Love stretched across the di­vide



Oneworld, £16.99

READ­ING CLAIRE Ha­jaj’s novel took me back to when, last year, I spent Shavuot in Jerusalem, walk­ing to the Old City at dawn against the cry of the Mus­lim call to prayer. This is the kind of book that Ish­mael’s Or­anges is, one that con­jures up the sights, smells and sounds of the Mid­dle East as you turn the pages.

Span­ning the years be­tween Is­rael’s es­tab­lish­ment in 1948 and the first In­tifada, it is a love story about a Bri­tish Jewish girl and a Pales­tinian boy, Salim, whose fam­ily fled their home in Jaffa when the Is­raelis came in.

The girl, Jude, is born just as Is­rael first as­serts its state­hood. A few years on, she meets Salim and em­barks upon a fit­ful, tem­pes­tu­ous re­la­tion­ship.

With its echoes of Lynne Reid Banks’s One More River, Ha­jaj’s book calls up the ghosts of the Holo­caust, while the War of In­de­pen­dence hangs like an im­mov­able cloud over the story. Pre­dictably over­bear­ing Jewish and Arab rel­a­tives med­dle in the cou­ple’s af­fairs — usu­ally while serv­ing food.

Not only its Romeo-and-Juliet style set-up, but also the way the nar­ra­tive is struc­tured upon key mile­stones such as the Six-Day War or Sabra and Shatila, can lead you to imag­ine that you’ve read this stuff be­fore.

But Ha­jaj is too good a writer for that feel­ing to linger and Ish­mael’s Or­anges is much more than a stan­dard retelling of the dif­fi­cul­ties that be­set two com­mu­ni­ties ap­par­ently al­ler­gic to rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

Nei­ther Salim nor Jude is a crude stereo­type nar­rowly de­fined by cul­tural iden­tity. Their re­la­tion­ship, while im­prob­a­ble, is easy to buy in to. This is as much a story of the dif­fi­cul­ties of mar­riage in gen­eral, and of any clash of cul­tures, as it is a spe­cific tale about Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans.

Ha­jaj keeps the plot rac­ing along and con­veys a sense of the per­sonal tragedies in­volved be­ing more deeply felt than the larger, po­lit­i­cal ones.

Ha­jaj, who has a back­ground in the UN, is a gifted writer with a de­tailed knowl­edge of her sub­ject mat­ter. She suc­cess­fully evokes the emo­tions and be­hav­iour of Jews and Arabs alike.

E x p e r t s m i g h t ques­tion t he hi s - t o r i c a l minu­tiae re­lat­ing t o t h e

Is­raeli- Pales­tinian con­flict but this is not a his­tory book and, as an ac­com­plished piece of sto­ry­telling, it does demon­strate that Mid­dle East­ern pas­sions are a rich source of fic­tional ma­te­rial.

The back-story — the loss of Salim’s fam­ily home and his life­long strug­gle to re­turn to Jaffa — is mov­ingly told and is a salu­tary re­minder of the darker as­pects of Is­rael’s post-in­de­pen­dence his­tory.

You can­not fail to sym­pa­thise with his plight, though I sus­pect more hawk­ish read­ers will ar­gue that Ha­jaj is un­duly kind to him with­out giv­ing the Jews a fair hear­ing.

This it­self would be un­fair; her nar­ra­tive high­lights the in­jus­tices and tragedies that have be­fallen both peo­ples.

If you are look­ing for a grip­ping, chal­leng­ing sum­mer read, then Ish­mael’s Or­anges should be on your list. And if it leaves a legacy of en­hanced un­der­stand­ing, that would be no bad thing. Jennifer Lip­man is a free­lance re­viewer An in­ter­view with Claire Ha­jaj will ap­pear in a forth­com­ing edi­tion of the JC

Claire Ha­jaj — love in a caul­dron of pas­sion and harsh en­mity

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