The novel “The Attack” takes you on a painful and provocative journey, but its Algerian-born author tells a non-judgmental and balanced story.

It begins with a suicide bombing. An explosion in a restaurant in central Tel Aviv. At least 17 people are dead, including a group of teenage girls celebrating at a birthday party. Ambulances race to Ichilov Hospital, where doctors and nurses labor around the clock to save as many lives as possible. One of the surgeons is an Israeli Arab citizen, Dr. Amin Jaafari, who has been trying to contact his wife, due to return to the city from a visit to her grandmother in Nazareth.

After endless hours in the wards, Amin returns to his home in an affluent neighborhood only to be woken hours later by police knocking at his door. He is called back to the hospital to identify the body of one of the victims. In the morgue he sees the remains of his wife. The police tell him that the extensive wounds she suffered are due to the fact that she was the suicide bomber who detonated in the restaurant.

This is the opening of The Attack, the powerful, provocative novel by Yasmina Khadra. The book is the story of terrorism and its victims, but from a different angle. Amin cannot comprehend why his wife, an Arab totally integrated into Israeli society and wanting for nothing, could have been drawn down a path of Islamic extremism to the point where she felt the need to kill innocent children in a horrific attack.

The victims of terrorism

Those who survive a suicide bombing, both the injured and the families of the dead, will carry the scars of the tragedy forever. Amin’s colleagues reach out to help him but he turns them away.

“I’ll never understand why the survivors of a tragedy feel compelled to make people believe they’re more to be pitied than the ones who didn’t make it,” a Holocaust survivor tells Amin. Amin refuses to be pitied and instead sets out on a mission to confront the Islamic terrorist leader who sent his wife on her suicide mission.

For Israelis, it will not be easy to learn what Amin hears on his journey into the refugee camps of Bethlehem and the rubble of Jenin after an Israeli military action. Nonetheless, this is how it is. Palestinians are separated from their agricultural lands and their former lives by a Wall (the author’s capitalization) that runs through their territories. Idealistic (some would say brain-washed) radicals are willing to give up their lives and kill others if they can’t reclaim their homeland.

This is not a pleasant story but it is a very true portrayal of all sides of terrorism. As such, there is no happy ending. What comes as a surprise is that the Algerian-born author manages to tell the story without judgment. There are stories, victims and tragedies on both sides. As difficult as it is for Amin, who has taken an oath to save people’s lives, it is hard for readers to accept the reasons why someone would take the extreme action of becoming a suicide bomber. Nonetheless, it’s important to hear those reasons, and one can trust the author to inform and not preach.

A woman’s pseudonym

Yasmina Khadra (green jasmine in Arabic) is the pen name of former Algerian army officer Mohammed Moulessehoul. Moulessehoul adopted a woman’s pseudonym to avoid military censorship and only revealed his identity in 2001 after leaving the army and going into exile in France. He is the author of several novels depicting the lives of Muslims in the turbulent Middle East.

“Because fanaticism is a threat for all, I contribute to the understanding of its causes and backgrounds. Perhaps then it will be possible to find a way to bring it under control,” Moulessehoul said in an interview with the German radio station SWR1 in 2006.

“The Attack” has just been released as a feature film and is being screened in France and at film festivals in the United States. A reviewer in the Chicago Tribune noted that it was not an easy transition to the screen. Along the way it lost the important introspection that was so vital to the novel’s uniqueness. I imagine that it would not be an easy film to watch. To get a better understanding of the cause of Islamic fanaticism, it’s better to stick with this excellent, thought-provoking novel.