Translated by Jessica Cohen
Set shortly after 9/11 in New York City, Liat is an Israeli, born into an Iranian-Jewish family. She is on a student visa in New York, working on translation skills. While there, she meets Hilmi, a Palestinian artist who is living in Brooklyn. They are both from the Middle East, but like Romeo and Juliet, they are from warring sides. And unlike that famous pair, the obstacles in their way are considerably bigger than a family feud.
Liat knows she is on a six-month visa and she goes into the relationship thinking it will just be a fling, but she quickly realizes that she has fallen in love. Hilmi also falls in love, and he is very much aware that their political differences are going to be a problem. In fact, the only thing they fight about is geography and the occupation of the Palestinian territories. And Rabinyan manages to show both sides of the Palestinian argument, the good and the bad.
Liat knows her family, especially her parents, would never accept such a relationship. She tells her sister who is very judgemental, but for the most part, keeps the relationship secret from the other Israelis she knows in NY. Hilmi is resentful of this but cares enough about Liat to overlook it, most of the time anyway, but still finds it very hurtful. When Hilmi’s brothers come to visit, Liat gets into a huge argument with them and Hilmi keeps silent. Eventually, the brothers leave and the lovers find their way back to one another.
Then Liat’s time is up and she must return to Israel. Hilmi decides to leave shortly after, planning on spending the summer at home. And then tragedy strikes.
This is a beautifully written book and covers a lot of significant events. What I found most interesting is that these characters are not your typical Israeli Jew and Palestinian Muslim. Liat is Persian and Hilmi has been brought up by an atheist father, and does not appear to be religious at all.
Rabinyan won Israel’s prestigious Bernstein Prize in 2015. The book became politicized when Israel’s Ministry of Education banned the book from the high school curriculum. Nevertheless, it has been translated into 17 languages and is being taught in high schools around the world.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not include this from The Guardian (2004) which officially blew my mind: