An Israeli soldier almost turns into a Palestinian underground fighter. This remarkable transformation is the subject of a novel by the Tunisian-French author Hubert Haddad. The motif may have something to do with the author's dual allegiances – Haddad is an Arab Jew. Kersten Knipp reviews his novel "Palestine"
Assuming you lose both consciousness and your memory, and then awake in a fully unfamiliar location, how might you perceive your surroundings? And what criteria would you use? The Tunisian-born Jewish author Hubert Haddad, who for decades has lived in France, has applied the thematic device of memory loss in his novel on the inextricable Palestinian-Israeli conflict and has woven a tangled tale in the process.
Cham, a young Israeli soldier, is kidnapped on the border to the West Bank by Palestinian resistance fighters. There are obvious parallels to the fate of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped by Palestinian underground fighters from Israeli territory to the Gaza Strip in June 2006 – a year before Haddad's novel was originally published in French – and who has since been held captive in an unknown location.
Yet, in all other respects, the case of Shalit differs considerably from that of Cham, although the protagonist of the novel also suffers serious wounds. For Cham, however, this turns out to be a blessing in disguise. Rendered unconscious by his severe injuries, he passes through the hands of numerous captors before finding himself in the house of a Palestinian family that nurses him back to health over the course of many months.
Love beyond the border
His memory does not return and Cham remains disoriented. Who is he and where is he? Slowly, but steadily, he establishes a relationship with the people around him – people who he really doesn't know.
Yet, they also have no idea as to his true identity. Without his uniform, Cham looks like a Palestinian. In addition, he is fluent in the regional dialect. And because he has passed through the hands of numerous groups of kidnappers, his current guardians regard him as one of their own, a wounded Palestinian. And what of Cham? His reactions are completely unlike those he would have had before his capture.
Cham encounters people faced with enormous economic difficulties and who have to struggle every day to make a living. He recognizes that these people are just like him. He sees them with new eyes, completely lacking the usual stereotypes that so many Israelis and Palestinians have of each other. And under Haddad's pen, a small poetic wonder occurs.
Cham takes himself for a Palestinian resistance fighter. He equally regards himself as a member of the family nursing him back to health. They, in turn, confer upon Cham the identity of their missing son and brother Nessim. They see their role as protecting him from being captured by the Israeli military. Cham also develops feelings for those around him. He falls in love with Falastin, a young woman who bears the name of her homeland.
One could take this constellation as the poetic dream of a writer, who, as a Tunisian Jew, feels an allegiance to both sides, Arab as well as Israeli, and who does not regard the violence plaguing the region as natural or inevitable.
The feelings of friendship and solidarity, however, do not overcome in the end, but are instead usurped in the service of war. For Hubert, this is what constitutes the drama of the conflict. He sees it as something artificially produced, which, above all, pushes aside the ancient tradition of Jewish-Arab solidarity that Haddad knew from his own family experiences.
In an interview, Haddad recalled how his Algerian grandmother viewed Israel a something of a mythical homeland. She constantly yearned for this land and listened to Jewish-Arab music, which had a mythical-nostalgic connection to Israel.
A Palestinian wasteland
A great deal of this nostalgia can be found in Haddad's book. Yet, he is enough of a realist to see that such dreams are extremely difficult to realize in Israel. A massive wall criss-crosses the country, separating hearts and minds. Haddad characterizes the Palestinian territories as an enormous wasteland, gouged with border installations, settlements, and checkpoints. He describes a picture of an estranged world, in which even emotions are not reliable.
Just when Cham starts to feel at home in his new surroundings, his captors plan to use him as a suicide bomber. They calculate that if he is sufficiently manipulated, he could smuggle a bomb attached to his body into the centre of a large Israeli city.
Haddad's novel wonderfully demonstrates how flexible, yet also how fragile our images of the world can be. With his memory loss, Cham pays a high (as well as involuntary) price in order to see the Palestinian reality with new eyes. Then he makes their viewpoint his own, and thereby runs the danger of becoming an extremist for the opposing side. It remains the task of the author, using all the poetic means at his disposal, to show how morally reprehensible and politically senseless the role of the martyr actually is.
© Qantara.de 2010
Hubert Haddad, "Falastin." Translated into German by Katja Meintel. Hamburg: Edition Nautilus, 2009, 169 pp., 16.00 EUR. The original French title, "Palestine", was published in 2007; it is not yet available in English.
Translated from the German by John Bergeron