All The Rivers
By Dorit Rabinyan
Translated from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen
Random House, 288 pages, $27
By Steven G. Kellman
A novel that begins with two FBI agents interrogating a Middle Eastern woman about terrorist ties might lead a reader to expect a political thriller. It is one year after the 9/11 attacks, and a concerned citizen has reported a suspicious person patronizing a cafe in New York City’s Greenwich Village. When they question her in her apartment, the G-men learn that Liati Benyamini, 29, is an Israeli whose seditious activity has merely been to compose emails on her laptop from right to left — and in Hebrew, not Arabic.
Later that day, Liati returns to the nearby Café Aquarium, on the corner of 10th Street and Sixth Avenue. There she meets Hilmi, a handsome and endearingly klutzy artist who has been living in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge for the past four years. The two are soon smitten, and the novel becomes a rhapsodic love story. However, since Hilmi is a Palestinian from Ramallah and Liati a Jew from Tel Aviv, their intense relationship is shaped and imperiled by the hostile pressures of geopolitics.
“All The Rivers,” Dorit Rabinyan’s third novel, comes trailed by clouds of controversy. After its publication in 2014, a committee of academic specialists selected the book for required reading in high school literature classes. The Israeli Ministry of Education vetoed the idea, warning that the novel might encourage impressionable adolescents to make light of intermarriage. While confessing he had not read it, Minister of Education Naftali Bennett denounced Rabinyan’s book as a threat to Israel’s national identity.
Endowed with the lure of forbidden fruit, “Borderlife,” the original Hebrew title, became an immediate best-seller. It has also sold well in the 17 languages into which it has been translated. The title of Jessica Cohen’s English translation appropriates a line by Israeli poet Avot Yeshurun, which Rabinyan uses as an epigraph: “All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full….”
In the novel, Hilmi, who grew up on the West Bank but never had a chance to visit the Mediterranean Sea, insists that what connects Israelis and Palestinians is more important than what divides them. “In the end all the rivers flow into the same sea,” he insists.
“All The Rivers” is an impassioned record of what Liati, the narrator, calls “these mad and beautiful days,” her intense love affair with a talented stranger whom she, a veteran of the Israel Defense Forces, has been conditioned to regard as hostile, or at least treyf. Hilmi has, in fact, spent four months in an Israeli prison for painting anti-Zionist graffiti on a wall in Hebron. The effort to keep their taboo relationship secret from friends and family puts a strain on the couple, as does the fact that Hilmi favors a single binational state and Liati a two-state solution. However, eros overcomes wariness, at least for their November-to-May romance. The realization that on May 20 Liati will return alone to her Jewish life in Tel Aviv concentrates their liaison. “How can you love with a deadline,” a friend asks, “with a stopwatch running?”
During the months that Liati and Hilmi spend together, the United States invades Iraq, and Israel builds a wall. But political events are mere background noise to the couple’s obsession with each other. Though Liati, who graduated from Tel Aviv University with a degree in English literature and linguistics, came to New York as a Fulbright scholar, she rarely mentions her research. Her story is set almost entirely amid the streets, restaurants and subway stops of New York City, neutral territory in which both the Israeli and the Palestinian are free of the conventions and constraints that would have kept them apart back home. Since neither knows the other’s language, they conduct their relationship in English, a foreign tongue that enables them to grow new identities.
Though it continues to bar Rabinyan’s novel from the required reading list, the Ministry of Education altered its stance to allow the book as an elective. At least half a dozen films, including Thierry Binisti’s “A Bottle In The Gaza Sea,” have, without much fuss, imagined Israeli-Palestinian romances, and the popular Israeli TV series “Arab Labor” even features a mixed married couple. By contrast, “Crime In Ramallah,” an Arabic novel about gay Palestinians that portrays the Palestinian Authority as corrupt, earned its author, Abbad Yahya, death threats and an arrest warrant.
Readers drawn to “All The Rivers” by curiosity over the controversy will not find polemic but clear, swift prose, a wistful tale of two human beings who try to defy the borders that define and confine them.
Steven G. Kellman is the author of “Redemption: The Life Of Henry Roth” (W. W. Norton & Company, 2005) and “The Translingual Imagination” (University of Nebraska Press, 2000).