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

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -

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

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