There is an old adage that says you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. In the case of The Lady from Tel Aviv by Raba’i Al-Madhoun, the title is a bit misleading. The lady from Tel Aviv plays a very minor role in this story, yet, even so, understanding her role is pivotal to understanding the book.
The novel tells the story of Waleed Dahman, a Palestinian novelist returning to Gaza for the first time in thirty-eight years; and Dana Ahova, an Israeli actress seeking the comforts of home after the disappearance of her Ukrainian boyfriend. The two meet by chance on a Tel Aviv-bound flight and have a short, but eye-opening conversation. And then, the lady disappears from the narrative.
Before Waleed can enter the Gaza Strip, he is delayed in harsh sunlight at an Israeli checkpoint closed to Palestinians following a suicide bombing attack. This wait at the crossing extends over a number of chapters but it is symbolic of the waiting that plays a significant role in the lives of ordinary Gazan residents.
Waleed reunites with his mother, his family, and his friends. Many of those he grew up with are dead. Some have been killed by stray bullets; some in Israeli retaliatory raids; and others in factional fighting between rival Palestinian militias. “It as if Gazans live in a permanent condition of randomness,” Walid thinks. “One and a half million Palestinians crowded together, living in the most unpredictable way this unpredictable form of life, living for a death that comes and goes.”
The story takes place before Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. Jewish settlements exist in the Strip but the occupation that obsesses Waleed’s family dates back to their expulsion in 1948 from a home near the modern city of Ashdod.
A stumbling block for readers is that it is difficult to keep the characters apart. All the men have very similar “Abu So-and-So” surnames. As the women remain mostly in the background, the men tell anecdotes from the past, argue Palestinian politics, and complain about Israeli transgressions. This novel will not be a comfortable read for Israelis but it does give light to the Palestinian viewpoint.
At the end of the story, Waleed bids farewell to his mother and Gaza and returns to the warm embrace of his English wife. He also arrives in London to finally confront the chasm that separates his life from that of the lady from Tel Aviv.
Published in Arabic in 2009 by the Arab Institute for Research and Publishing, The Lady from Tel Aviv was shortlisted for the 2010 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF). Translated eloquently into English by Elliott Colla and published by Telegram Books in 2013, the novel won an English PEN Writers in Translation award.
Raba’i Al-Madhoun was born in al-Majdal-Askalan (Ashkelon) in Palestine in 1945. Like the rest of the city’s Arab population, his family fled in 1947-8 and settled in Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip. Al-Madhoun was educated in Gaza and Egypt; was active in the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine; and following imprisonment and torture in Syria, moved to Beirut to work fulltime in journalism. He now resides in London with his family where he is an editor at Asharq Al-Awsat, the leading pan-Arab daily newspaper. The Lady from Tel Aviv is his first novel to be translated into English.