During her recent US tour for the English translation of “All the Rivers,” her complicated 2014 novel about an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man who fall in love during a frigid New York City winter, Dorit Rabinyan spent much of her time on college campuses.
The university circuit was a noteworthy destination for this Israeli novelist, considering that her book, an exploration of shared destinies, was excluded in December 2015 from the Israeli Education Ministry’s list of books approved for high school reading for being too controversial.
The ban made it more appealing to the college audiences, who she said were a mixture of Jewish Americans, Israelis and students of Arab or Iranian heritage.
“It was fantastic,” said Rabinyan, who is herself of Iranian descent. “In a way, the commotion around this book has credited me with a kind of ‘radical’ label that made it more approachable.”
Politics took over the opening of every reading session, said Rabinyan, which to her was unsurprising in light of how her delicate and complex work had already been entangled in political scandal.
“It was provocative enough to appeal to students,” she said. And once their attention was engaged, they realized that “what literature should suggest to us as readers is beyond debate — it’s our ability to elaborate our perspectives and to have knowledge of the other from within his mind and feelings, allowing us to recognize the humanity of the other,” she said. “It makes us not only better human beings but better citizens of our worlds.”
It took time for Rabinyan to hone that approach in the wake of the firestorm of debate and vitriol prompted by her novel, which was dedicated to her former lover, Palestinian artist Hassan Hourani, who drowned in 2003.
Rabinyan saw her book as being about the Jewish fear of being subsumed by the surrounding religions and cultures. That fear is represented by Liat, a middle-class Israeli woman from Tel Aviv temporarily working in New York as a translator, who must wrestle with her emotions and beliefs while falling in love with Hilmi, a Palestinian artist living in Brooklyn.
Rabinyan said she was initially hesitant about adapting Israel’s conflict into literature.
“I’ve always been a little bit suspicious, because sometimes this poetic sensibility in Israeli culture turns the conflict into something romantic,” she said. “There is nothing romantic about occupation and occupiers and the occupied. Nothing about these conditions makes it sexy, and it took a lot of effort to overcome that obstacle and make the relationship between Hilmi and Liat seem human and authentic.”
Rabinyan started and stopped writing the novel “a million times,” she said.
“You write and rewrite and rewrite until you come up with the most reflective tone,” she said.
It was also Rabinyan’s first novel written in the first person after two previous works written in the third person. She wrote her first book, “Persian Brides,” in 1997, when she was 23 years old. She is now 44.
It was her first time “importing a raw memory” from her own personal history and adapting that into fiction, she said, “with a decent amount of imagination, reinvention and fantasy in order to make it freshly alive enough to compete with the wholeness of the memory.”
She praised her translator, Jessica Cohen, for her marvelous “rewriting” of the book in English, and recalled her intensive work to make the New York City scenes feel authentic to New Yorkers.
“It’s an outsider’s view of New York,” she said.
There are also magical scenes about a garden grown by Hilmi during a sojourn back home to the West Bank, a “golden time” for him, said Rabinyan, written by her as she traveled back and forth to the West Bank to see, taste and feel a place that she wasn’t familiar with. “It was an exploration of my Hebrew,” she said.
But the language she needed to describe the New York winter was more complicated, given that Hebrew is only reflective of mild, rainy Israeli cold seasons. “I had to force the Hebrew to describe fall and cold and snow and blizzards,” she said. “Once the story arrived in the Middle East, and I could describe Tel Aviv and the West Bank, I could get Hebrew in its place so the challenge reached a comfort zone.”
Rabinyan was anxious when the book was first published, knowing that the political climate in Israel had changed during her six years of writing. The Israel she had previously known seemed to be shifting and she could sense it wasn’t going to be an easy or smooth publication, which was why she was thrilled by the initial reactions she received from the Israeli readership.
Eighteen months on, the book had been named one of the 10 best books of the year by Haaretz and awarded the prestigious Bernstein Award for Literature. Rabinyan was getting ready to write a new novel when news broke that the Education Ministry found her novel threatening to young readers and refused to add it to its list of approved books.
“I was and still am amazed by the absurdity,” said Rabinyan. “My mission is to keep a reader reading, to capture the reader and satisfy and keep him tense and devoted to my work.”
The book was published in Hebrew during the summer 2014 war with Gaza, and Rabinyan’s hope that it would be about dialogue and shared destinies was transposed into a very different reality.
“But then I started getting phone calls from readers who were really clinging to my book while they were sitting in shelters,” she said, recalling Israelis’ experiences of running to safe rooms, bomb shelters and stairwells during rocket attacks.
“They would read from one siren to another with missiles flying over their heads,” she said. “People from southern Israel were calling in and thanking me for reflecting their reality.”
Rabinyan began seeing pictures posted by Israeli soldiers carrying the book with them into Gaza, their guns in one hand and “All The Rivers” in the other.
“One wrote to say, ‘I’m not fighting against orgasms, only against Hamas,’” she said. “It was something I could never have expected.”
Then came the Education Ministry ban, followed by frightening and disturbing incidents. She was harassed, receiving threatening calls in the middle of the night, and bullies from the extremist anti-assimilation group Lehava waited at the entrance to her apartment building.
“I paid a huge price,” she said, though on the other hand, she conceded, she was “fortunate to receive such attention.”
There were signs of support as well. In January 2016, the magazine Time Out Tel Aviv made a video of Jews and Arabs kissing to protest the Education Ministry’s decision.
She recalled meeting British Indian writer Salman Rushdie at the famed New Yorker Pen Festival, and asking him how he managed to keep on writing novels when a Muslim fatwa was issued ordering his death after the publication of his 1988 novel, “The Satanic Verses.”
“He told me that it was only then that he learned how to say, ‘Fuck them,’” she said.
“I don’t give them the pleasure of toughening me,” said Rabinyan of her critics. “My vulnerability and fragility are part of who I am… They tried to pull me into this mud-fight, with monstrous interpretations of my writing. But they’re not my partners, my partners are my readers.”
Dorit Rabinyan will appear in conversation with A.B. Yehoshua at the Jerusalem International Book Fair on Tuesday, June 13, at 7 p.m., “From Nai’im to Hilmi: The Lover who Crossed the Border, Forty Years Later.” Entrance to the event is free; seating is on a first-come, first-served basis for the hour-long, Hebrew discussion.