Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
Any author writing fiction about Palestine for a Western audience has two problems. The first is Westerners’ overall unfamiliarity with the Middle East, its long, varied history, and its very diverse cultures, and our attendant assumption of the superiority of Western institutions and practices. The second problem is the polarized, propagandistic nature of the current information that Westerners receive from both sides with regard to Palestine and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Recently released in English by Guernica Editions, French author Hubert Haddad’s prize-winning 2007 novel Palestine is a brave attempt to get past the political noise and cultural baggage to tell a story of human beings caught in the remorseless conflict between Palestinians and Israelis.
In the southern West Bank, an Israeli soldier, Cham, is wounded in an ambush. Briefly captured by a small group of terrorists, he is soon abandoned by his captors near Hebron. Dressed in Arab clothing, with no memory of who he is, Cham wanders until an Arab scrap dealer finds him and delivers him to the home of Asmahane, a blind woman, and her anorexic daughter, Falastin. As they nurse Cham back to health, they notice his resemblance to Falastin’s brother, Nessim, a university student who is missing and presumed dead. Years before, Falastin’s father was killed by the Israelis. Falastin, then eleven, was with him at the time and is still haunted by memories of that day. She is now part of an underground resistance movement.
After he has recovered, Cham moves through the checkpoints and back alleys of Hebron, learning the other side of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, as he is beaten and nearly imprisoned, witnessing harassment, raids by the Israeli army, and the razing of Asmahane’s house with her inside. Cham and Falastin fall in love, but her course is set, and she disappears on an undisclosed mission of her own choosing. Alone, Cham joins a terrorist group and infiltrates back into Israel wearing a vest laden with explosives.
Haddad’s main point seems fairly clear: take an Israeli, subject him to the same treatment that Israel metes out to Palestinians and that Israeli will likely become a terrorist, too.
He inserts a good deal of factual information into the text, mostly through dialogue, which is clearly meant to give the reader some background into the history and events that shape the daily lives of Palestinians. The descriptions of the relentless cycle of violence in both its deliberate and capricious forms are viscerally disturbing.
But Haddad also adds literary touches. “Falastin” is Arabic for “Palestine,” and, indeed, the beautiful, thin girl represents the land of Palestine, a place of marvels starved by circumstance. The language is often poetic, giving resonance to the unique and delicate beauty of the West Bank as well as the profound suffering of its people.
But some of this works, and some of it doesn’t. The translation seems true to the French, but Haddad’s poetic images often contain odd or incomplete references. And he seems to prefer using pithy adjectives and adverbs instead of fuller elaboration. An Israeli soldier is described as an “abusive occupier, trapped in resentment”—whose resentment it is, and of what is not clear. Falastin “took in the landscape like a bird with jealous wings.” A breath is “fatal.” Phrases like these are evocative, but at the same time a bit vague.
The plot is thin and moves rather fast. The main purpose of Falastin and Cham’s moving in and around Hebron seems to be to allow the author to describe the checkpoints and abuses by Israeli authorities, but there is little else to create drama or suspense to give credence to the radicalization of Cham.
The characters present another problem. The few Israeli characters mostly are caricatures, either bigoted or lustful. Several minor characters are used as polemical vehicles, and thus come off as overly preachy. This gets tiring. And unfortunately, with the exception of Asmahane, who comes across vividly, the main characters seem distant. We get almost nothing of what is going on in Cham’s head as he fills the blank spaces of his memory with images and emotions from life in his new identity. As an amnesiac, he must be in a constant state of bombardment with what he is experiencing, trying desperately to establish reference points to help him understand what is going on around him. His state of mind is declared, but not developed or illustrated.
It’s similar with Falastin. The haunting memories of her father’s death come across in all their horror, but her current state of mind is presented to us as a given. We never get an intimate sense of her inner person—her doubts, her worries, her conflicts. Her falling in love with Cham comes out of the blue and seems inconsistent with her otherwise detached, driven personality.
Here and there, this is a powerful book, but its defects accumulate to leave the reader unsatisfied and unconvinced.