Writing about Dorit Rabinyan’s “All the Rivers” (Random House), newly published in an English translation by Jessica Cohen, requires unspooling at least two narratives. One is contained within the novel that first appeared in Israel as “Gader Haya” in the spring of 2014. The second is a real-life political tale that emerged in Israel more than a year later.
At its core, “All the Rivers” is a familiar love story: Think “Romeo and Juliet” or “West Side Story.” But in this graceful and distinctive novel, the protagonists are a 20-something Israeli Jewish woman (Liat) and a Palestinian Arab man (Hilmi) who meet in New York in the fall of 2002 and begin a passionate relationship.
Liat, the novel’s narrator, is in New York on a Fulbright fellowship. From the pair’s first hours together, she is pessimistic: “I doubted there was any point going on with this evening.” Yet she does go — with a significant caveat. She determines that the relationship can continue only until her visa expires in the springtime; at that point, she will return to her life in Tel Aviv, and Hilmi — most of whose family lives in Ramallah — will not be part of it.
But, oh — those New York months. So much connects this couple, beginning with their decidedly Levantine appearances. (As the novel opens, Liat, a daughter of Iranian Jews, receives a visit from FBI agents who’d received a report of “a Middle Eastern-looking young woman engaged in suspicious activity” at a café; she’d been writing emails in Hebrew that another patron mistook for Arabic.) They bond through an exceedingly brutal winter: “To us the cold is traumatic, an alien sensation that shocks our disbelieving bodies repeatedly, and we cannot grow accustomed to it.” Hilmi nurses Liat through a debilitating illness.
Upon the book’s release in Israel, Rabinyan confessed to some anxiety. In a Haaretz interview, she attributed the nervousness to the 15-year delay since her last novel’s publication. But prompted by her interviewer, she acknowledged the “political issue” looming above the newer book “that talks about friendship and mutuality and a shared destiny.”
At first, all went well. As Rabinyan’s website indicates, the book became “an immediate best seller in Israel. The novel was named one of the ten best books of the year by Haaretz newspaper and was also awarded the prestigious Bernstein Award for Literature.”
Then came the end of 2015 — and the second narrative.
Consulting Rabinyan’s website again, one reads that the novel “became the center of a political scandal in Israel when the Ministry of Education banned the book from high school’s curriculum.” But the situation, which garnered immediate worldwide attention, was less simple.
The New York Times, for example, reported that the ministry had “decided not to include” Rabinyan’s novel “on the list of required reading for Hebrew high school literature classes.” According to The Times, “teachers had reportedly requested that the book, published in 2014, be included in the recommended curriculum, but a professional committee chose to exclude it.” A ministry official had “said that the book had not been banned, and … did not rule out its inclusion in next year’s list of recommendations.”
Moreover, The Times continued, “after a flurry of protests by high school principals and teachers, the education ministry appeared to partially back away from its decision, saying that teachers could recommend the novel to students in advanced literature classes, but not as part of the regular school curriculum, according to Haaretz, the Israeli daily.” So was the novel “banned”?
And what precisely made it objectionable? One can fall into a virtual rabbit hole of articles/editorials detailing and arguing about the fracas. At the risk of oversimplification: Officially, the chief worry seemed to be that the fictional romance paved the way for possible increases in intermarriage and the dilution of distinct identities.
This much seems certain: If you believe that the ministry’s actions amounted to censorship, and if you recall the saying attributed to Federico Fellini that “censorship is advertising paid by the government,” the ministry helped promote the book beyond any publicist’s dreams.
Also clear: For Rabinyan, what occurred was wrenching. Although deeply grateful for the support she got from advocates and readers, she has expressed in a number of interviews disbelief and devastation that her work could be construed as dangerous to her country. Further, the situation unleashed vitriol that went beyond garden-variety online “trolling” to even more alarming in-person harassment at her home and in public.
Yes, some moments in “All the Rivers” are bound to discomfit readers who support Israel. Take Hilmi’s account of his four-month imprisonment (for a graffiti-related infraction) and harassment by Israeli guards. Or Liat’s recollections of anti-Arab sentiments among her own kinsmen and fellow Israelis. Not to mention multiple instances when Liat reacts instinctively with a heightened sense of self-blame: “I was struck again by a dim echo of guilt and by the inescapable symbolism: the loss of his keys and the jangling presence of my own as a simplistic metaphor for our miserable situation back home.” On the other hand, while Hilmi rarely acknowledges, let alone personalizes, Palestinian misdeeds, he instructs Liat — twice — to avoid traveling by bus when she returns to Israel in May 2003, in the middle of the second intifada.
Still, much of this novel’s conflict stems from Liat’s deep attachments to both her country and Hilmi. A committed Zionist, Liat clings to hope for a two-state solution, because she cannot envision life in the binational one that Hilmi’s brother, for one, anticipates and espouses. She suspects from the start that ultimately, she must choose between Israel and Hilmi. And she chooses Israel.
Which brings us to a third narrative — a backstory, if you will. Its protagonists are Rabinyan herself and Hassan Hourani, a Palestinian artist whom she met in New York in late 2002. Yes, the novel’s roots are located in this pair’s lived experience. Read today, the exquisite essay Rabinyan published after Hourani’s death 14 summers ago seems close to an anticipatory novel synopsis. With this book, Rabinyan has written moving, resonant love letters to both Israel and Hourani. That is a compelling, worthy achievement.