'All the Rivers': Love across the Middle East conflict

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Dorit Rabinyan, author of "All the Rivers."
  • By Dorit Rabinyan
  • Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen
  • Random House. 288 pp. $27

It is 2002-03. Liat, a 29-year-old Fulbright Fellow, and Hilmi, a 27-year-old painter, strike up a passionate romance in New York City. She's Israeli, he's Palestinian, and back in the West Bank and Gaza, his people have launched an intifada against a military occupation maintained by hers. What could possibly go wrong?

Sharp and bracing despite a sentimental strain, and beautifully rendered into English by Jessica Cohen, All the Rivers won the Bernstein Prize in author Dorit Rabinyan's native Israel. It became a best seller there when that country's Ministry of Education removed the original Hebrew edition from the national high school curriculum. Setting aside right-wing fears that the novel could encourage interethnic love affairs, as well as speculation as to how much of the story derives from Rabinyan's real-life friendship with the late Palestinian artist Hassan Hourani (to whom the English edition is dedicated), All the Rivers deserves attention on its own merits.

Rabinyan unpacks language's political baggage. Hilmi, for whom Hebrew is associated with menacing Israeli soldiers, tells Liat: "When you speak it, I almost think it sounds nice." Meanwhile, it pains Liat that Hilmi's mutterings in incomprehensible Arabic while asleep strike her as "strange and threatening, bloodcurdling."

The two communicate, and argue, in English. Both oppose the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. However, whereas Hilmi, idealistic and somewhat naive, advocates a binational country of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, hardheaded Liat insists that only two separate states will resolve the conflict. Yet this novel by an Israeli author proves self-assured because its Israeli protagonist allows that her Palestinian lover is sometimes also a (friendly) nemesis. "I hated the taste of losing at the end," she says of their political flare-ups, in which she -- ironically -- rejects a Jewish-Arab union mirroring their relationship.

Even as their mutual affection deepens, Rabinyan reveals that Hilmi and Liat are no Romeo and Juliet struggling valiantly against circumstances impeding their love. In the author's sorrowful yet resolute telling, they seem resigned to parting by the summer of 2003, when Liat will return to Israel.

"How can you love with a deadline, with a stopwatch running?" an exasperated American friend asks Liat. Back in Tel Aviv, Liat has good reason to revisit the question; impetuous Hilmi, vacationing in the West Bank, dodges Israeli army checkpoints and heads her way for a visit.


Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer in Beirut.