My wedding took place just before the current intifada started. While I know this is a meaningless coincidence, I’ve often thought that if I were a literary character, there might be some odd symbolism lurking between my peaceful marriage and the agony in Israel over the past three years. This literary character, of course, would have to live in Israel and have even less in common with her husband than I have with mine. They would have to be divided by war so that their love could triumph over murderous odds, or better yet, make the whole intifada seem utterly ridiculous. Maybe she’d be an Arab and he’d be a Jew.
If this scenario sounds farfetched, that doesn’t mean it isn’t coming soon to a bookstore near you. Acclaimed Israeli writer Sami Michael’s novel of unlikely love, “A Trumpet in the Wadi,” published in Hebrew in 1987, will be available in English translation for the first time in America this week, while the film version, produced in 2001, is currently touring the United States with the 19th Israel Film Festival (the next screening is in Miami this fall). Reading the book and viewing the film in tandem as my — and the intifada’s — third anniversary approached, I wondered: If love conquers all in literature, could the same be true in life? Americans first exposed to Michael’s compelling story this summer, as the situation in Israel edges toward an improbable truce, will likely ask the same question. What they might conclude is another story entirely.
In Michael’s novel, the year is 1982. Huda is a 30-year-old Christian Arab who lives with her mother, grandfather and sister in the Wadi, an Arab neighborhood in Haifa. Bilingual and bicultural, Huda speaks Arabic at home and Hebrew at work, where on her birthday her co-workers give her a book by her favorite poet — Yehudah Amichai. But questions of identity loom large when Huda falls for Alex, the trumpet-playing Russian-Jewish immigrant who lives upstairs. Though Huda considers herself Israeli, her cousin is involved in terrorism over the Lebanese border. Since this is a Romeo and Juliet story, Alex and Huda’s romance can’t possibly end well, and tragedy arrives on cue with the Lebanon War.
Yet the book’s real poignancy comes from Huda herself. In 2003, new readers will marvel at this woman whose very existence seems like a sweet dream from another era — an Israeli Arab in love with Israel, thriving in a peaceful, pluralistic world. American readers might put down the book, pick up a newspaper and wonder: Are there really people like this? And if this kind of person did once exist, could she still exist after three years of the intifada in 2003?
Michael claims to write from experience. While the story is fiction, he says that he drew on true stories he heard in Haifa, where he still lives. More significantly, Michael himself was born in Baghdad and mastered Hebrew as an Arabic-speaking immigrant. In an interview last fall, he told the Forward that “when I describe an Arab character, I write as an Arab writer.” And critically speaking, he’s now off the hook — after all, he wrote the novel 15 years ago, and at this point, it’s historical fiction.
Or is it? The movie version offers a different perspective. Before seeing it in New York last month, I wondered how this 1980s story would look today. Would Huda have feathered hair? Would the sense of dread still loom on the Lebanese border? I watched the first 10 minutes of Huda’s on-screen life, in which she speaks Arabic until she goes to her office. It’s her birthday, and her co-workers give her the Amichai collection. So far, just like the novel — until someone mentions that Amichai is dead. (He died in 2000.) In that instant, the film revealed its bold intention to bring this story out of history and into present-day reality. I sat back and watched how much Israel has changed in 20 years — and how much it hasn’t.
A lot has changed, of course. In 1987, Michael created a Russian character precisely because he wanted a generic immigrant to whom readers would bring no preconceptions, since he figured that Israel would never have a significant Russian population. Suffice it to say that the film’s directors (Lina and Slava Chaplin) are both Russian, and the actor who plays Alex (Alexander Senderovich) is well known in Russian theater. More significantly, Huda’s terrorist cousin has moved from Lebanon to Ramallah, and the intifada has replaced Lebanon as the central horror. When Alex is called up for reserve duty, he isn’t sent to the Golan, but to the West Bank.
Yet these substitutions have no effect on the story’s delicate Israeli-Arab sensibility. Shot mainly on a hand-held camera, the film feels a bit like watching a home video, making Huda’s household seem peculiarly real. Scenes involving Huda’s family — like her sister’s betrothal to a distant relative — are deeply personal in presentation. And unlike the novel, which is written in a Hebrew suffused with Arabic expressions, the film’s Arab characters speak Arabic, Jewish characters speak Hebrew, and the final credits appear in both, proclaiming the possibility of a life lived, literally and figuratively, as loving neighbors. And so the question remains in 2003: Are there really people like Huda? Do we dare to hope that she exists?
More insight came after the film, when Riki Shelach, the film’s producer, fielded audience questions. The filmmakers, he explained, decided to aim for reality by writing the script in Arabic and casting only Arab actors for those roles. But during casting, a problem emerged: Arab actors refused to audition. “Most actors didn’t want to participate,” Shelach recalled. “One leading actor said the script was obviously written by Israelis” — a condemnation in today’s climate. Ten days before shooting, the filmmakers still had no one to play the lead. Even the few Arab actors who considered the script often dismissed it for another reason: too much sex. When the cast finally signed on, the actress playing Huda (Khawlah Hag-Debsy) insisted that the love scenes be more chaste than they appeared in the script. Scrupulous viewers will notice that in sexually charged scenes, camera angles make it impossible to tell whether the actors are ever actually touching each other.
Despite casting difficulties, Shelach insists that the story is realistic. But some viewers will wonder: How likely is this love story, if it was nearly impossible just to find people willing to pretend that it happened? Even more curious was Shelach’s answer when asked how Arab audiences reacted to the film. “They didn’t see it,” he said. Except for one screening in Nazareth, where the Arab audience enjoyed the film but insisted that Huda’s sister’s promiscuity was unrealistic, Shelach said he heard no reactions from Arab viewers — probably, he said, because Arab audiences generally do not watch Israeli films. Yet if they don’t, American readers and viewers may fairly wonder, where are the Hudas who read Amichai?
These questions have answers, though perhaps unsatisfying ones. One answer is that people like Huda do exist, even if the current situation makes them less likely to be noticed. But another answer is that while readers can fall in love with Michael’s characters as individuals, characters like Huda and Alex might also be understood as symbolic possibilities, people whose marriages in fiction mean much more than they ever would in fact. Michael’s achievement isn’t so much that we believe in his characters as that we want to believe in them — because belief in the possibility of love is what drives us to keep living and loving, despite overwhelming odds.
In the end, the truth isn’t that love conquers all. Anyone married for three years knows that love can’t even conquer the other person’s inability to put away his socks. Truth lies in a harder cliché: that love is the triumph of hope over experience. And after the past three years in Israel, that may be the only love that lasts.
Dara Horn, a doctoral student in comparative literature at Harvard University, is the author of “In the Image” (W.W. Norton).