Divided by geography, war, and the lore of return
All the Rivers
Serpent’s Tail, £8.99
Reviewed by Madeleine Kingsley
ALL THE Rivers is that rara avis in today’s world — a banned book. Dorit Rabinyan’s novel of forbidden love between a Jewish academic and an Arab artist was proscribed from school curricula by Israel’s Ministry of Education. Its values were judged contradictory to those of the state. Ensuing protest against intolerance only added allure to a book (then called Borderlife) that was already a prizewinner.
But All the Rivers enticement of taboo: Liat and Hilmi’s hothouse affair in free, melting-pot New York, seduces on its own, rich descriptive merits. Rabinyan paints their coup de foudre with a poetic and perceptive touch that loses nothing in translation. They meet by chance in the Café Aquarium but there is, from the start, a seemingly inevitable enddate to their steamy coupling. It can endure only as long as the record-breakingly frozen winter.
Both have return tickets, he to Ramallah and she to her “precious bustling
Dorit Rabinyan: forbidden love theme Israeli life” with its “fleets of towers dominating the sky”. The concrete wall going up back home, even as they bring down personal barriers, is a symbol of all that will separate them psychologically, politically and tribally.
Hilmi hopes that what they share will prove more than “a gesture lavished upon him capriciously by fate.” Liat feels jealous of the real wife she foresees Hilmi will one day have. Yet she admits to lacking the courage for “a heroic, inconvenient, defiant life” and keeps the fact of her crosstracks boyfriend a guilty secret from her Persian, Orthodox family. “I dream about something simple,” she says, “a red roof and a couple of kids, with someone like me.”
As historic enemies, Hilmi and Liat are profoundly different, yet paradoxically familiar strangers. They have grown up surrounded by the same olive groves under the same blue sky, tasting the same hummus and shawarma. They’ve lived with the same injunction not to waste water. They understand suspicion and fear: as a small girl, Liat walked to school with a pin in her hand to stab imaginary Arab kidnappers. Hilmi’s parents fled the Jericho refugee camp in ’67 and he was held for illegal graffiti.
They fight over faith and fervour, over the possibilities of a one- or two-state solution. One, argues Hilmi, since all the rivers in their country flow into the same sea — a sea that restrictions have allowed him to visit only three times in his life. Liat warms him with memories of her favourite beach in Jaffa.
Friends in New York, remark how true and tender they are together. Liat strengthens his fragility, soothes his disturbed dreaming and inspires him to paint with self-belief.
And when she succumbs to a vicious virus he nurses her with chicken soup, antibiotics and fresh bed-linen.
Summer finds both of them back home. But the drama of Rabinyan’s denouement is not as Liat hoped — that the Wall would serve as a “kind of protection from him missing me, from me missing him.” There is apprehension, tinged with longing, that Hilmi may turn up in Jaffa, with the tide …
Madeleine Kingsley is a freelance writer