer approaches, Hilmi returns to Ramallah for a vacation and Liat goes back to Tel Aviv. He makes a point of staying in touch by phone until he perishes in a disaster. His death is due only in part to the fact that he is a Palestinian under occupation. The nature of the disaster chosen by the author to end this love indicates a certain sophistication with regard to the political background.

Liat’s insights about her lover excel in linguistic precision. His troubles heighten a maternal feeling in her. Sexual desire fans their love. The horrific years that have just ended seem to have left hardly a mark in them. Liat’s political awareness ranges between a paucity of knowledge about life in the occupied territories, and an ability to argue with Hilmi’s friends and siblings. They want “one state”; she wants “two states for two peoples.”

Liat has close ties to her supportive family. Hilmi loves his mother; his father is dead; his siblings are scattered in all kinds of places. He adores Liat and is very happy that she loves him. Occasionally he is offended by the circumspect way she guards him as a secret. Liat notices this and feels remorse. On the other hand, he gives no thought to the difficulties that the future holds for them. He lives his heady love in the present.

We don’t know anything about what Liat, a linguist, is meant to be studying, but she relates a good deal about Hilmi’s paintings, most of them variations on the boyish face he had. What we have until this point is a sensitive love story, parts of which are beautifully written.

Sex is sex

Liat doesn’t even consider resigning from an unimportant job awaiting her back in Israel for the sake of life with Hilmi in New York. Nor is she about to confront her parents with a fact that will hurt them (“Our daughter has an Arab boyfriend”). She also knows what hurts her most of all: the transience of their love, which will end when her scholarship runs out. But her love is not intense enough. The story is too long. There are not enough materials and daring to turn the story into a novel. Sexual excitement is just sexual excitement, even when it comes with love. The “relationship” that fills the book does not develop beyond what could be related in a short novella – that is, love should lead to marriage, to a family.

The author, too – who wrote Liat – is also apparently unaware of the relative superficiality of her love, of the sensitive, good, forthright Liat. Hilmi’s death staggers her but it also relieves her of a complicated love. So the sad ending is also something of a “success.” It is not her doing but the doing of the author, who cannot, or does not want to cope with dissonance other than by liquidation.

The author establishes close relations with the readers with the aid of “reality enhancers.” Whole pages guide us across “familiar” streets and places in New York. There are plenty of American names in Hebrew transcription, from Union Square to the subway to Tupperware. The problem is not the purity of the language. But the solicitation of the reader to experience what is, “after all, familiar to us all,” rests on language that is too thin.

Yes, for years now, the Israeli bourgeoisie at some stage becomes acquainted with the New York community of Hebrew-English. But the names or pizzerias and squares are no substitute for descriptions. The contrast with Rabinyan’s impressive linguistic power to depict situations, feelings, sights, weather is striking.

Rabinyan created Hilmi without an iota of the stereotypical, but his dialogues with Liat produce a prolonged cliché of being thrilled by “Israeliness” (the wonder, in the world’s eyes, of writing from right to left and all that “how you say it in Hebrew” and “how we do things” stuff). The height of all this is summed up in the theme of “We are both from the same Middle East.”

It’s all very nice to write about the shared weather and certainly about the similar skin color, but given the Middle East and a female protagonist of Persian origin and given Israel and skin color – it’s odd that the author never thinks to ask, even through the agency of Hilmi, about Liat’s childhood as a dark-skinned girl. Color, in fact, features in the book as a typifying element only “in the eyes of the Americans.”

In short, we can say that the author’s decisions are not daring enough to produce a taboo-shattering love story. She chose not to write a secret love story of a woman for a woman, or for a married man, and not to invent a married woman during an academic sojourn in New York. She chose not to write a love story between an Israeli Jewish woman and a non-Jew, whether American or Sudanese.

She decided not to write a love story about a Jewish woman and an Arab from Nazareth, but a love story involving an Arab man from the other side of the wall. And to finish things off, she decided to put him to death, but without asking herself – not the heroine, but the author – why, leaving us with nothing more than the answer that emanates from middle-class reading groups, in duplexes or in universities: “Alas, an impossible love.”

However, when the language doesn’t even touch the tension between the story and any sort of substantiality – namely “realism” and politics – the political collapses into the banality of “love-thinking” (there is no future other than in marriage), collapses in the face of the Jews’ contradictions when it comes to “mixed marriages” and “marriages between Jews and Arabs.”

Above all, the political collapses in the face of the book’s inability to narrate genuinely about occupation and walls and the racism of Israeli liberals, despite the political platform that is now accepted by all decent folk (two states for two nations, etc.).

Love’s transience

Let’s leave the political. It was a peg, let’s say, on which to hang the terrible concreteness of love’s real-ness for Liat. What is the author’s real-ness? What hurts her? What did she want to relate? The transience of love, too? Maybe. But in that case the real is too clear to remain real. It is formulated, summed up before being set down as a story, as though it’s all written as a treatment of screenwriters. A wound that has healed already.

The few pages of Chekhov’s “Lady with Lapdog” are far more revealing about the pain of transience and about what is denied to taboo-breaking lovers. People from small countries or towns acquainted with such suffering know how wonderful New York, or London, can be as a place to hide, and thus the opportunity that’s missed in Rabinyan’s story, even if we uproot the political.

Rabinyan is excellent in constructing microscopic elements of a love story, including descriptions of sex – not the act itself but the only substantiality that language can touch in the hands of exceptional individuals like the extraordinarily talented Rabinyan: the excitement, the sudden closeness, the fall of the barriers between two souls, the joy of drawing close, the pain, the anxiety. If the term “woman’s writing” has any meaning, it is found in the intimate aspect of this story.

Hilmi is different from Liat’s previous boyfriends – Israelis who did army service. He is more sexual than they, but he notes with irony that he lacks the three skills that characterize masculinity: swimming, shooting and driving. Liat swims, drives and has also shot (in the army). She is the man of this story, because she is Israeli, and Hilmi is the woman, as “he doesn’t have” what “she has”: command of the language of the book, connections, security, a luxury apartment and so forth.

“Borderlife” can also be read as a literary work in the era of the collapse of the type of criticism that had existed for many years – neither academia nor judges’ reasoning, but rather a central discourse, not necessarily “local.” Writers responded to the questions of the criticism, or contradicted it, or thumbed their nose at it. Readers looked for what the reviews asked, or turned their back on it. The reviewers debated it.

Those symbols are dead, and what’s left is selling books by the “one-size-fits-all” approach, easily digestible realism with fashionable enthusiasm for “political daring.” In effect, literature yoked to text-reality coupling. Reviewers and readers know this self-evident reality. The writer succeeds in making them happy with “the problem of mixed marriages” or “the occupation.” And literature? It is in M.A. dissertations on the history of “literature and the occupation” and so on.