Hebrew Fiction / 'Juggling Between the Languages'

This is a story about great loves and a double betrayal: the heroine's betrayal of her father because she's ashamed of him, in a manner typical of second-generation immigrants, and her betrayal of her Jewish husband with an Arab lover


by Iris Eliya-Cohen. Hakibbutz Hameuchad (Hebrew ), 334 pages, NIS 89

Irit Barnea is "an Israeli success story." She's a dark-skinned Mizrahi girl from a poor neighborhood in Haifa who is now married to Arik, an architect who is the ultimate Ashkenazi as well as being a devoted and loving husband. They have three children and a dream house in the Jezreel Valley, with a fig tree beneath their bedroom window. In spite of all that, Irit cheats on Arik and spends the novel engaged in a type of covert, unsentimental soul-searching as she tries to describe why things happened the way they did.

"Maktoub" is a story of great loves and a double betrayal: Irit's betrayal of her father because she's ashamed of him, in a way that is typical of second-generation immigrants from Arab countries, and her betrayal of her Jewish husband with her Arab lover. Although the plot is rife with passion, the distant tone in which the story is told (from Irit's point of view ) attests to a basic sense of not belonging, as though the events are being dictated to the main character. The term "maktoub" in Arabic means "dictated from above": Whatever is meant to happen happens.

The novel begins with a crisis in Irit's ostensibly perfect married life, which gives rise to the story that brings her repressed past to the surface. She refers to the process of meeting Arik and his conquest of her as "Arikization." "My brain cells are undergoing an accelerated Arikization," she says. "They contain nothing except my white beloved. I forget even my mother and my little brother." He wraps her in his love until she is "totally Arikized." His love is as comforting as her father's consoling embrace when people used to make fun of her dark skin. It is also the path to the mainstream. That is why she often restrains herself from fighting back even when Arik hurts her emotionally, for, "he's rich. I'm poor," she thinks. "He's smart. I'm stupid. He's white. I'm black."

The silence and the passion create a complex tension in their relationship. There is evidence of things being pushed aside, of a failure to listen to her voice and a concealment of her identity. There is great intensity in the passion between Irit and Arik, as there is in the silence and the repression. Iris Eliya-Cohen succeeds in describing the sex between them in captivating natural language The strong sensuality in the text is related to Irit's hunger for her Mizrahi identity - the smells, the touch, the Arabic language and music, the taste of the food, the sights - and a longing for her father, a native of Syria. She was 9 years old when he drowned and left her with feelings of guilt and shame (her father didn't know how to read Hebrew, and that cost him his life ), along with a frayed identity.

Again and again the narrator's pleasant memories of her father arise from the depths: the bedtime stories that he would tell her every evening in Arabic adorned with a few words in Hebrew, "juggling between the languages in a sweet and fleshy voice," as she will say later of her lover Ahsan, when she becomes addicted to hearing Arabic again, but fights it as well. These stories, which were handed down orally for generations, are the exilic baggage that her father carried with him, and his legacy to her - baggage that can be opened only next to the bed of Irit as a child, in the intimacy of the room, where she is the only one who will know. With Ahsan, she fulfills her orphaned desire to recapture that "old excitement."

A random encounter in the plant nursery in her town with Ahsan, an Israeli Arab gardener, changes everything and leads Irit to embark on a forbidden love affair, which takes dangerous root in the soil of her life and sets off a chain of surprising and irreversible events. His rootedness and naturalness, and the stereotypical Oriental image that she has of Ahsan, cause her to lose control and almost to lose her family.

But Ahsan is not Irit's father. They may be similar in mentality and language, but the relationship between Ahsan and Irit only emphasizes that she has already distanced herself from her roots, and that the two of them are after all on opposite sides of the ethnic barrier. But still for Irit, as a woman and as a child, there are many questions that remain, waiting to be answered: "Why do they always use the word black in negative contexts?" she asks Ahsan. "A black cat. A black sheep ... a black flag. Why is it that the color black has such a dubious reputation?" "It's exactly like the dubious reputation of the Arabs for you," he replies. "You complain and say: 'That's real Arab work' ... and if someone doesn't dress well you say that he 'dresses like an Arab' ... and of course there's the matter of an 'Arab mentality' ... I have never heard you using the term 'European mentality' in order to describe bad habits."

Present and past intermingle throughout "Maktoub." The chronological story - the arc of Irit's life from age 5 to 40 - creates waves of concealment and revelation, captivating the reader to the point where one can't put the book down, which is its main strength. The novel brims and bubbles with dynamic and up-to-date Hebrew, although there is a lack of uniformity in the language registers, which fail to serve the idea of a combination of the high and the low. The many metaphors, some vibrant and precise and some superfluous, range from folksy to childish. But in the final analysis, Iris Eliya-Cohen's debut novel possesses a unique voice, and a great deal of daring and honesty.

Yael Gabai is a literary editor and critic.

Iris Eliya-Cohen
From the book cover