Since the publication of her first novel, Dorit Rabinyan has been acknowledged as an outstanding author. Richly textured language, acute observation, and empathy gained her wide readership in Israel and beyond. Her critique of women’s marginalization is central to her first two novels, whose main characters are Mizrahi women. The first novel builds an imaginary return to her Jewish/Persian roots in Iran while the second looks at Mizrahi integration into Israeli society. Her third novel takes her woman character to the heart of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
“All the village women who emerged, veiled and pinned, from their sooty kitchens, nodded their chins in agreement… They all admitted that they had not seen such a difficult pregnancy as Flora Ratoryan’s for a long time, unless you count Mamou the Whore’s impregnation by the king of the village demons… Nazie had also heard that all these troubles had fallen upon the village because the night Flora became pregnant was a cursed night of a lunar eclipse, when even hens lay rotten blood-red eggs.” (Persian Brides, 1995)
The women of Omerijan, an imaginary Iranian village at the turn of the twentieth century, are the center of Dorit Rabinyan’s debut novel, published in 1995 when she was just 22 years old. It captivated its readers’ imagination, became a best seller, and has been translated into more than fifteen languages. The novel marked Rabinyan as an outstanding woman writer with a distinctive voice. Her subsequent novels Our Weddings (1998) and All the Rivers (2014), children books, and screenplay (Shuli’s Fiancé, 1997) have established her position at the center of the Israeli literary scene. She has won numerous prestigious awards, among them the Wiener Prize (1996), Best Drama of the Year Award (1997), the Prime Minister Prize (2001), and the Bernstein Prize (2015).
Early Life & Family Background
Rabinyan was born in Israel in 1972 to a family who had emigrated from Iran in the early 1950s and settled in Kfar Saba, where she grew up and attended school. She served as a journalist for the Israel Defense Force magazine during her military service and continued writing for various newspapers after completing her term in the army. Her first novel was inspired by her grandmother’s stories. Her Hebrew, the language she calls her home, brilliantly emulates her grandmother’s Persian language and story-telling style. Unlike some of her contemporary Lit. "Eastern." Jew from Arab or Muslim country.Mizrahi writers who use non-Hebrew vocabulary, Rabinyan, in her narrative, transfers the flow and rhythm of her Persian heritage into idiomatic Hebrew. In what appears to be a seamless move between two cultures, Rabinyan manages to forge a multicultural Israeli identity.
Debut Novel: Persian Brides
Persian Brides (Simtat Ha’Shkediyot Be’Omerijan) follows its two main characters: the heavily pregnant fifteen-year-old Flora, whose big body matches her exuberant sensuality, and her eleven-year-old orphan cousin, Nazie, whose body is too small. The narrative develops as the two set out on journeys to determine their futures. Flora is searching for her swindler of a husband who has deserted her, in order to escape the fate of abandoned wives. Nazie, whose body has not yet matured, sets out on a mission to secure her future by circumventing the law of the land that prohibits the marriage of pre-pubescent girls.
The women of Omerijan, a village seething with desires, superstitions, demons, and tall tales, spend their lives confined to the women’s quarters. Whether veiled or naked, their bodies, by which they are evaluated, are watched constantly by the policing gaze of patriarchy in the public space and by their fellow women in their constricted space. Nothing or nobody can escape this scrutinizing gaze. Still, the two girls/women dare to venture out. Flora breaks away at night, stumbling into the opium- and lust-ridden alleys. Her journey is dominated by the fantasies and fears that characterize Omerijan. She finds her treacherous husband only to fall to her death. Nazie’s journey, on the other hand, takes place in broad daylight, a metaphor for reason and knowledge. Against all odds she succeeds in overturning the law that deems little female bodies unmarriageable, marries her beloved cousin against her aunt’s reluctance, and thus elevates her low orphan status.
Omerijan seems to be as remote as possible from Israeli reality, allowing readers to disassociate their present life from the plight of women under the strict patriarchal rules in the novel. The confluence of realism and magical realism in the narrative intensifies its reading as a fable shrouded in oriental enchantments rather than reflecting on women’s position in general. However, behind the alluring veil of a tale, Persian Brides tells the story of women’s strategies of survival in a brutal patriarchy where women are beaten for any reason, from giving birth to baby girls to laughing too loud, and where they have no access to knowledge beyond their bodies. Nazie’s success in defying the law is certainly an exception in the world of Omerijan. Consequently, reading behind the veil exposes a critique that eliminates the fable-like remoteness of the narrative and draws analogies between Omerijan and present-day patriarchal orders anywhere, Israel included.
Language, especially the mother tongue, is fundamental to the construction of identities, and its connection to a specific place in its wider context, namely cultural, political and social, is self-evident. For second-generation Israeli writers of Mizrahi descent, this assertion is not straight-forward. The mainstream Zionist discourse repressed all diaspora languages, in particular those originating in Arab lands, not only because of the political circumstances that identified them with enemy states, but also – and perhaps mainly – because of the stereotype of non-Western cultures as primitive and inferior. Rabinyan’s fellow Mizrahi writers, by contrast, insert their families’ diasporic languages into their Hebrew writings. This move is a radical statement that embraces their parents’ Arab cultures and birthplaces as an integral part of their Israeli identity. Persian Brides represents Rabinyan’s way of expressing a similar stance, without using the Persian language but by transferring its cultural constituents into Hebrew. The grandmother’s story, on which Persian Brides was based, as well as the rhythms and music of its Persian language, were appropriated by the Hebrew Rabinyan identifies as her mother tongue.
One can draw clear links between the language, themes, and narrative choices of Persian Brides and Rabinyan’s later works. In Persian Brides, an Israeli writer has created an imaginary return to her roots, to the fictional world of Omerijan. Rabinyan’s second novel, Our Weddings (1998), takes place in present-day Israel. It raises the question of what would have happened to the women of Omerijan if they had immigrated to Israel: would they have been able to merge their identities, as shaped by Omerijan, into the mainstream of Israeli life? In Our Weddings, the disintegration of a Mizrahi family, immigrant parents and Israeli-born children alike, negates any possibility of integration. The mother at the center of the novel, a mirror image of Flora in Persian Brides, is a sensual, physical, uneducated girl/woman who remains the child bride from India we meet at the beginning of the novel, regardless of her years of marriage and motherhood in Israel. Her failure to integrate into Israeli life is reflected in her children’s broken lives. The marginalization of Mizrahim in Israel is certainly a major factor in the breakdown of the family, but it is not the only one. Rabinyan’s critique of the exclusion of women in the fictional Omerijan is brought to the forefront in Our Weddings, pointing a finger at the social order that deems women powerless as the cause of failed immigration and its detrimental consequences.
The most explicit exploration of the links between place, culture/language, and identity occurs in Rabinyan’s third novel All the Rivers (2014), which revolves around the love story of a Jewish-Israeli woman and a Palestinian man. During one cold winter in New York, far from home, their love for each other blossoms. Back home, in the sunlight they longed for while in New York, they realize the futility of their love. They become fully aware that the geographical sunny place they both call home is actually two separate and different homes.
The partition between the Jewish-Israeli and the Palestinian referred to in the Hebrew title, Gader Haya (literally ‘hedgerow’), is not only an arbitrary political border but also, perhaps mainly, the necessary boundary we draw to define the space of our own unique identities.
All the Rivers is the most explicitly political work by Rabinyan. Its publication provoked intense public debate when the Israeli Education Ministry banned it from the school curriculum, claiming it threatened the integrity of the Jewish people as it portrays Jewish/non-Jewish sexual relationships. The ban was reversed only after a public outcry. All the Rivers marks the move of Rabinyan’s literary work from implied to explicit critique. However, whether overt or not, this critique is never one-dimensional but rather part of the richly textured complex of literary work that has earned Rabinyan a very special place in Israeli literature.
Selected Works by Dorit Rabinyan
- Persian Brides (novel), 1995 [Simtat Ha-Shkediyot Be-Oumrijan], translated into English 1998.
- Our Weddings (novel), 1998 [Ha-Chatunot Shelanu], translated into English 2001.
- And Where Was I? (picture book), 2006 [Az Eifo Hayiti Ani?] [Hebrew]
- All the Rivers (novel), 2014 [Gader Haya], translated into English 2017.
Matzov-Cohen, Ofra. “Almond Tree Alley in Omerijan by Dorit Rabinyan as a Fictional Text Appealing to the Way of Life and Tradition in the Jewish Community in Iran.” In Around the Point: Studies in Jewish Literature and Culture in Multiple Languages, edited by Hillel Weiss, Roman Katsman, Ber Kotlerman, 98-119. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publication, 2014.
Halpern, Roni. “Sicho ha-Alternativi shel ha-Guf: Keriah be-Simtat haShkediyot le-Dorit Rabinian” (“The Body’s Alternative Discourse: A Reading of Almond Tree Alley in Omerijan by Dorit Rabinian”). In Ha-Tishma Kolim edited byYael Atzmon, 184-198. Tel Aviv: Ha-Kibbutz haMeuchad, 2001.[Hebrew] `
Oppenheimer, Yochai. From Ben-Gurion Street to Shari’ al-Rashid: On Mizrahi Prose, Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute for the Study of Jewish Communities in the East, 2014. [Hebrew]
Ratner, Tsila Abramovitz. “Not So Innocent – An Israeli Tale of Subversion: Dorit Rabinyan’ Persian Brides.” In A Companion to Magical Realism, edited by Stephen M. Hart and Wen-Chin Ouyang, 191-199. Suffolk: Tamesis, 2005.