The Palestinian-Jewish Author Rocking America's Literary Scene

Hannah Lillith Assadi’s debut novel is a fraught tangle of identities: a Palestinian father who moved to the Arizona desert because it reminded him of home, a worried Jewish mother and a stormy, almost sinister life in New York. She talks about how to untangle the knot

Hannah Lillith Assadi. 'The desire to understand the conflict, its dynamics and its history, felt inescapable to me in my younger years'
Natan Dvir

A year and a half after the publication of her acclaimed debut novel “Sonora,” Hannah Lillith Assadi is planning to board a plane in a few weeks that will take her from her home in New York back to her parents’ house in Scottsdale, Arizona, which lies a three-hour drive across the desert from Sonora, Mexico, the place that Ahlam, the main character in her book, yearns for.

Her parents’ home, where Assadi grew up and which is at the heart of the book, will be her destination for the last time: not long ago, her parents completed their preparations to move to their new apartment in Brooklyn, a short taxi ride from Assadi’s own place. The three will take the cross-country trip of nearly 2,500 miles back to Brooklyn in the family car.

Hannah Lillith Assadi, center, at the 2018 5 Under 35 celebration, honoring the debut fiction writers Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (Friday Black), Lillith Assadi (Sonora), Akwaeke Emezi (Freshwater), Lydia Kiesling (The Golden State), and Moriel Rothman-Zecher (Sadness Is a White Bird).
Beowulf Sheehan

In the meantime, her father Sami has been making the final arrangements for the move — and trying to address the psychological weight of leaving home yet again. The house has already been sold.

“The new owners of their house out there cut his bougainvillea down and removed the fountain he installed there,” she relates. “It’s all he’ll talk about. How sad the garden looks. How destroyed. How now he finally knows what his mother and father felt like in 1948.”

When Assadi talks about her father’s torments, it’s hard not to think about Yusef, Ahlam’s father and a main character in the book, who like Assadi’s own father conducts his life in the shadow of being a refugee, having been uprooted from his family’s home in Safed 70 years ago.

Joining Hannah and Sami on the road trip will be Susan Assadi, née Gitenstein, the author’s Jewish mother. It will be 40 hours on the road together with a trunk filled with a complex national history of wars, refugeehood, racism and a fair amount of anti-Semitism.

The cover of 'Sonora'
Soho Press

Susan’s family were the only Jews in the town of Florala, Alabama, where Confederate flags flew freely. “This was a very southern Baptist place,” she says, “and the story that my mom always tells is that people would come into their yard and try to poison their dogs. I think over time the town grew to accept my grandfather there… He had a textile factory and employed so many people in the town. And for the most part, they were very supportive of him. Because of the employment situation of the factory, they respected them, but of course there were some outliers there.”

Florala — population 2,000 — sits on the border between Alabama and Florida, which gives the sense that nearly 100 years of the Assadi family’s history is largely a story of borders: the border between Israel and Syria, between Arizona and Mexico and between southern Alabama, with its problematic history of repression and ugly racism, and nearby Florida, one of the most heavily Jewish states in America. Assadi herself says that she is Jewish in the same way that she is Muslim and in the same way that she is Christian: Religion doesn’t speak to her.

“Sonora” recently made headlines again when the National Book Foundation named Assadi as one of the best fiction writers under the age of 35.

The book had garnered a lot of praise, including receiving the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. It was also a finalist for the prestigious PEN award for the best debut book of the year. The Huffington Post said of the novel: “The Bottom Line: A poetic story about friendship, loss and the fractured ways in which we assemble an identity, and a home.”

‘Home for him’

The Deir Yassin massacre took place a few days before my father’s birth. It was anomalous in its violence. Villagers, women, children, were all shot. Town after town from Jerusalem to the northern borders emptied as people left on foot with only their most important belongings, thinking they’d be back soon. Some were lucky enough to board buses, the way only a few years earlier, my mother’s grandparents boarded trains in the green woods across Eastern Europe toward a worse fate.”

About this quote from the book, Assadi says: “Human suffering is human suffering. The Holocaust was a genocide, and was of an entirely different magnitude than the Nakba. Part of the tragedy of the situation and the conflict ... is in the collision of two immense sufferings, one of far more dreadful consequences than the other of course… I don’t want to say that Jews have a bigger responsibility in the world because of what they’ve been through because I think all human beings should live up to a higher morality. But on some level, because I am Jewish, then yes, let’s be better. As a Palestinian, let’s us too be better. And as an American, let’s be a lot better. And most fundamentally, as a human on this planet with the only known capacity for life in this distant corner of the universe, let’s be better.”

There is a world of difference between the Assadis’ current move and the circumstances that led to Sami’s loss at the age of 5, when his family was forced to leave Safed for Syria, and again six years later for Kuwait. Then, the family’s flight was caused by echoes of gunshots and booms of the artillery in the war of 1948, uprooting 400 years of life in the narrow lanes of Safed. This time, he is leaving Arizona of his own free will, not as a destitute refugee child but rather as a proud adult, a family man and a partner (with his wife) in a successful public relations firm, who is well off and can afford a new apartment near his daughter in one of the world’s most expensive cities. Yet refugeehood has a logic of its own and it turns out that one doesn’t discuss the uprooting of plants in the home of someone who has been uprooted.

“One day he would like to go back still,” says Assadi. “I think that in his most conscious mind that’s not realistic and that it doesn’t exist the way it did, but I still think he believes that. He still says sometimes, ‘Maybe we can all just move there, live there.’ I think at the most fundamental level that’s where he still believes is home for him.”

Hannah Lillith Assadi in midtown Manhattan.
Natan Dvir

But the dream of returning to Safed will remain no more than a wish. Seventy years after he left, at almost 76 years old, there is little chance that Sami will make even a short visit to the city he never stops talking about. Some years ago the family planned a trip to Israel but, says Assadi, “My father heard about somebody being questioned in an airport. I think it was either a friend or a relative and then he got very nervous and he didn’t want to be questioned so… he just couldn’t do it.” Sami didn’t need to resort to that friend or relative. It was enough for him to talk with Hannah, who 14 years ago, at 18, was stopped and questioned by Israeli security officers at Los Angeles airport just prior to boarding a plane for Israel for the first and only time, because her last name aroused suspicion. The name Assadi, she says, means “Lion-like... people of the lion.”

Neither Islam nor Judaism

During the interview, Assadi reiterates several times that “Sonora” isn’t an autobiographical novel even though there is a resemblance between the life of her protagonist, Ahlam, and her own. Just like her, Ahlam grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona, and looks toward Sonora, on the other side of the Mexican border and blends in to the deceptive desert landscape, sometimes depressing and sometimes exhilarating in its beauty.

Ahlam’s father Yusef is a cab driver of Palestinian origin — a job Sami held for many years — a hot-tempered man, eaten up by longings and impelled by a strong sense of being a refugee, who is married to a Jewish woman named Rachel. It seems that it was important for Assadi to make the unusual even more extreme in fiction and depict the mother not as an American Jew but as an Israeli immigrant to the United States; she — the daughter of Holocaust survivors, and her husband — a survivor of the infamous Deir Yassin massacre.

The book moves in time between the present, intertwining the story of Ahlam’s family, deeply worried about her hospitalized father, with flashbacks of Ahlam’s adolescence in his shadow — the strict man who refuses to adapt to the American mentality and the local language, a foreigner who obsessively continues to follow events in the Middle East and blames the sins of the Israeli army squarely on his wife’s frail shoulders time and time again.

It’s hard to pull away from the dominant presence of the father in the novel, as opposed to the mother’s passivity. He unceasingly talks about Palestine and pines for the life he left behind. Rachel, however, adapted easily to life in New York, so much so that it seems Israel had become nothing more than a distant memory for her. In reality, says Assadi, she grew up in a warm home characterized by far fewer dramas and national power struggles. Her parents met at a nightclub in New York City’s Tribeca; despite the burden that her father and his parents bore for so many years, Assadi says that the relationship between her parents was always accepted by both sides. “I think my mother’s parents loved my father and were fairly supportive of the marriage. And similarly my father’s parents... my grandmother loved my mother and I think they grew up in Safed, living with Jews.” On her mother’s side, too, they did not make any fuss over the fact that she was linking her fate to that of a Muslim man, which could perhaps explain Assadi’s neutral approach to the whole matter of religion.

She describes her father as a “spiritual” person, religious in his own way, whose longings for Safed attest to his readiness to give up the good life and all the abundance that the United States afforded him. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she notes, hardly entered their home and the religious differences between her parents became more of a piquant detail than a source of tension.

Hannah Lillith Assadi. 'Human suffering is human suffering. The Holocaust was a genocide, and was of an entirely different magnitude than the Nakba'
Natan Dvir

In this context she describes herself as dissociated from both Judaism and Islam; even though one year she fasted for the entire month of Ramadan, Judaism played a bigger part in her home life, although even that was minimal. As for many Jewish American families, it amounted largely to a loose connection to Israel, a single trip to the Holy Land, mainly to check it off a list, and a membership at a synagogue where they would go for the High Holidays and not much more. When they did attend, her father would sometimes come along.

Ahlam is much closer to her father than her mother in the book, and he is the more dominant character. But Assadi says that “My mother and I speak every day, sometimes multiple times a day. I think she’s a typical Jewish mom — she’s just constantly worried about everything. Me and everything.”

“I would say my mother and I connect in this world, on this plane, and my father and I connect on more like abstract, spiritual concepts,” she continues. “Like we talk about ideas from books a lot. Sometimes I talk to my mother a few times a day. And recently way more than that because we’re handling this move. So yeah, my mother and I have a very different relationship than my father and I and I’m close to both of them, just in different ways. I would say my mother and I spend more time both on the phone and in person and we’re together, sort of, talking. My father and I probably have much more sort of spiritual conversations. Like more abstract things. But my mom too. I mean she reads all my work, she’s one of my first readers so... she’s involved in that too. It’s two different relationships.”

A black hole

Assadi, like Ahlam, left Arizona for New York at 18 to study for at Columbia University — but with the blessing of both her parents, unlike the character in the novel. It was those college years in New York that reconnected Assadi to her roots.

“In college,” she says, “I was involved in some amount of pro-Palestinian activism. I don’t consider myself a nationalist per se, so it was already a bit complicated for me to advocate for the justice and rights of people and frame it in terms of a national identity. Just the way I have a hard time with religion, I have an even harder time with nationalism of any kind. The only solution I could stand by then for the conflict was a binational one-state solution with equal rights and citizenship for everyone, Jewish and Arab, as well as the right of return for refugees of the ’48 and ’67 wars.”

Looking back, Assadi is aware that this was wishful thinking more than a realistic solution: “A very idealistic stance, yes, but it was what was touted as the only just solution within my academic niche at Columbia. I graduated in 2008, and the next winter, the horrific events in Gaza happened, with thousands of Palestinians dead. I was no longer watching the events and able to banter about them intellectually. I lost touch with my bubble of idealism. I just wanted it to end, somehow, some way.”

At Columbia, Assadi chose to major in Israeli and Palestinian literature and wrote her senior thesis on a comparative study of the ways the desert is perceived in the poetry of Yehuda Amichai and Mahmoud Darwish. “The desire to understand the conflict, its dynamics and its history, felt inescapable to me in my younger years mostly because Israel/Palestine was everywhere in the news during my coming of age in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Like any kid trying to find herself, I thought my parents’ identity was fundamental to that search. And yes, I felt my ‘unique’ position might expedite the crystallization of that person I was longing to be... Neither of my parents particularly encouraged my studying of the Middle East academically. When I told my father what I intended to study — the history, literature and culture of the Middle East — he told me I was wasting my time, that the entire place was a black hole that would consume me and never let me go.”

A group of students protest the visit of Danny Danon, Israel's Ambassador to the United Nations who was invited to give a lecture at Columbia University in Manhattan, New York, on February 13, 2017.
Mohammed Elshamy / Anadolu Agenc

Ten years after completing her degree, Assadi has not yet returned to Israel, which she has visited just that one time, between her freshman and sophomore years at Columbia, the visit that began with the unpleasant questioning at Los Angeles airport. “It’s been a long time since my visit to Israel... nearly 14 years. What I recall feeling is both a tug to the land, something undeniable, like seeing an old lover, or suddenly having a vivid and difficult dream of a past life. And I also remember feeling this huge heaviness. Like the land itself was weighing down on me, the way sadness feels, or maybe even depression. Perhaps it was the longing for it that I inherited in my blood through my father, or thousands of years of Jewish blood from my mother. The only place I felt it lift was in the sea, in the Mediterranean.”

Inevitably, Safed was a very important part of her visit. “Safed was magical and sad. I remember now for some reason the lanterns on at dusk, the deep blue of the sky. It’s there mystics say the Messiah will appear, I think. I wandered around on the phone with my father, half-looking for the house he was born in. But all he remembers is a tree in the courtyard. He always talks about that tree, an olive tree I’m guessing now. How do you find a house by way of a tree? It’s funny, his obsession with that tree in that house in Safed and now this obsession he has with the bougainvillea in the garden in Arizona. It’s 70 years later and he’s losing his bougainvillea in 2019 and his olive tree all over again 70 years in the past.”

A knife in the Palestinians’ back

Assadi doesn’t really want to talk about politics, perhaps for fear of an angry response from American readers who won’t like what she has to say, and maybe due to the sensitivities of being born to parents who represent the two different sides. Nevertheless, if there is a moment when she finds it hard to hold back, it’s when President Donald Trump’s name comes up in conversation. “He put the knife in the Palestinians’ already crippled back when he moved the capital to Jerusalem. Beyond cruel,” she says.

And what about the United States? It’s interesting to hear what Assadi, having grown up on the border with Mexico, thinks about the wall Trump is insisting on building along the country’s southern frontier and the dispute over its funding that lead to the government shutdown, which was still in force on the day we met in New York.

“It’s unbelievable that a state that uses so much employment from the community, either illegal or legal, can be so adamant about keeping them out. The state completely relies on that population: doing all the landscaping for all the wealthy people, etcetera. But I would let everybody in if it were up to me, so that’s my opinion.

“As for Trump’s wall and his shutdown, there are Americans who are going to run out of money for food in a month. Yesterday at my local grocery in Brooklyn, there were signs saying ‘No EBT [welfare benefits payment cards] accepted overnight due to the shutdown.’ Two women in there were shouting at the owners. His own citizens won’t be able to afford food. And he’s worried about his wall.”