I started a new novel not too long ago, Verses of Forgiveness, by Myriam Antaki and translated from the French by Marjolin de Jager. Antaki is a Syrian novelist who writes in French. Verses of Forgiveness, which is narrated in a lyrical, dream-like prose by Ahmed, a Palestinian suicide bomber preparing his attack, is her first book to be translated into English.
I’ve read the first 30 or so pages of Verses and I am fascinated. The first section of the book is Ahmed’s lyrical evocation of his own identity. “I am,” he begins, “a terrorist, a dreamer. I have removed my mask of bliss for that of fear and sweat. I have lost.” He hints at his first loss, that of his parents, on the very first page, pointing out that they did not name him, but the loss he spends the most time talking about in this section is of Iman, “the most beautiful girl in the Baalbek brothel.” He loves her, or at least thinks he does, despite the fact that he has shared her “with so many others,” and he seems to regret the fact that his feelings for her, rooted in the sex they’ve had, are not strong enough to sway him from his course.
Forgive me, I cannot change my way of thinking despite your body and your pleasure. Do not forget me, it is easier to remember someone who is dead than someone alive who loves another. I am taking our night cries with me. (4)
It’s interesting that Antaki chooses to begin Ahmed’s meditation with this farewell not just to a woman, but to the pleasures of sex and the human connection sex creates, or, perhaps more accurately, the humanizing effect of sex on him. In this way, Antaki both reveals and begins to critique the hypermasculinity of terrorism, while at the same time, because Ahmed’s voice is so lyrical and poetic, rendering the beauty terrorism has, the allure and inevitability it has because of that beauty, for those who choose to enter into its ideology.
It would be easy to deny Ahmed’s meditation as mere, if nonetheless dangerous sentimentality, except that doing so would mean failing to read his words in the context of the similarly hypermasculine Israeli occupation. He is, in other words, his ideology is, a product of his time and place. Both he and it, therefore, need to be taken seriously, not just because terrorists kill innocent people—so do the Israelis in pursuing and maintaining their occupation (and it does not matter for my purposes here whether you think this pursuit is justified in the name of self-defense or not); we need to take Ahmed seriously also because the question of how to step outside his hypermasculine logic is one to which the Middle East, and the world in general, desperately need an answer.
Antaki confronts her character with this question by throwing him a real curveball. His Palestinian mother, whom he thought was dead and who, after a long search, finds him one day in the arms of Iman, hands over to Ahmed his Jewish father’s diaries. It turns out that his father escaped the Nazis during World War II.
“There are not many Jews in your town, but your name is David, I cannot believe it. The joy of finding you and then suddenly losing you, obliterating you. Father, you are a Jew! It is you whom I deny and assassinate. Life’s effrontery produces buried mysteries, trembling and shouting voices. I am afraid of the truth, it sometimes delineates accursed and irreparable destinies.” (21)
I assume that much of the rest of the novel will be about Ahmed’s coming to terms with this truth. At this point, all he does is imagine his father’s childhood in Europe at time of the Nazi occupation of France. What interests me here is Ahmed’s evocation of the Shabbat services his father attended and the how, in Ahmed’s imagination, the prayers connect the Jews who are praying under occupation to the land of Israel. “In the clergyman’s words [the people at the service] unravel the mysteries of a distant land beyond the seas, a country of prophets where milk and honey flow” (34).
As Ahmed understands it, it seems, Israel is a mythical place to the Jews of Europe, a place that exists only in their imaginations and that, in their imaginations, is the “land of milk and honey,” not a contemporary place, inhabited by people, with an economy, a politics, a history of its own. I don’t want to make more of this in terms of the novel itself, since I have not yet read enough to know what Antaki is going to do with it, but it struck a chord in me nonetheless because it is a central tenet of one argument people sometimes use to delegitimize Jewish nationalism—and I use that term rather than Zionism simply because I want to name the feeling that I am talking about and not get caught up in the question of whether, given the actions and policies of the Israeli government, Zionism can only signify the political ideology of that government.
I am aware that what it means to say that the Jews are a people, a nation, is complicated, not least by the fact that European Jewish nationalism, with its focus on establishing the State of Israel, was not unequivocally embraced by Jews in other parts of the world. Nonetheless, to suggest that the feeling itself is purely fantasy, rooted only in ties to a mythical place and not in a felt cultural and historical connection between and among Jews is to deny the Jews’ own understanding of our identity. I’m not arguing that this feeling gives Jews the right to a Jewish state in the land of Israel. That’s a whole other question. I am just wary of the kind of thinking Ahmed displays in quote above.
Like I said, I don’t want to say more in terms of the novel itself. I am, however, very interested to see what Antaki does with this.