A fast life in the middle lane
Jenni Frazer meets a writer who stands on both sides of the Mid-East conflict. David Goldberg tastes Marmite CLAIRE HAJAJ
IT IS a fair bet that Claire Hajaj could have done without the violent political and military situation that has accompanied the publication of her first novel, Ishmael’s Oranges. But Hajaj, a quintessential child of the Middle East with a British Jewish mother and a Palestinian Muslim father, is only too aware of the repeated cycles of violence which erupt in her neighbourhood (she lives in Beirut where both she and her husband work for the UN).
With considerable regret, she says that it was the Middle East conflict that eventually destroyed her parents’ marriage — and it is her parents’ love story that forms the semi-autobiographical basis of her novel.
Warm and thoughtful, Hajaj, a former BBC journalist, says that the book has been growing in her since she was born. But it was a wedding in the UK of a cousin on the Jewish side of her family that really crystallised her thoughts.
“One of my cousins came to the UK on the Kindertransport and it was her daughter who was getting married. At this wedding, there was a great-aunt who was the last remaining child of the 13 children of Rebecca and Samuel Book, who had come to Newcastle from the Pale of Settlement. She began telling me stories of her childhood, and I realised that, soon, the first-person voice of that generation would be gone and, if I was going to write these stories, now was the time.”
Hajaj had just had her own daughter, now aged four, and she wrote the book partly, she says, to let her daughter understand the legacy of both sides of her family. Her parents, says Hajaj with a laugh, “were products of the Summer of Love.” They met at Manchester University. Her mother had grown up in safe, conservatively Jewish Sunderland and Manchester provided her with her first “blast of freedom.” Her father’s family had stayed in Israel after 1948 but had lost most of their assets, including the Jaffa house that is the focus of Hajaj’s novel. He was, she says, “an angry and attractive young man”, and adds that both of her parents had grown up in “confined tribal narratives”, which originally they kicked against in order to marry.
Though they tried very hard to overcome all the political hurdles between their two backgrounds — “they thought that l ove would just make it work” — in the end, after 25 years of marriage, her parents split up. And Hajaj says unapologetically that, although there were personal problems, “in the end, the conflict swallowed their marriage. I see it as another casualty”.
Hajaj and her two siblings were brought up in Kuwait where her father’s job took the family. She herself was “born contrary” and says she becomes more viscerally Jewish with the Palestinian side of her family, and vice versa when she sits with her Jewish relatives.
Her father’s family has become more politically active in the second generation, she says, drawing a wry picture of some of her cousins going to demonstrate outside London’s Israeli embassy, while her Jewish relations send round emotional emails about the murdered Israeli and Arab teenagers.
On both sides of her family, she notes, “there was wilful blindness. And I felt that, with that blindness, they were shutting out half of me”.
One of her earliest memories in Kuwait, she says, was asking her mother why it was forbidden to tell people that their grandmother’s family name was Shapiro when she came to visit:
“I was five and my mother explained to me about the Arab-Israeli conflict. And I said, ‘well, when will it end’, expecting her to say, ‘next week’. And she just said, ‘I don’t know’.”
Hajaj’s father, she reveals, has chosen not to have a relationship with her, so she is unaware of his response to the book. Her mother has read it, but she admits that these days they argue more about the Middle East conflict than formerly.
Claire Hajaj is not optimistic about the future, and does not believe that Israel can survive as a Jewish state. But her unusual perspective has given her a tough and gutsy take on the Middle East. Perhaps there is a role as mediator awaiting her. ‘Ishmael’s Oranges’ by Claire Hajaj is published by m. Jenni Frazer is the JC’s comment editor
Claire Hajaj: fiction crafted from a political and personal inferno