The hands of loss keep touching the memory

All the Rivers
by Dorit Rabinyan
translated from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen

I remember spotting this book in the Serpent’s Tail catalogue last year and immediately liking the sound of it. It had potential to be brilliant or awful, to deal with complex matters sensitively or insensitively. Thankfully, to my mind, Rabinyan got it just right.

Liat is a translation student spending the academic year in New York City. She is practical and idealistic. Hilmi is a painter struggling for his artistic break. He is passionate and pessimistic. When they meet one day in a coffee shop there is instant attraction, but it also immediately clear that theirs won’t be a straightforward courtship. Besides the fact that Liat has only six months left on her visa, there’s the question of where she will be moving back to. Because she is from Israel and he is from Palestine.

The narrative isn’t quite linear, dealing with different aspects of the relationship in turn. First there’s getting to know each other. Then there’s Hilmi’s burgeoning art career. Then how they act around their friends. And so on. The day of Liat’s departure keeps getting close, only for the story to jump back a few months to fill in fresh detail. It feels very much like the way someone remembering events might structure their thoughts.

“How do I describe him now? Where do I start? How do I distil the first impression created in those few distant seconds? How do I extract his finished portrait, composed of layer upon layer of colour, back into the pale, hasty pencil sketch that my eyes drew the first time they landed on him? How can I use a mere few lines to paint the whole picture, with all its breadth and depth? Is it even possible to attain that sort of scrutiny, that measure of lucidity, when the hands of loss keep touching the memory, staining it with their fingertips?”

Though they have other problems, the one big, seemingly intractable one, is politics. (Liat is Jewish and Hilmi is Muslim, but neither is very religious and this rarely comes up.) Like every Israeli, Liat spent two years in the army. She was taught all her life to fear Arabs (despite her own family being from Iran, and therefore rather Arabian in appearance). Hilmi, meanwhile, grew up fearing Israeli soldiers and settlers. And while they quickly accept each other as people outside of those labels, they cannot make that exception for all of each other’s friends and family, nor can they extrapolate to seeing the whole political situation in new light.

Liat keeps Hilmi separate from her Israeli friends in New York, which initially seems unfair to him. But then we see dinner parties full of stories about Palestinian terror attacks and it seems that maybe exposing Hilmi to that conversation is what would be unfair. Hilmi takes it very personally that Liat has not told her parents about him and makes him leave the room whenever she speaks to them on the phone, but then when she does tell her sister, it goes very badly.

The timing of the novel sets up another political strand to the book – it is set in late 2002 and early 2003. The book opens with Liat being questioned by police, with uncomfortable inferences about her race and intentions. It turns out that she was reported for suspicious activity after being seen typing in Hebrew in a café – the observer having presumed the language was Arabic and that she was therefore a terrorist. This seems almost funny, until in the next scene we meet Hilmi whose first language is Arabic and reflect on what that means for his experience of being in New York so soon after 9/11. This doesn’t stay at the forefront of the action, but there are occasional reminders, which help to explain why the solution for Liat and Hilmi’s romance is not necessarily to stay here, in the bubble of New York.

The descriptions of the city are wonderful – familiar and packed with small details, but still clearly seen through an incomer’s eyes. It was a particularly long and cold winter and there are many evocative descriptions of the cold weather’s beauty and pain. The struggle to stay warm is something Liat and Hilmi can share, like the suspicious eyes of strangers. Every so often something from home will come up that seems like it could bring them together – a pop song or a foodstuff – but one of them will generally find it to be a reminder of the difference between them.

“We who travelled from the other side of the planet, from the place where the sky is almost always blue and the sun smiles 300 days a year and snow is a rarity…to us these are months of exhausting, unsettling, intolerable coldness. To us the cold is traumatic, an alien sensation that shocks our disbelieving bodies repeatedly, and we cannot grow accustomed to it. Winter shuffles the cards, jumbling us beyond recognition.”

This book taught me details about the Israel–Palestine situation that I hadn’t previously known, and explained more clearly than many an article on the subject why a peaceful solution is so difficult to find. It’s also beautifully written and a believable, unsentimental love story.

When I looked up Dorit Rabinyan’s website I discovered that this book caused a scandal when it was first published in Hebrew. The Israeli ministry of education banned it from being taught (schools had begun to use it as a progressive teaching tool). I can only assume this is because Rabinyan is so honest about the reality of the situation. She does not ever offer one solution as being correct or even closer to workable. She does not paint Israel or Palestine as better or worse. What she does is pinpoint differences in the way that two people who lived a large chunk of their lives only 40 miles apart (Tel Aviv and Ramallah) see that land and their place in it.

I was very moved by this novel, as well as profoundly uncomfortable with the political situation it depicts. I would very much like to get my hands on Rabinyan’s other novel that has been translated into English.

First published as Gader Chaya (“Borderlife”) in 2014 by Am Oved.
This translation published February 2017 by Serpent’s Tail.

Source: A proof was provided free by the publisher via Net Galley.