It’s Complicated: The Path of an Israeli-Palestinian Love Story

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All the Rivers,” the new English title of the book, was published last week in the United States by Random House, and Ms. Rabinyan, 44, seemed a little nervous. She wanted Americans to read the book for what she said it is — a story of a specific love and its boundaries — and not because of the free speech controversy here or the backdrop of a conflict that will not heal, now 50 years since Israel took control of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

The book’s main character, Liat, a dutiful young Israeli translator, falls for Hilmi, a Palestinian painter, and must decide how far to take a love she knows her family and friends will disapprove and will even see her as a traitor to her upbringing, her Jewishness.

“She takes him out of the multitude and acknowledges his humanity, her humanity,” Ms. Rabinyan said. “He’s not the Palestinian people. He’s one person.”

Still, the book is tightly woven around the conflict. “This is what we call ‘the situation.’” she said. “It’s like the climate. Another season of the year, a fifth one.”

The book opens with Liat, who, like Ms. Rabinyan, is of Iranian Jewish descent, being questioned by terror investigators. To them, Liat looked Middle Eastern, not necessarily Jewish. Soon after, she meets Hilmi. He is from Hebron and Ramallah, the Palestinians’ de facto capital; she is from Tel Aviv, its own bubble of sea and secularism in Israel.

Hilmi tells her three things about himself, all of which end up mattering: He can’t drive. He never shot a gun. He can’t swim, partly because the West Bank, unlike Israel, does not have the sea Liat loves so much. (The book is dedicated to Ms. Rabinyan’s former lover, the artist Hassan Hourani, who drowned in 2003. She wrote a poignant farewell to him a year later in The Guardian.)

The romance intensifies quickly, though Liat is concerned from beginning to end, less about him, but that her relationship goes against all she was taught.

“Cut this off quickly,” Liat tells herself after their first night together. “Decide with a heavy but determined heart that it’s better this way, better for both of us. And never see him again.”

Needless to say, she does.

“In New York they became more like each other, same land, same experiences,” Ms. Rabinyan said of her characters. “They went into this bubble.”

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Ms. Rabinyan’s novel was published last week in the United States by Random House. Credit Random House

The couple find that their similarities and differences are very complicated. Liat, a high-minded, educated woman of the left, sees the only solution as two states, fair but in the end separate. Hilmi thinks there is no dividing the two people on the same land. (This argument, of course, has only intensified.)

The book is too finely drawn for easy symbolism, but at one point Liat sums up what nearly all Israelis have thought, knowingly or not, of their Palestinian neighbors — sometimes not so much antagonism as the wish it simply was not an endlessly prodding problem.

“Only 10 minutes,” she scolds. “Just disappear from my life for 10 minutes.”

The book is also very much of a place and time: People called each other primarily on landlines, without the distracting screens of smartphones. There was no Facebook, Twitter or Tinder. When Liat returns to Tel Aviv, she is disturbed that she has no photograph with Hilmi.

“It seems impossible now,” Ms. Rabinyan said. “Everyone is taking selfies, couple selfies, selfies after sex. If you said ‘hashtag’ in 2002, people would have thought it was a breed of dog.”

Ms. Rabinyan, in person both fierce and pleasant, found success at an early age. Her first novel, “Persian Brides,” based on two days of her Iranian grandmother’s memories, brought her acclaim at 22. Her wishes, she said, “came true even before I had the chance to ask for them.”

Her second novel, “Strand of a Thousand Pearls,” also did well. In 2002, Ms. Rabinyan attended the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which she summed up, in quite American terms, as “awesome, quite beautiful, encouraging.”

She worked on a third novel, which she shelved after six years. It took six more years to write “All the Rivers.”

Though love stories between Israelis and Palestinians are not uncommon, this one caught the ire of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud government. Popular among younger readers, the book was recommended as high school reading, then suddenly and publicly pulled for possibly encouraging intermarriage.

“Intimate relations, and certainly the available option of institutionalizing them by marriage and starting a family — even if that does not happen in the story — between Jews and non-Jews, are seen by large portions of society as a threat on the separate identities,” Dalia Fenig, an Education Ministry official, told Ynet a leading Israeli news site, in December 2015.

The backlash came quickly, at a time when many of the nation’s leading, if leftist, literary idols — including Amos Oz, A. B. Yehoshua and David Grossman — were under attack by a right-wing group for being “moles in culture,” not sufficiently dedicated to the Israeli cause.

The ministry backed off slightly, allowing some teachers to use the novel in classrooms. What Ms. Rabinyan found disturbed her: It was the students, amid the nation’s palpable drift to the right, who did not want to read the book, which had generally been popular.

“Nowadays kids in Israel and in Palestine are so swept up with this wave of nationalism, exploitative of their instincts,” she said. “The kids themselves rejected the book. They said: ‘It’s a lefty book. I don’t want to read it.’”

Prospects for peace look as bleak as ever, though President Trump has, to some surprise, been pushing early in his administration for what he called the “ultimate deal.” He is scheduled to meet on Wednesday with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, in the White House.

Ms. Rabinyan said she would not give up hope, no matter how remote a deal might seem now (which, spoiler alert, are about as remote as the chances were that Liat could ever give in to Hilmi completely).

“I refuse to let go of my instinct of being in contact with others’ pain,” she said. “This is turning your back. I refuse.”

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