Episode 13: Borders of Love (Transcript)
Male book reader: Hmm.
Female book reader: He cleared his throat.
Male reader: “Liat...”
Female reader: He examined me over his eyeglass frames and coughed again.
Male reader: “That’s Hebrew, right?”
Female reader: “Yes, um… it means something like ‘you are mine.’” He leaned in closer to hear better.
Male reader: “‘You are mine’? ‘You belong to me’?”
Nahanni Rous: Liat is the main character in Israeli author Dorit Rabinyan’s third novel, All The Rivers. In this scene, she’s explaining the meaning of her name to her Palestinian lover. All The Rivers is a Middle Eastern Romeo and Juliet. It’s steamy, tangled, and ultimately tragic.
Nahanni: The novel, called Gader Chaya in Hebrew, was published in Israel in 2014. About a year later, the book became the center of a political controversy.
[Arutz 2 news music]
Nahanni: A committee of Israeli scholars recommended the book be taught in Israeli high schools, and a fiery national debate ensued.
[Arutz 2 news music]
Naftali Bennett in Hebrew: Lo karati et hasefer.
Nahanni: No, I didn’t read the book, but I read parts. That’s Education Minister Naftali Bennet, head of the far-right political party HaBayit HaYehudi: The Jewish Home. He spoke to Israel’s Channel Two in December 2015.
Nahanni: After admitting he hadn’t done his homework, he falsely accused Rabinyan’s book of portraying IDF soldiers as war criminals. The Education Ministry refused to allow the book on the high school reading list. Ministry officials said it would encourage assimilation and undermine Israeli national identity. The controversy drove Gader Chaya onto the best seller list.
TRAX: Welcome to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. I’m Nahanni Rous. Dorit Rabinyan’s provocative novel is now out in English. All The Rivers is a compelling love story, but it’s also a new angle on an old political conflict.
[Dorit Rabinyan asks for the keys in Hebrew]
Nahanni: I met Dorit Rabinyan at Mishkenot She’ananim, a writers’ retreat overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem. Dorit’s parents immigrated to Israel from Iran before she was born. Like Dorit, the main character in All The Rivers is Mizrachi, or “Eastern”: a Jew whose family immigrated to Israel from elsewhere in the Middle East. All The Rivers is based on a relationship Dorit had with a Palestinian artist. It takes place almost entirely in New York City.
Dorit Rabinyan: I used New York as a setting to neutralize the environment, the voices, maybe the colors, to see this twilight zone between the Mizrachi Israeli identity and the Palestinian Arab identity that they are brushing each other.
Nahnni: Liat and Hilmi meet on a winter night in Greenwich Village. He has one cigarette left. They cup their hands together to block the cold wind as he lights it. She notices the hair on his knuckles, his cinnamon eyes, and his frizzy charcoal curls. She’s charmed by the way he pronounces the few Hebrew words he knows. Their similarities draw them together: They realize they both have the habit of conserving water when they brush their teeth... they hate the bitter New York winter... they love the same food.
Nahnni: As Liat falls deeper in love, she fantasizes about a suburban American life with Hilmi and two kids. But they come from opposing sides of a conflict, and Liat secretly believes their relationship can only be temporary.
Dorit: She’s intimidated by the power of Hilmi’s love because it might change her identity in a way that she wouldn’t recognize herself. She might be mixed with his identity as love does very often.
Nahanni: Falling in love does often blurs personal boundaries, but in this case, there are larger political implications. Liat hides the relationship from her family. She asks Hilmi to go into another room when she calls her parents in Israel: “Just disappear from my life for ten minutes!” she says to him. When Hilmi shares his lighter and chit-chats with a group of Israelis on a subway platform, she hides her face. Israel is such a small country, she could come across someone she knows from back home.
Dorit: I have a struggle within my two characters and within themselves. Cause what makes them to be appealing and to be appreciated, it’s the fact that they carry the conflict within them. Although they are free to love and they are free to think they still have this landscape of home shaping them, imprinted on them, and in a way defining them even in more crucial powers than their own free will.
Nahanni: Liat tells Hilmi she doesn’t have the guts to live a life that defies her family and culture.
Dorit: I see parallel elements between Liat’s fear of Hilmi’s love and us, Israelis fear of the possibility of peace in the Middle East. Because peace might change us in a way that we wouldn’t recognize ourself let’s say 100 years from now.
Nahanni: All The Rivers plays with the analogy between love and peace. Even in their love, Liat and Hilmi feel the weight of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Liat shares memories of scuba diving off her favorite beaches near Tel Aviv, and Hilmi reveals that he doesn’t even know how to swim. Growing up in the West Bank, Israeli policies kept him from traveling freely into Israel. He only went to the sea a couple of times, even though it was visible from the roof of his family’s apartment building in Ramallah. Liat doesn’t believe it’s so close, until Hilmi shows her a home video his brother made. From the roof, Hilmi’s brother pans the horizon with his camera. Liat can see all the way from Ramallah to Tel Aviv... the familiar skyline, even particular buildings, and of course, the sea.
Dorit: It is one of the scenes that evoked a lot of waves in response. People in Israel are not used to considering themselves to be seen from the backyard of Israel. We’re considering ourselves being seen from above or from the West.
Nahanni: Liat too finds this an unnerving vantage point on her home.
Female book reader: How strange the reversal is, seeing us from outside, looking in from the neighbors’ window, seeing ourselves from the hidden side of the mirror. To see Israel every single day, to see the Tel Aviv suburbs and our lives that proceed on the other side, self-confident, unaware, as if we had no reflection. How peculiar and how frightening to discover how much they could see.
Nahnni: Liat pauses the movie. The Green line, the 1967 border between Israel and the Palestinian Territories, is somewhere in that landscape between Ramallah and Tel Aviv. Liat squints at the screen, as if looking for it.
Female book reader: “The Green Line... where does it run? Here?” I asked. I stood next to the TV and ran my finger along the screen, over the valley, between the hills. “Here?” I looked up close at the landscape of villages and settlements, as if I was genuinely expecting to find an actual green border running through the dusky evening shadows and twinkling lights, possibly marked by a dotted line like it is on the maps. “It’s here,” I heard him say behind me with a snicker. When I looked back, I saw him tapping his finger on his head. “Just about here.”
Nahanni: The separation is all in your mind, Hilmi says. That terrifies Liat. It’s both a metaphor for their love story, and a starkly political moment. But the book doesn’t have a simple political message.
Dorit: Because from one hand I’m describing this urgent deep need for a borderline. Within our own borders we are more released to enjoy our freedom, to enjoy our independency because our neighbors can enjoy theirs. At the same time I’m questioning how thin the country is, the land is, that if you can see the waves in the sea, from the 9th floor in Ramallah, how can two states be existing in such a narrow territory.
Nahanni: And that’s what Hilmi keeps saying, right? He says this is not two countries.
Dorit: Hilmi’s wish for a unifying kind of love that cannot bear separation and borderlines and boundaries also finds its reflection in his political dream to have a binational state. And for Liat, a binational state it’s like the big big big no no. I mean, for her it’s a catastrophe. It’s the end of Israel as she knows it, it’s the beginning of this huge fear of assimilation, of the Israeliness within the Arabness that surrounds it.
Nahanni: Liat longs for self-definition, personally and politically.
Dorit: She yearns to know where is this place where she ends and the other starts. She has this over-identifying kind of complex that makes her unique and makes her be able to step out of her skin and to see the other’s point of view as not so many Israelis allow themselves to do. I feel it’s my obligation as a writer not to be kept within my own bubble. If I am a mirror for the society, the world I’ve been living in, so let it be. Let me see as much as I can see and as much as I can write about.
Nahanni: Dorit’s writing has helped other people see, too. Israeli soldiers have told her they brought her book with them into Gaza. Dorit heard from a woman in Southern Israel who was reading the novel inside a bomb shelter. And right-wing Jewish settlers have thanked Dorit for introducing them to a sympathetic Palestinian character.
Dorit: To identify with the other that you wouldn’t maybe sit next to in a bus, the one you eliminate from your consciousness to be able to continue with your own life, with your own ideology... here comes a novel, and captures you in the deepest layers of this other’s mind. And then unwillingly, you care for this other.
Nahanni: the fact that settlers are reading the book... what do you expect them to sort of... do with this story?
Dorit: If there’s anything that I can suggest, it’s this double view over everything, remembering that we are not one-dimensioned or two-dimension kind of creatures, that we are doomed to see a double view of everything.
Nahanni: Perhaps it is this ambiguity that made All The Rivers so threatening to some Israelis. The official line from the Education Ministry was that high school students lack the maturity to understand the dangers of assimilation, or the need to preserve the nation’s identity. But this critique misses Liat’s love and devotion to her homeland. She feels bound to her national identity... just as the Education Ministry would want her to.
Nahanni: And now here’s a spoiler alert. All The Rivers is worth reading even if you know the end, but if you prefer to be surprised, stop listening now, and come back after you’ve finished the book.
Nahanni: Liat and Hilmi’s relationship doesn’t last. It’s already fallen apart in New York, but it’s brought to a final end when Hilmi drowns at the beach near Tel Aviv, where he’s gone to meet Liat. And it’s worse than that... the tragic end of the book is based on real events.
Dorit: This book is dedicated to Hassan Hourani who was an artist I met in NY in the winter of 2002.
Nahanni: Hassan was a Palestinian painter, like Hilmi. He and Dorit had a short but intense love affair. After their time together in New York, Dorit returned to Tel Aviv and Hassan to Ramallah. One day, Hassan managed to get to Tel Aviv with his nephew and some friends. He was planning to visit Dorit, but first they stopped at the beach. Like Hilmi, Hassan did not know how to swim. He drowned trying to save his nephew, who had gone too far out into the waves.
Dorit: I felt like those last months that I knew him had given me a mission to tell what we have tasted. This zip of peace... this possibility to converse, to investigate ones identity and the other’s identity and to reach a point where we still disagree in many aspects but we can maintain a true coexistence of respect.
Nahanni: Hassan used to tell Dorit it was enough that they each had someone on the other side of the conflict to worry about and feel responsible for.
Dorit: There were times writing this novel, that I thought if it was the other way around, and I was the one to die? He was the one to write this novel. It’s this kind of mutual ah... partnership in one and another’s destiny.
Nahanni: The real threat inside the pages of Dorit Rabinyan’s novel is not the cross-cultural love affair. It’s the fear of a deeper kind of assimilation, the ability to absorb the other’s narrative so fully that it blurs your own.
TRAX: Thank you for joining Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Our team includes Executive Director Judith Rosenbaum and Social Media Manager Emily Cataneo. Ibby Caputo edited the script. Special thanks this month to Anya Rous and Natan Daskal, who read passages of Dorit Rabinyan’s novel All The Rivers. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. You also heard music by Anouar Brahem.
All The Rivers is one of JWA’s book club picks! Go to jwa.org/bookclub to find discussion questions and join the conversation.
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I’m your host, Nahanni Rous. I’ll see you again next month.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 13: Borders of Love (Transcript)." (Viewed on July 27, 2021) <https://jwa.org/podcasts/canwetalk/episode-13-borders-of-love/transcript>.