Book review: Dorit Rabinyan′s "All the Rivers"

Star-crossed lovers

In her bestselling novel "All the Rivers", Dorit Rabinyan tells the poignantly beautiful love story of an Israeli translator and a Palestinian painter in New York, a romance that eventually dies due to the apparently unsolvable Arab-Israeli conflict. By Volker Kaminski

Few lovers get closer to each another than Liat and Hilmi. The young translator from Tel Aviv – in the USA on a scholarship – and the ambitious young artist from Ramallah, who has just started working on a new series of paintings, fall head over heels in love in New York. Having met by chance they seem made for each other, feeling an irresistible attraction from the very beginning. And even once the first erotic high has faded, they remain inseparable.

On their very first walk around Manhattan, there are so many symbolic moments that the reader is left in no doubt as to the seriousness of their nascent relationship. The Palestinian Hilmi expresses the optimistic hope that Arabs and Jews will be able to share the sea and the beach in the foreseeable future and the word "together" becomes a leitmotif of their conversation.

The fact that he′s lost the key to his home that very afternoon highlights the political sword of Damocles dangling above them on a metaphorical level. Liat, more robust and realistic than the languorous Hilmi, wisely advises him to call a locksmith, gaining them access to his apartment all the quicker so that their passionate love story can unfold unhindered.

Thankfully, the author refrains from overly clear symbolism for the remainder of the novel. The cold framework that holds the couple in place, the unsolved conflict between two opposing nations that never quite disappears from the back of their minds, lends the book a fundamental gravity, even though the two of them manage to escape their rising concerns over the future a number of times.

Facing the inevitable

Cover of Dorit Rabinyan′s ″All the Rivers″, translated by Jessica Cohen (published by Random House)
Romeo and Juliet for the 21st century: an international bestseller, Dorit Rabinyan′s novel ″All the Rivers″ has scandalised the Israeli authorities

Liat wishes she could simply delete the fear that secretly tortures her, like the calls saved on her phone. Yet she has a more realistic view of the future than her carefree paramour. She knows from the outset that she could never oppose her Israeli family in Tel Aviv and alienate them by getting involved with a Palestinian.

Unlike Hilmi, who is working – not coincidentally – on a series entitled "dream child", she realises their happiness together has an unalterable "expiry date" in the near future: the end of her six-month stay in New York and her return to Israel.

As if to underline the Romeo and Juliet motif, the author sets her story in the time between 9/11 and the beginning of the war against Saddam Hussein in 2003.

It is a time when FBI agents knock at doors unexpectedly to follow up vague suspicions, asking anyone who looks even vaguely Arab pedantically detailed questions about work, life and their residence in the United States. Liat is subjected to such treatment at the beginning of the novel, when two unfriendly police officers scare her with a visit to her accommodation.

Although the specific political conditions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict post- 9/11 are not directly visible and the Second Intifada and the building of the Israeli border fences in the West Bank are only touched upon in passing, the hard cut away from the soft-focus images of a love story to the high-security border region with its time-consuming checks and roadblocks makes the novel take a sharp turn, abruptly tearing readers away from the star-crossed protagonists.

Embedded in a major political conflict

Looking back from Israel, Liat′s time with Hilmi in New York seems to her like a dream. Even the many debates and crises she went through with him and her fear that people might find out about her relationship with a Palestinian artist appear insignificant – compared to the brutal reality of the political status quo.

A video recorded on a friend′s balcony in Ramallah, panning across the ″Wadi″ into the surrounding landscape, shocks Liat when she watches it with Hilmi. She sees the cold tower blocks and concrete of Tel Aviv rising on the horizon beyond the West Bank, looking almost threatening at that moment. It is presumably such Israel-critical passages that prompted the Israeli authorities to categorise the novel as unsuitable for use in schools, but for readers outside of the conflict, these parts do not seem particularly offensive or politically incorrect.

A deserved but unexpected success for Rabinyan – the novel′s listing on the index has actually made it more popular in the rest of the world, now translated into 18 languages. With masterful skill, the author has set her unusual love story in the midst of a major political conflict, while doing justice to both the emotional level and the tough reality. A pleasure to read, with the "stigma of love" echoing in the reader′s mind long after putting the book down.

Volker Kaminski

© Qantara.de 2017

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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