Ishmael’s Oranges, by Claire Hajaj. Oneworld Publications. 226 pages. Hardcover $24.99.
Novelists exploring Middle East tension and catastrophe occasionally focus on the possibilities of a loving relationship between an Israeli (or simply a Jew) and a Palestinian (or simply an Arab or Muslim). The couple’s hardships become a microcosm of the region’s perplexity. Rise: A Novel of Contemporary Israel, by Yosef Gotlieb (2011) is one impressive example of such works. Ishmael’s Oranges adds new dimensions to this way of examining recent Middle East history and wraps it in a highly evocative poetic style.
Spanning forty years, 1948-1988, Ishmael’s Oranges begins shortly before Israel declares statehood but already has forces on the move, taking over or threatening Arab population centers. A seven year old Arab boy, Salim, is teased by a slightly older neighbor: “The Jews are coming for you! They’re going to kick you out and break your skinny arse like a donkey.” Salim is the middle son of a fairly prosperous farmer. Jaffa oranges are the family’s and the community’s treasure.
Jaffa’s harbor, beaches, orange groves, and downtown square are lavishly described, and we receive an ominous glimpse of Tel Aviv’s skyscrapers. The bully, Mazen, is the son of a local judge. He knows that the Jews will soon be taking over Jaffa. The only Jew Salim knows is another neighbor and friend, Elia, son of Isak Yashuv – a man who “was nearly an Arab. You could never tell him apart from any other Palestinian.” Elia’s mother was a “white” Jew from outside of Palestine.
Salim’s mother, with her “white forehead and olive green eyes” is also a foreigner; Abu Hassan al Ishmaeli had taken a beautiful, much younger Lebanese woman as his second wife.
In sketching this population, Hajaj smoothly introduces the complexities of racial and ethnic identities.
Soon, Salim’s family members are refugees, fleeing Jaffa for the relative safety of Nazareth. One thread of their story has to do with their dreams about and attempts to reclaim their Jaffa home and farm.
Salim’s story now begun, Claire Hajaj next introduces Judith’s story. In Sunderland, England (a Luftwaffe industrial target), a young girl is born to Dora Gold. It’s a difficult birth: “There was enough blood and ripped flesh for a battlefield and at the end a tiny, limp girl born of struggling for oxygen just as the new state of Israel was drawing its first breath.” Named Judit, after her mother’s mother who died in wartime Budapest, she adds the “h” when she is five years old and is later nicknamed “Jude” by a bossy school friend. Her other grandmother, Rebecca, is the true maternal force. That harrowing forty-eight hour delivery had chilled Dora’s maternal instincts.
Judith shares a room with Gertie, a Holocaust survivor sixteen years older than Judith who was adopted by Judith’s parents long before when Dora and Jack thought they were unable to have children. Growing up, Judith learns that her Uncle Max had fought in Israel’s War of Independence. Her Jewish identity is formed by these relationships. Although she studies for Bat Mitzvah, Grandma Rebecca’s death drowns her pleasure in reaching that goal.
Hajaj moves back and forth between Salim’s world and Judith’s world, often using important historical markers to focus scenes, until she has plotted a series of events that leads them to meet and fall in love. Judith is now eighteen and Salim is twenty-five. One of the most brilliantly conceived episodes along the way takes place in 1956 when the Salim’s father attempts to obtain justice in a Tel Aviv governmental office, aided by his son-in-law Tareq. The attempt, a dismal failure, reveals that a Jaffa neighbor had betrayed the family’s interests.
After their mother abandons their Nazareth home to return to Lebanon and rebuild her fortunes, sister Nadia, Tareq, and Abu Hassan hatch a plan to send Salim to his older brother Hassan, who has a small repair business in London. Salim, totally weary of his life as an Israeli Arab, takes the opportunity. He works hard, studies hard, and earns an economics degree at University College, London. He becomes a British citizen and holds a British passport. He has prepared himself for a new life.
At a party, he meets the slight, attractive young woman everyone calls Jude.
Now comes the heart of the book: their courtship and marriage; the painful negotiations with their respective families; and the individual sacrifices and promises made in the hopes of building their life together and starting a family. They have their eyes wide open, or do they?
Though Salim is climbing the ladder of success working for western businesses in Arab countries, there is a ceiling for people with his origins. He is betrayed by the big Satan – Western economic imperialism – that won’t fully acknowledge his worth.
Slowly, the spouses’ loyalties to their families of origin, their cultures, and their national identities make claims that threaten to destroy the marriage. Salim’s guilt over abandoning his Palestinian heritage is played upon by his PLO-influenced younger brother and others. By now the couple has children, a darker twin and a lighter twin, innocents who – through their parents’ personal crises – are victims of the crisis that continues to poison the Middle East.
Emotionally and intellectually powerful, and blessed with gorgeously rendered scenes in Beirut, Bagdad, Kuwait City, and elsewhere, Ishmael’s Oranges imaginatively tests the limits of crossing boundaries in a world in which one’s personhood remains colored – perhaps tainted – by undying prejudices and conflicting loyalties.
This review appears in the October 2014 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota / Manatee).