The conversation with Dorit Rabinyan, bestselling Israeli author for her controversial book All the Rivers (2014), which I happen to read through a single copy available in the National Library of Israel, Jerusalem was scheduled on a rainbow day (“The Gay pride parade day”) of Tel Aviv on 14th June, 2019 at 14:30. Our meeting at the Nechama Vehezi café near the city centre was sumptuous with good food, melodious music and reflections on the conceptual flaws in Israeli-Palestinian conundrum glanced through her novel.
Dorit, please tell something about yourself and how do you define your identity — a Jewish Iranian descent who is an Israeli?
Dorit: I am a woman, to begin with. It’s my femininity that stands out before any skin colour, or orientation or even indoctrinations of my upbringing. So, I will always have my femininity stand above the rest of my identity. The next would be my Israeliness because I feel more Israeli than I feel Jewish. My Jewishness is folded within my Israeliness. Then I am from a Persian background. My parents immigrated from Iran. I think their immigration and their Iranianness are equally reflected in me. Yes, I am a hybrid creature. It might sound politically contradictory as an Identity but not on a personal immediate level. But I do differentiate between Persian and Iranian culture and I was raised by parents who belonged to the Persian Jewish tradition.
As a Jew, do you differentiate between Judaism and Zionism and what do you associate yourself with more closely?
Dorit: I was raised in a Jewish democratic state and that is the definition of Zionism for me. I relate to Zionism as the portrait of the Jewish state I am living in. It is the manifestation of the way of life, the rights and privileges that I enjoy here in a free, equal and democratic place. There is a leaning towards the western world. Sometimes I think of this hyphen between Jewish-democratic. Very often you see the inner societal conflicts between the Jews themselves in Israel. Now is it about the superiority of the democratic over the Jewish or Jewish over the democratic, I am not sure? It is the dilemma, the fragility of this hyphen that Israelis are facing. It is not that I personally have an issue with it, but it is the climate I was raised into.
Your novel, All the Rivers published in 2014 is a beautiful tale of a love relationship between an Israeli and a Palestinian. To me, it seems like a pendulum, the two strings of empathy and apathy. What was the motive behind writing such a novel when there is a critical situation here in Israel and Palestine?
Dorit: To commit a person for writing a book for more than five years you need to have more than mere motivation. It could be that the prior motivation could be overpowered by the labour of writing it throughout time. But the earliest motivation was the trauma of losing a friend I was very close with and the need to maintain the dialogue I use to have with him. To carry on the memories of his personality, and his art and what he meant to me. Later, a book takes its own voyage. Once you write it then It could be that the motivation is shaped with your other needs. And I found that writing All the Rivers has satisfied a very personal need. I was given a chance to draw my Israeli portrait as an Israeli by using Hasan’s memory and adopting it into Hilmi. It was like taking a distance from Israel and describing it from afar. And this telescopic perspective has given me the chance to observe the most immediate and the most obvious from a defamiliarized point of view. The need for self-portrait is the core of any artwork. We always search for a mystery between me and I. I deliberated through my work as to why I am attached to this place and why I can’t let go off this habit that was forced on me by the immigration of my parents. Contrary to the condition where the Palestinian is seen as a negative reflection of the Israeliness due to the conflict I was able to see how much similarities lie between them. And using distance as a point of view to observe the most intimate. So this intimacy from the far allows me to check on perhaps subjects that if it wasn’t for this love story taking place in New York between an Israeli and a Palestinian, I wouldn’t have been given a chance to look into and come up with the formalization of what a homeland is to me. By writing about the diasporic experience of my character, I was given a chance to say something about homeland as a concept, as an emotion, as an idea. Because as a native Israeli, I never experienced diaspora, but it is a huge part of me—the 2000 years old DNA that I carry. So, I needed to examine it and the circumstances of the story allowed me to do so.
Liat and Hilmi in the novel portray your experiences with a Palestinian Artist-Hasan Hourani in New York. How do you think such personal acquaintances with the supposedly “other” can help override the inherited hatred which is so dormant in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Dorit: When you are a part of a national conflict, you tend to inherit so many prejudices. But when you get acquainted with somebody in person who is not fitting into your prejudices first you feel a sense of redemption as if you have conquered America. You feel so much more powerful that you overcome the circumstances of your upbringing. And you can talk to this other, see eye to eye and laugh together. Most importantly you can relate. This bridge over hatred, this experience of redeeming someone else’s humanity allows you to enjoy your humanity. This is the very moment you are blessed with your own humanity, not a moment before that. And I think this is the most wonderful moral mission of humans to recognize each other’s humanity.
Do you think that literature with its moments of enlightened pauses in this blind race of life can help us transcend the mental boundaries and break prejudices and bring Israelis and Palestinians on the same table of dialogue?
Dorit: You know my book was banned from the high school curriculum. And I thought it was a great credit that the Ministry of Education has given to the written word—to a story that it called dangerous to the identity of the Jewish children as it might encourage them to assimilate. Some people then even said that they saw how powerful my book was to make a change. I don’t believe books have such power. I wish perhaps they were so strong in their impact. But I feel that it increases curiosity about one another and allows a space between the black and the white, which is not the image of life as the politicians would like to show. They would like to see the only one-dimensional reality surrounding us as two communities and art allows us to see a much more complex and rich view of the other and the self. Though we all know this already, but we need reminders. We need incentives to see the good in the other. But sometimes you don’t need fine art to do that. You just need a 20-second video to show you that there are funny people everywhere. And It might suggest that he is your enemy, but he laughs at the same joke as you. And from there we can find other mutual grounds that we can share. I feel that humour and empathy are the most intimate ways of bonding with the other.
Now talking about contesting narratives, where Liat and Hilmi have their own versions of the story, what do you think are the possibilities of reconciliations?
Dorit: You cannot go back and re-write the narratives. And perhaps this was like this always, when two tribes were fighting, there were always two narratives. This conflict is doomed to be reflected in the twentieth-century history writing so it is inevitable to acknowledge that there are two stories lying next to each other. But it is not the narratives that are so contradictory, but justifications that are contradictory. And knowing the other from within as the literature allows us to do by empathy, by identification, by this cross of your identity to the identity of the other and dipping into it and know it from within. It allows us to acknowledge that it could be that we share the difference in our justification for our ways of life, the properties we carry. It’s such a huge gesture to be able to detour guilt in order to meet with the other’s justification once your history is an expense on the other’s history. Not everyone can go through this. I believe that reconciliation has to do with recognition not so much as a merge of narratives, rather understand one’s limited position. Because there have always been winners and losers and what we know of history is only half of it. This ambivalence, once it is digested and you understand there is not one but always two perspectives. Then you understand that you need to create a relationship not only between two present times and future times but also a relationship between histories.
Given the history of plurality of the region of Levant, do you think that Zionism and Arab national movement somehow fall short in addressing the concerns of these diverse communities in an inclusive way?
Dorit: I can say about the Zionist movement because I am a fruit of it. I am not in a position to criticize the Arab national movement as such. I believe Jews should be everywhere equal and free. But in Israel, it is a sovereign nation. So, we have the right to holding the keys of the front door, not to come from the back door as such. And that’s a huge difference in position. I feel that perhaps I cannot cross the privilege of being an Israeli born to imagine a time when there was no such place as Israel and Jews were stateless or were minorities spread all over the globe. I believe that Zionism is when you believe and act according to the idea of a Jewish democratic state—Where Jews are in majority, hence democratic. So, I am a Zionists, and I believe Arab can live here. But they have to play the role of the minority.
Now regarding the issue of identity, is it something that we choose or something that chooses us. In the novel the whole notion of identity is questionable. Liat and Hilmi carry a strong sense of who they are but their sense of oneself begins to alter when they find the other not so different from themselves?
Dorit: Both Israeli and Palestinian kids were taught to see the other as very different. As if we are white and they are black. But what proximity of life allows us is to understand that neither I am White, nor you are Black. It is all the hues between. And how our identity was moulded also with powers of interest to see each other suspiciously. Not to see the similarities that we share with. But in reality, we have so many similarities. Not only the mentality and temper but also the very same experience of going through the conflict. Being enemies from two sides of the conflict makes us similar in the sense that we carry this scar in our view. The way we see the world is also moulded by our conflict. We may see the conflict everywhere we lay our eyes on. So, we both carry the same luggage which is in addition to our shared moments in history, shared geography and emotional landscape too.
In one of your interviews with Jerusalem Post, you said that “the wall between Israelis and Palestinians is a misunderstood curtain”, Do you think nostalgia can be helpful in bringing together these two communities after these periods of hostility?
Dorit: Not anymore. If it had an impact it’s gone. The new generations were born into the circumstances of the conflict. They don’t have any memory of the earlier times. I think a sense of irony is more powerful than nostalgia. It is more effective and more current.
What message would you like to give to the next generation of Israelis and Palestinians and what kind of future you want for them?
Dorit: I am a peace seeker. And I want to say that it can happen. It is possible. If you think of Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a real estate conflict it appears to be too ordinary. It is not that difficult, it is manageable. Let’s make it ordinary and resolve. It’s high time.