From a one-sided perspective
Dorit Rabinyan’s novel “Borderlife” has sparked heated debates inside Israel. But the love story between an Israeli and a Palestinian is far less progressive than our reviewer Phil Butland had hoped
My friend, Saeed Amireh, grew up in Ni’lin in the West Bank. Ni’lin is less than 30 kilometres from the Mediterranean. In the evening, people from the village often climb a hill from which they can see – and even smell – the sea. But Saeed was never able to enter the sea until he was invited to Sweden on a speaker tour. Because of Israel’s strict border controls, he cannot swim in water that was fully accessible to his fore-fathers and -mothers.
This Love is political
Chilmi, the hero of Dorit Rabinyan’s novel, is a Palestinian who shares some of Saeed’s experiences. Unlike Saeed, he has had the opportunity to swim – twice, in the Red Sea in Egypt – but that was it. When Chilmi’s new girlfriend Liat starts to gets to know him better, she is regularly amazed by banalities, like the fact that he can not swim, but also by his descriptions of the repression that all Palestinians have to experience on a daily basis.
“Borderlife” tells the story of Liat and Chilmi’s love affair, as they get to know each other in New York. In Israel, Rabinyan’s novel has triggered a major controversy because Liat is Israeli and Chilmi Palestinian. As long as they are in the US, their “forbidden” love is somehow possible. But it is clear that this cannot last as they eventually will have to return to their homeland.
The Israeli Ministry of Education has forbidden the book for school lessons on the grounds that it “promotes intermarriage and assimilation”. Minister of Education Naftali Bennett supported the ban because he said that the book depicts “Israeli soldiers as sadistic war criminals”.
According to a report in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, “intimate relations between Jews and non-Jews, and certainly the option of formalising them through marriage and having a family – even if it doesn’t come to fruition in the story – is perceived by large segments of society as a threat to a separate identity”. In other words, the majority of Israelis are not prepared to accept emotional relationships with Palestinians.
It is not just art that is suppressed in Israel. In 2014 hundreds of demonstrators tried to prevent the marriage between the Palestinian Mahmoud Mansour and the Israeli Moral Malka: in the end, the couple had to be accompanied to the altar by security forces. The marriage could only happen at all after Malka had converted to Islam, as marriage between Muslims and Jews is not possible under Israeli law.
“Borderline” does show us the problems faced in a relationship between people from groups which have not been allowed to mix. However, these problems are only explained from Liat’s point of view. As an author, Rabinyan has every right to choose such a structure for her novel – many excellent pieces of literature are told exclusively in he first person. The problem is that Liat as a character is so superficial and self-obsessed that her opinions are of very little interest to us.
A lot of ink (or its contemporary equivalent) has been shed about the fact that Rabinyan’s book was banned in Israel. It is perfectly correct to scandalize the ban. The Israeli state’s approach to the book is shameful and indicative of wider problems in this society. However, partly because of this scandal, very little time has been spent artistically appraising the novel. Of course, everyone should be allowed to read “Borderline” – and this includes Israeli school students. But is the read worth the effort?
In my opinion, on an artistic level, the book is, unfortunately, extremely weak. This is partly due to Rabinyan’s style and the unsympathetic nature of her protagonist. This artistic weakness, however, also has political roots. More of this later, but let’s start with the literary criticism.
An unsympathetic protagonist
It is a welcome relief to read an Israeli novel in which Palestinians appear at all. But is it too much to hope that we don’t hear everything mediated by the thoughts of a middle class Israeli? Chilmi is never allowed to speak directly to the readers, and we only see him through Liat’s often very distorted perception. There are countless scenes in which Chilmi is ushered out the room while Liat is phoning to her parents in Israel. In each scene, this is a crisis of world-shattering proportions. Liat (and perhaps Rabinyan, too) does not think of opposing the racism of her parents. It is always Chilmi who has to leave the room.
In contrast, we learn little about Chilmi’s efforts to keep contact with his family in Ramallah – and when we do, this is only to the extent that it affects Liat’s life. Indeed, Liat rarely shows interest in what Chilmi does or thinks. She is excited that she has a boyfriend – but it is less clear whether she likes him as a person. And if Liat shows little sympathy or compassion for Chilmi, she has0 even less for his brother who tries to tell her about the realities of life in Palestine when he comes to visit.
In the USA, the two can maintain their superficial relationship, but Liat has only a student visa and must return to Israel. In the course of the book, she does not think about the possibilities of extending her visa and staying with Chilmi in New York. Because of Liat’s indifference, this is not a tragedy in which the protagonists can not escape their fate.
As it happens, Chilmi does visits his family in Ramallah around the same time that Liat returns to Tel Aviv. This leads to an apparently major plot twist: will the lovers be able to be reunited in their home countries?
Hard to believe
In reality, this “plot twist” wouldn’t cause many problems at all. With her Israeli passport, Liat could quite easily travel to the Area C (60% of the West Bank) and meet Chilmi there. But this doesn’t appear to occur to her (nor is it mentioned by the author). Even if Liat visited Chilmi at home in Ramallah in Area A, she would only violate Israeli laws, and the Israeli authorities would be much more lenient with her than with an illegal Arab in Israel.
Yet Chilmi must take the great risk of trying to evade the border controls to visit his lover in Tel Aviv. Is Liat really so unconcerned with their relationship? If she does care, it remains unclear why it is always Chilmi who has to take the initiative.
Is this political criticism relevant? Can not we just read the novel as an exciting Romeo-and-Juliet story? I believe that on one level it would be impossible to tell a story of Romeo and Juliet in today’s Israel and Palestine. For the Montagues and Capulets in Shakespeare’s drama are “two households, both alike in dignity”. Romeo and Juliet have roughly the same to lose as each other.
A relationship between a Palestinian and an Israeli on the same level would be impossible without leaving the country or fundamentally questioning Israel’s laws. And Rabinyan explicitly does not want to do that. In an interview, she described her readers as follows: “By buying my novel, they reconfirm their trust and belief in Israel’s liberalism, in Israel’s freedom of choice and speech.” Anyone who knows a little bit about Israel knows that this liberalism and freedom may apply to best-selling authors and their readers, but not to most Palestinians.
This does not mean that it would be impossible to write a good novel about an intercultural love affair in Israel/Palestine. Sayed Kashua’s “Dancing Arabs” is a masterly example of how this can be done. But, as I wrote in my discussion of the film adaptation: “all of the film’s protagonists are affected by the Israeli occupation, but they are not affected equally.” Without recognizing this simple truth, it is difficult to take Liat’s trivial problems seriously.
An ultimately ignorant attitude
Whether or not Rabinyan intentionally depicts Liat as an unsympathetic character is not clear to me. Either way, Liat’s attitude is quite typical of social liberal Israelis like the author. They are repulsed by the racism in Israeli society, while seeing the Palestinians, not as living and feeling people, but as a problem that must be solved.
From such a perspective, an equal relationship is just not possible. Ruth Achlama, the translator of “Borderline” expressed a similar attitude in an interview with the “Jüdischen Allgemeinen” newspaper: “It is clear in many descriptions that Liat loves her country. She wants to found an Israeli family. A future in New York with Chilmi for example does not come into question for her at all”.
The book’s German title, roughly translated as “We’ll meet at the sea”, already indicates the near impossibility of relationships between Israelis and Palestinians – how can the lovers meet at a sea when Palestinians are forbidden access? This is, by the way, a problem that is not addressed by the “two state solution” preferred by social liberals like Raninyan, and the racial separation and ethnic cleansing that this ‘solution’ would entail.
In a colonial settler state, the oppressed can never be liberated by ‘progressive’ settlers – they must take their destiny into their own hands. Otherwise, even if they are allowed to speak for themselves – which is rarely the case in this novel – they are the objects of pity, or at best dignified victims. It is great that this book thinks about the suffering of Palestinians, but they deserve much more than a walk-on role in an Israeli love trauma.