Love stretched across the divide
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