Shattering a Peaceful Facade


By Saul Austerlitz

Published May 26, 2006, issue of May 26, 2006.
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The Attack

By Yasmina Khadra

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 272 pages, $18.95.

* * *

The comparisons are inevitable, so let’s get the ball rolling: Yasmina Khadra’s new novel, “The Attack,” is a successor of sorts to the 2005 art house hit, “Paradise Now.” Like Hany Abu-Assad’s mournful, despairing film, “The Attack” is an iconoclastic Muslim artist’s take on the fierce debate currently raging in the Middle East over the efficacy and morality of suicide bombing. Unlike Abu-Assad’s fine work, however, Khadra makes no effort to maintain even ledgers. In Khadra’s novel, there is no equivalence in suffering; there is only pain, anguish and the prospect of yet more to come. For Khadra, there is no question of suicide bombing’s morality; there is only disgust for those who, whatever their stripe, increase the anguish of others in the name of a cause.

The book revolves around Amin — a successful Tel Aviv surgeon with a luxurious apartment, a thriving practice and plans to invest in a second home. His carefully constructed life tumbles instantaneously under the impact of twin blows: First, his wife, Sihem, has been killed in a bombing; second, Sihem is suspected of having been the bomber. Amin, a Bedouin who has sacrificed enormously to become a white-collar Israeli citizen, is shattered by the realization that his wife may have been dissatisfied enough to resort to suicide, and “The Attack” is a psychological relay of sorts. Khadra, a male, Algerian writer and former army officer whose real name is Mohammed Moulessehoul, probes Amin’s quicksilver changes of mood in the aftermath of the catastrophe, while Amin probes the sparse clues left by his wife and, through her, the underworld of Palestinian militancy that seemed a million miles away from his placid upper-middle-class life.

What Amin finds there is both deeply familiar and revelatory. The militants, who come to include members of Amin’s own family, are murderers of the most unctuous, self-congratulatory sort, convinced that their acts of violence are necessary for ushering in a better, more peaceful world — something that Amin refuses to believe: “I couldn’t bring myself to accept the notion that God could incite his subjects to take up arms against one another and reduce the exercise of faith to an absurd and frightening question of power relationships. And ever since then, I’ve trusted anyone who required a little of my blood to purify my soul about as much as I would trust a scorpion.” “The Attack” is a deeply weary novel, tired of waging the same endless battle against those who seek to make the world an uglier, more desperate place in the name of land, or God, or country.

Wracked with guilt and tormented by unanswered questions, Amin wants “to pass through the mirror… I want to go to the other side of the Wall.” He is talking about journeying into the occupied territories, but he is also searching for his own shadow self, the part of himself that had to be put aside in order to succeed in the Israeli world. Amin receives a second education through his reunion with his family, this time in the lessons of occupation and militancy, in the daily thrust and counter-thrust of blood lust.

Somewhat surprisingly, given its source, “The Attack” is a novel written for an Israeli or Western audience. Beginning from a place of thoroughly and unhesitatingly denouncing the Palestinian way of “death as an ambition,” Khadra steadily ushers us toward the other side of the mirror, taking in the entire ugly reality of Palestinian suffering. He has created a protagonist who is simultaneously thoroughly Israeli and not at all Israeli; Khadra’s discovery that his own family struggles under the Israeli occupation allows “The Attack” to provide an inside view of both barrels of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The occasionally clumsy exposition and “ER”-quality medical dialogue are nuisances, but Khadra is more concerned with the nature of the debate than with the words employed. “The Attack” is a voice of impassioned reason, heatedly thrusting itself into the middle of one of the world’s most intractable conflicts and attempting to shake awake both participants from their violent sleepwalking. As Amin tells a friend: “First of all, give God back his freedom. He’s been hostage to our bigotries too long.” The mound of atrocities grows ever higher in “The Attack,” one indignity followed by another even more heinous, and who is to say which wound is the deepest? Amin discovers his own people’s struggles, but never at the expense of soiling his own pragmatic surgeon’s ideals: “I just want to be able to live my share of existence without being obliged to detract from the existence of others.” For Amin, and Khadra, that is lesson enough, one that Israelis and Palestinians alike would do well to study.

Saul Austerlitz is a freelance writer in New York. He is at work on his first book, a history of music videos.

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