Book review of All the Rivers by Dorit Rabinyan.
Liat is spending time in the New York apartment of friends, while she studies for her translation degree. Hilmi is living in Brooklyn, trying to make it as an artist. Their whirlwind romance would be uneventful except for the fact that Liat is Jewish and comes from Tel Aviv, and Hilmi is a Palestinian from Ramallah, in the West Bank. With this book, Rabinyan brings us an exquisitely crafted, modern “Romeo and Juliette” story that strikes at the heart of how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can tear people apart.
NOTE: As the year 2015 was ending, the Israeli Ministry of Education, headed by Minister Naftali Bennett, announced that they were banning Dorit Rabinyan’s novel from being part of the Israeli High School literature curriculum. This immediately turned this book into an “overnight” best seller, and spurred translations for the international literary world. Well, thank you Minister Bennett, because had you not banned this book, I would never have gotten to read it (yes, I can read Hebrew, but being dyslexic, it is a very slow and tedious process). Bennett claimed that his ban wasn’t racist, but rather he objected to the “portrayal of the IDF” in the book (which got, maybe, all of five sentences). However, we all knew that what he was really objecting to was the taboo romance between an Arab man and a Jewish woman (so yes, he is a racist). Ironically, if Bennett had bothered to read the book before banning it, he would have found out that the absolute last thing this tragic love story does is promote interracial or inter-religious relations.
All politics aside (difficult as this may be), I believe that what Rabinyan has achieved here is simply stellar. As noted above, essentially this is a classic plot of star-crossed lovers, using a setting where everything in their lives, both internal and external, is against them. Hilmi is making a life in New York, and Liat’s life is in Israel. While neither of their families would approve of their relationship, Rabinyan also shows us the internal turmoil that both Hilmi and Liat have knowing from the onset that their relationship is doomed. That neither of them can view their emotions as casual, only means that neither of them can walk away without causing each other and themselves pain. Even when they’re both back home, and only an hour away from each other, their worlds are still separated, both by a boarder and by history. All of this is told from Liat’s viewpoint, where each piece of her connections to Hilmi come across with both sensitivity and profound emotions, that leap from the page and affect us viscerally.
It isn’t easy to describe just how deeply this book touched me. On the one hand, I’m a hopeless romantic; love should be able to conquer all; and we can’t help who we fall in love with. When it comes to love, the only thing that should matter is what kind of a person you are, not your religion or your nationality. Yet, knowing what I know and how impossible their situations are, I didn’t want Liat and Hilmi to get overly attached. I could almost feel their internal struggles going on within me, mostly because of the deep empathy that Rabinyan evokes through this story, which is precisely what excellent writing is all about. I only wish that I could have read this in Hebrew, because as blown away as I was with this translation by (Man Booker International Prize winner) Jessica Cohen, the original must be even more amazing.
In short, there is nothing here that I could fault with this book. The plot, the characters, and above all, the writing, are all carefully crafted and come across with remarkable depth, beauty and poignancy. I can’t simply recommend this book, I must urge you to read it, and it deserves even more than a full five stars (take THAT, Minister Bennett, and what’s more, I’m updating my 2017 “best of” list to include this as tied for first place).
Serpent’s Tail in the UK released “All the Rivers” by Dorit Rabinyan on March 2, 2017, and Penguin Random House released it in the USA on April 25, 2017. This book is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, Kobo Books, Kobo audio books, eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books (free worldwide delivery, support literacy) as well as from an IndieBound store near you.
PS & FYI: Am Oved published “Gader Chaya,” the original Hebrew version of this book, in 2014. “Gader Chaya” is Hebrew for hedge, but a purely literal translation would be “live border.”
10 thoughts on “Border Life”
Followed you here from the #6Degrees meme. I see why you called this book a Romeo Juliet adaptation. It reminds me of the Leon Uris books I’d read long back (like Exodus). Looks like an emotional heavyweight and since you gave it a 5-rating, adding it to my TBR. Thanks!
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Enjoy… it is just beautiful!