Thursday, October 16, 2014

Review: The Lady From Tel Aviv by Raba'i al-Madhoun

Although we are far from Israel and Palestine here in the US, the ongoing problems between the two are never far from the nightly news. But what we see on tv very often feels removed. How can we possibly understand the root of the conflict from these nightly dispatches? How much of the hatred and violence finds its way into everyday life of people in Israel and Gaza? Only by peering into the lives of those who live with the violence and suspicion and low (and sometimes very high) level fear, can we hope to reach some sort of authentic understanding, even if it is still the understanding of an outsider. So it was with great interest that I picked up Raba'i al-Madhoun's novel, The Lady From Tel Aviv, thinking that it would give me a window into not only the heart and mind of a Palestinian returning to his family and homeland after an exile of almost 40 years but also into the heart and mind of a regular Israeli, the titular lady from Tel Aviv, as well.

Unfortunately, the novel is misnamed and there's relatively little time spent with Dana Ahova, the Israeli actress that main character Walid Dahman meets on his plane ride from London to Tel Aviv. Instead the bulk of the novel focuses on Walid's experiences both as a young man when he could no longer come home from school in Egypt, exiled because of the Occupation, to all that he experiences as he arrives home and spends time with the family he hasn't seen for decades. The reality of being a Palestinian coming into Israel and trying to get into Gaza is dehumanizing, even with Walid's British passport, and the situation in which his family finds itself living is cramped and oftentimes scary. Walid's visit back certainly highlights some of the horrifying treatment of regular Palestinian citizens in Gaza but in terms of a plot, the novel meandered without much focus besides presenting everyday life, much of which is fairly miserable.

As is to be expected, the tale is fairly one-sided, which doesn't make it an untruthful depiction, rather it just feels unbalanced although it is far less politicized than it could be. There is a lack of an intriguing cohesive story here despite the hope that it would chronicle the meeting of two people who find the ability to see each other as individuals beyond their nationality. And while they do see each other as human beings, the whole of it didn't have enough impact or meat to make it engrossing reading. In fact, I found the novel to be rather underwhelming over all, which makes me wonder if I missed something in the translation that made it worthy of shortlisting for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2010.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

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