In the novel Ishmael’s Oranges by Claire Hajaj, a mixed Palestinian-Jewish couple attempts to bridge the cultural and religious chasm between them.

At the beginning of 1948, over 50,000 residents called Jaffa their home. As the end of the British mandate neared, the Irgun paramilitary group launched an offensive on the town, starting with a three-day mortar bombardment. The vast majority of citizens fled, many of them escaping by sea.

Seven-year-old Salim al-Ishmaeli wants nothing more than to pick oranges in his family’s orchard. But he is warned by a classmate that “The Jews are coming for you” and when the mortars fall, his family loses everything, including their orange house not far from the sea.

In parallel, Judith Rebecca Gold is growing up in England in a family of mensches. One uncle is in Palestine helping to build the Jewish homeland; another is donating money to help the sick and the poor. Judith’s own parents take in an orphan rescued from the concentration camps. “After all we’ve been through, Jews should stick together,” her mother tells her, but the thought of people sticking together “like so many pieces of the grey papier-mâché they used at school” made Judith queasy. A new friend gives her the nickname “Jude” so that she could “be hip”, and the name sticks.

ishmaels-orangesIn the 1960s, Salim, graduating with a degree from University College, London, meets Jude and what follows is a moving, complicated love affair that seems capable at first of bridging the cultural and religious chasm between Palestinians and Jews. But no matter where they live with their family, Salim cannot let go of his memory of the home he once had as a child.

“It’s not how long you live somewhere that makes it a home,” his mother had once said to him, even though she had subsequently established a new life for herself in the luxurious suburbs of Beirut. “Home is a feeling … that you belong somewhere and somewhere belongs to you.”

Salim finds himself at a crossroads, conflicted between working with his brother to help fund extremists resorting to violence, and caring for his family. He tries to explain to his son what remains most important to him.

“You talk about going home sometimes. But I wanted to show you my home. The one that was stolen when I was a boy, even younger than you. It was a very beautiful place, can you see? The sea is just behind it, and it was always warm. And this orange tree was planted when I was born. Jaffa oranges are the sweetest in the world.”

Yet Salim doesn’t realize that his efforts to reclaim a distant past risk his losing his home and life in the present day. Possibly, this underlying message serves as a metaphor for Palestinian aspirations to reclaim homes that no longer exist.

The novel Ishmael’s Oranges by Claire Hajaj (Oneworld Publications, July 2014) portrays aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with understanding and compassion; the author carefully refrains from blaming one side or the other for the suffering which has continued in an ‘ever-hungry land’ long past the events of April 1948.

The characters, their motives and feelings, ring true, with Jude’s desire to safeguard her family serving as a strong counterpoint to Salim’s efforts to retrieve elements from the past. Very few Israelis play roles in this story, yet the fate of the orange house in Jaffa is key to the novel’s conclusion.

The author, Claire Hajaj, shares both Palestinian and Jewish heritage. Her novel was inspired by the mixed marriage of her parents, Deanne and Mahmoud Hajaj and “their brave attempt to rewrite tribal hatred” as she recently wrote in Newsweek. Her childhood was split between the Middle East and rural England. She has lived on four continents and worked for the United Nations in war zones from Burma to Beirut. A former journalist for the BBC World Service, she now lives in Beirut.