Claire Hajaj is the daughter of a Jewish mother born in England and a Muslim father born in Jaffa. In her first novel, “Ishmael’s Oranges" (Oneworld), she makes use of her uncommon background to convey the feelings of both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs with nuance and understanding.
The novel recounts the story of a Salim, a Palestinian Arab and Judith, a Jewish English girl. The author’s own heritage is reflected in a certain symmetry in the story’s structure. The book starts with Salim growing up in Jaffa and Judith growing up in England. The second part recounts their meeting and their life together in London – on Judith’s turf, as it were. The third part finds them in Kuwait, where Judith is clearly an outsider. The fourth and final part presents Salim coming back home to Israel, and the ultimate denouement of the story.
The reader comes away with a strong feeling of sympathy for the experience of the Palestinian Arab, chased from his home, driven by economic needs to Western lands and Arab countries, but fitting in nowhere. The social ambiguities of pre-1948 Palestine are reflected in the first part of the novel, though the depiction of the Jewish family as having a strong Arab identity Jew feels slightly caricatured. The middle part of the book in some ways is the strongest, probably because it’s on more neutral ground and there is no pressure on the writer to be balanced; Hajaj’s descriptions of Salim’s experiences as an Arab in white England and his interactions with Judith’s Jewish family are very credible and heartfelt.
The book is well-written in spite of the obvious stress of trying to be even-handed, reflected in editorial comments here and there. While most Jewish readers would probably find the story insufficiently impartial and the author’s sympathies tilted to the Palestinian view, this book is nevertheless worthwhile for a depiction of the Palestinian experience that touches the reader’s heart.
Meylekh Viswanath teaches finance at Pace University.