Country Focus: Israel (Yisra’el in Hebrew)
By Assaf Gavron
Translated by Assaf Gavron and James Lever
Originally published in Israel as Tanin Pigua by Kinneret-Zmora-Bitan, 2006.
My edition: Harper, 2010.
Acclaim: on the long list for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize
Time period: post 9-11
To make a long story short: Fahmi Sabih lives in the Al Amari Refugee Camp, where he half-heartedly constructs bombs and plans attacks for the Palestinian resistance under the direction of his fundamentalist brother, Bilahl. Eitan “Croc” Enoch survives three of their bombings inside of a week. The media gets wind of Croc’s remarkable luck and the shell-shocked Jew is interviewed on an episode of the popular television series Noah’s Ark. Croc’s remarks and his penchant for survival simultaneously turn him into a Israeli hero and Bilahl’s next target. Israeli forces capture Bilahl before he can take out Croc. Fahmi goes into hiding, but by strange coincidence winds up with a job cleaning Croc’s office building. Whether or not Fahmi follows through on his brother’s bloodlust is only briefly in question (we find out in the second chapter that Fahmi is in a coma and shortly thereafter that Croc was the intended victim); Gavron’s addictive novel focuses on the why.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that Grandfather Fahmi was somehow guiding my life from heaven. Bilahl hated it when I said that: he said that only Allah was guiding everything. But meeting the Croc made me wonder just who it was who was controlling my destiny. I remembered how Bilahl had said that we needed to kill the Croc because he’d been turned into a symbol for Jews. He would have said that Allah had placed the Croc in my hands for just that reason. Our poor father would have said that Allah had introduced us so that I could see he was a human being like myself.
The armchair travel experience: Through Croc, a Jew, and Fahmi, a Palestinian, Assaf Gavron presents two contrasting viewpoints of the Holy Land.
Croc’s character reveals the life-threatening gambles routinely taken by people who live in a city that’s often hit by terrorists. Should he ride the Little No. 5 minibus that has been bombed before, with the rationale that the terrorists won’t bomb the same bus twice, or should he find another ride based on the assumption that one successful No. 5 attack will encourage repeated attacks?
Fahmi tells the reader about the deprivations of the refugee camps, where his mother died from lack of clean water. Regularly subjected to curfews, checkpoints and searches by Israeli forces, he expresses his frustration with the backwardness of his existence: “Where else in the world does it take longer to get from place to place as the years go by?”
The author’s relationship to Israel:
Assaf Gavron grew up near Jerusalem and currently resides in Tel Aviv. Gavron was the chief writer of the award-winning video game Peacemaker, in which players attempt to wage peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Gavron founded the Israeli national [soccer] team of writers and poets in 2007. They compete against other international writers’ teams with the expectation that the games will “encourage friendship and cooperation between Israeli writers and writers from other countries and among the Israeli writers themselves.”
My opinion: Gavron has written a highly entertaining novel about a problem so complex that a political and territorial resolution has eluded the world’s leaders for over half a century. Fahmi’s general good-naturedness and Croc’s dark humor won me over quickly. Both wonder who or what is guiding their destinies; in the practical view of the reader, that would be Gavron, using his equally appealing characters to present a compassionate and even-handed perspective on his volatile country.
In my book (or what Israel means to me and maybe you, too)
Manger or danger?
I’d wager that Israel, by virtue of being Jesus’s birthplace, was one of the first foreign countries I could name. No doubt I’ve sung more songs about Israel than any country other than my own. Annual recitations of Christmas carol lines like “O little town of Bethlehem” and “Born is the king of Israel” brought to mind baby Jesus nestled in the hay, haloed by the doting M&J, swag-bearing kings and friendly barnyard animals.
Sadly, the Prince of Peace’s hometown has turned into one of the most disputed pieces of land on earth. The grown-up me associates Israel more with contention than goodwill; the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and the Golan Heights come to mind faster than Jerusalem and Nazareth.
Fighting the KGB and cigarette stain
The Israeli actor Topol played a pistachio-eating Greek smuggler in one of my favorite James Bond movies, For Your Eyes Only. He was the first single-named person I’d heard of (other than Jesus), and ever so memorable for sharing his mononym with “the smoker’s tooth polish.”
In ninth grade, my English teacher tasked us with reading an autobiography of our choice and writing a term paper about the person. The only famous people that came to my mind were the hotties in Tiger Beat – but I knew better than to name Corey Feldman as my topic. Since I was stumped, Mom chose her idea of a positive female role model: Golda Meir, the fourth prime minister of Israel. My Life, the chronicle of Meir’s role in the formation of the Jewish state, had been a New York Times bestseller, but its 367 pages were tough going for this bat mitzvah-aged gentile.
“Shalom from the Holy Land!”
That’s verbatim from a Dead Sea postcard that a college roommate of mine sent me while she was visiting Israel. Two of my high school friends also traveled to Israel with their temple youth groups. All three had a great time and made it home safely. Despite the alarming news coverage of the First Intifada, they reported to me that their experience of Israel (in the early 90s) was far more shalom than bomb.