Romeo and Juliet never actually tell their families about their relationship; their entire, fatal escapade is based on their imagined fear of what would happen if their parents did know.
This is also the case with Liat and Hilmi, two characters—Israeli and Palestinian expats, respectively—who meet in a Greenwich Village cafe and wander New York before embarking on an affair. Throughout the pages of the novel that tells their story, these star-crossed lovers eat, drink, go back and forth between their apartments, sleep with and near each other, fight and make up—experiencing the shifting seasons in the bone-deep way any sensitive person living in a temperate climate might.
All the while, a clock is ticking. That’s because their respective homelands, and families, are locked in the world’s most notorious impasse. “Let’s say your parents knew about him. What would they do?” asks Joy, a friend of the Liat’s, early on. “They’d hang me!” Liat jokes. But both she and her listener are left discomfited, and she never tells her parents the truth.
All the Rivers (Random House, $27) by Dorit Rabinyan, is a quiet story made loud by its political context—so much so, that it was deemed worth censoring by the government. Rabinyan’s novel—published in Israel as Borderlife—was denounced by the Education Ministry, ostensibly because the book encourages intermarriage.
“Banned from Israeli classrooms!” reads the jacket copy, promising a read that’s titillating and edgy. Yet within the pages of All the Rivers, I found something that shouldn’t be controversial: an intimate, compressed description of two young people experiencing romantic love with a time limit. The pace and tone of the novel mimic their relationship: awkward and stilted as they approach each other, dreamy as they fall in love, intense and quick-moving as the deadline of Liat’s departure for Israel approaches.
And then, as the novel drew to its sob-worthy conclusion, I came to understand the source of the political hullabaloo. Because within these pages is an honest depiction of what being the daughter of an occupying nation does to a person’s heart; it constrains it.
And clearly that is what ticked off the censors.
Rabinyan (who was inspired by her own relationship with Palestinian writer Hassan Hourani) is not interested in picking apart the enemy’s heart; her critical lens is turned on herself, her culture. Liat, her stand-in, is the narrator, the protagonist. Thus it’s also her flaws that are dissected—and in particular one eternal flaw: the limit of her love. She suffers from her inability to imagine her family, her country, accepting her lover as an equal human being.
Ultimately, though she adores Hilmi, she cannot see them merging beyond a single season. “Sometimes I’m jealous when I think about the wife he’ll have one day, the woman who will have Hilmi in the end, after all this was over,” Liat says to Joy months later, choking up.
Joy stands in for the reader in asking: “Good God, how? How can you? … How can you love with a deadline, with a stopwatch running?”
“What choice do we have?” asks Liat.
In press interviews, Rabinyan has been specific in stating how this is meant to be a metaphor; Hilmi doesn’t just represent Palestine, but the dream of a binational state, two peoples under one flag. Meanwhile Liat represents the good and bad of Zionism: the loyalty, the independence, and fierce love of the Jewish people on one hand—and also the fear which can lead to the erection of a wall. Liat’s folly and wisdom, her admirable independence and frustrating stubbornness, are so intertwined it’s hard to tell where one begins and one ends.
It’s easy to want to castigate Liat, but impossible to do so without looking at ourselves, too—and the choices we make that allow our lives to be easy. Openly defying community norms is no simpler now than it was in Shakespeare’s time; it’s just that the norms have changed.
Although Hilmi is portrayed with somewhat rose-colored glasses, they look like realistic lenses; he is the consummate artist, an idealist who burns with the fervor of the here and now, the cultivation of hope. Thus, though he is a tragic figure, he is also an optimistic one, returning home for a visit, looking across the skies at Tel Aviv, planting a garden (which means he’s staying put a bit, in hope). In this year of walls and global fear, we need acts of radical imagination—and the ability to suspend our allegiances, even temporarily, to see ourselves in others.
The moments in the novel that chilled and moved me the most were when both characters acknowledge, even tacitly or offhandedly, the violence committed by their side: don’t get on any buses, Hilmi tells Liat, worried about suicide bombs. She worries about his being shot, “surrounded by soldiers at a checkpoint.” When it comes to the safety of their beloved, each is willing to look their own side’s atrocities in the face. This suggests that if we see the so-called enemy as human, and worthy of love, we too might be able to be honest about our own complicity in violence.
When Liat speaks of their impending separation, she says: “That’s just how it is.” But All The Rivers leaves the reader to ponder the question: Why does it have to be this way?
Sarah Seltzer is a writer and editor in NYC and a regular Lilith contributor. Find her on twitter at @sarahmseltzer.