Yasmine, by Eli Amir, trans. Yael Lotan

This Jewish- Palestinian romance brings a generous spirit to a legacy of distrust

Boyd Tonkin
Thursday 12 July 2012 17:28

Near the end of Eli Amir's novel, his young Iraqi-born Jewish narrator – an adviser on Arab affairs to the Israeli government in the months after the Six Day War of 1967 – goes to visit a kibbutz with his Palestinian girlfriend. Yasmine, the Paris-educated daughter of a Christian family in East Jerusalem, is a child psychologist who speaks fluent Hebrew and can "pass" as a Jewish Israeli. Impatient with the one-dimensional Zionism of his hosts, aware of his glamorous, turquoise-eyed lover's critical gaze, Nuri launches into one of several speeches about the need for co-existence and mutual respect. Hindsight, we feel, colours and sharpens this novel's impassioned to-and-fro between competing ideals and identities. "This country has two histories, two languages, two cultures, two visions, two dreams," Nuri insists. "Anyone who tries to claim the whole thing will end up with nothing."

In life, as in fiction, Eli Amir has tried to honour both realities in this endlessly disputed terrain. He came to Israel from Baghdad aged 13 in 1950, part of the enforced exodus of the ancient Jewish population in Iraq. Nuri's – and the author's – childhood supplied the background of his previous novel, The Dove Flyer.

Here, his family's memories of the anguish of exile as "the roots of 70 generations were severed" echo throughout. Like his hero Nuri, a "son of Arabia" steeped in the language and customs of his former neighbours, both Muslim and Christian, Amir worked for the Israeli state as a semi-official envoy to the Palestinian elites of Jerusalem after the 1967 takeover. Did he also fall in love with a Yasmine? I heard Amir talk, most engagingly, at the recent Jerusalem International Writers Festival. His jesting, equivocal answer did not exactly add up to a negative.

Compared to the work of a David Grossman or an Amos Oz, Amir's fiction lacks a certain subtlety and sophistication. The Romeo-and-Juliet story of Nuri and Yasmine unfolds much as we might expect. Sparring rivalry mingles with growing fascination and desire as this smooth-talking Israeli "pimp peddling collaboration" begins to love, and be loved by, his intimate enemy. In the meantime, the political adventures of the idealised Nuri lead into one set-piece debate after another. Jews and Arabs alike must come to terms with the post-1967 predicament in which Israel "went to sleep as a state and woke up as an empire".

Nuri, rather improbably brave, wise and tolerant, is gifted with suspiciously flawless foresight. He forever asks questions such as "what price will we pay for settling in the territories?", and voices his compassionate disgust at the arrogance of the conquering bureaucrats: "You broker of people's destinies, vicious bastard, you should live under occupation!"

Yet Yasmine – in Yael Lotan's robust and readable translation from the Hebrew – remains a hugely likeable, and deeply illuminating, novel. Virtually an Arab in culture, yet a Jew in family, faith and now history, "a bird of passage wandering between two worlds", Nuri embodies the contradictions of his people: those Middle Eastern Jews who perhaps held the key to peace. No one – so Amir as well as his hero believes – ever asked them to use it. And, whatever Yasmine lacks in literary finesse, it makes up for in warmth of heart and breadth of sympathy, along with a painterly gift for evoking the myth-strewn stones and hills of Jerusalem, that "source of hope and light" that begets so much darkness. If Louis de Bernières and Victoria Hislop can top the charts with generous-spirited popular sagas of Levantine history, then Amir merits a place in their bestselling company.

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