Scenes From a Marriage
Conventional wisdom suggests Israelis and Palestinians are bitter enemies: two sides mired in a century-long conflict marked by violence, hatred and an unbounded reservoir of brutality, each side armed with a solemn confidence in its own victimhood. A more nuanced approach suggests a certain weary familiarity between them: They are, as the Israeli writer Meron Benvenisti memorably put it, "intimate enemies," entwined in a shared history from which both dream of escape. To take it one step further, let us imagine that the tortured relationship of the two peoples is a kind of marriage: an unhappy one, to say the least, but a marriage nevertheless, a lasting bond whose hated entanglements remain too strong for either side to break.
As a generalization about the conflict, the marriage metaphor is, to be sure, a platitude. Just about every Israeli and American commentator--from Ehud Barak and Amos Oz to Thomas Friedman and Bill Clinton--has reached for it at some point, usually to plead the necessity of "a divorce," however painful. (The analogy is employed less frequently by Palestinians, who are more apt to invoke the image of an abusive husband or an arranged marriage.) But while the idea is unquestionably a crude one, its implications are seldom explored. Like any marriage, this one--watched more obsessively than perhaps any conflict in human history--remains largely inscrutable to those of us on the outside. While attempts to depict the lived experience of Israelis and Palestinians litter our bookshops and fill the newspapers, only a precious few register the intricacy of the connective threads, the interdependency fostered by decades of uncomfortable (and unwanted) coexistence.
From Juval Portugali, an Israeli geographer, we get this more elegant image, on loan from Calvino's Invisible Cities. It is the city of Valdrada, built at the edge of a lake in which the city is perfectly and entirely mirrored by another, such that "nothing exists or happens in the one Valdrada that the other Valdrada does not repeat, because the city was so constructed that its every point would be reflected in its mirror." The two peoples, Israelis and Palestinians, are much more than castaways cursed to inhabit a cramped desert for all of eternity: They are, like two people joined by marriage, enfolded in each other, hopelessly conjoined, so that the actions of each send ripples through the water of the other. "The two Valdradas," Calvino concludes, "live for each other, their eyes interlocked; but there is no love between them." As Portugali remarks, the experience of being "mirrored" by Palestinians is among the "dominant experiences in being an Israeli."
A.B. Yehoshua, who was an Israeli before there was an Israel--he was born in Jerusalem in 1936--has, over the course of seven novels, said a lot about the experience of being an Israeli, and somewhat less about the vexed relations between his people and their Palestinian mirrors. But he has obsessively, from his first novel The Lover to his most recent, The Liberated Bride, considered the theme of marriage: the love that binds two people and creates them anew. There is a marriage at the heart of all but one of Yehoshua's novels, and it is never static, always collapsing or beginning anew: His lovers are forever coming together, struggling, betraying their vows or falling apart.
Begun in 1998, in the midst of the Oslo period, and finished just after the outbreak of the second intifada, The Liberated Bride is a nervous book, thick with anxiety over the unmasterable past and the uncertain future. After two novels--Open Heart and A Journey to the End of the Millennium--in which the politics of the present scarcely figure, The Liberated Bride announces from its first pages its grounding in the tension of the collapsing Pax Oslo. At a wedding in Mansura, an Arab village high in the Galilee, Yochanan Rivlin can hear "the distant boom of an artillery shell fired across the border in Lebanon," the aural premonition of coming disaster. The novel opens with Rivlin, a professor of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Haifa--where Yehoshua teaches literature--at the wedding of Samaher, his "annoyingly ambitious" MA student. The wedding is unbearable to Rivlin, who is haunted by the painful and unexplained collapse of his son Ofer's marriage to Galya, the daughter of a Jerusalem hotelier, five years earlier.
Rivlin, a historian, is enslaved by his obsession with the past, searching endlessly there for evidence to explain Ofer's present misery. He trolls for clues to the breakup of Ofer and Galya, herself newly remarried and pregnant, and returns time and again, often on the flimsiest of pretenses, to the family's hotel in Talpiyot--visits that he tries in vain to hide from his own wife, Hagit, a stern district court judge with no tolerance for her husband's interminable meddling. Interrogating Galya, her sister Tehila, and even Fu'ad, the Arab maitre d' and family confidant, Rivlin tries fruitlessly to unearth the mystery that is revealed to the reader by the middle of the novel: Not long after their wedding, eager to play his part in the management of the hotel, Ofer, in search of some blueprints to begin an expansion of the building, forces his way into a basement office where he discovers his naked father-in-law in repose, reading the newspaper, while his older daughter Tehila lies sleeping beside him. When Ofer tells Galya, she insists he recant his "fantasy" and breaks up their marriage, driving Ofer from Israel to Paris, where he takes restaurant classes and works as a night security guard at the Jewish Agency.
But while we know the cause of the catastrophe, Rivlin never learns, and he is haunted by the unexplained past right until the end, prevented from completing his own work: a long-delayed study of Algerian national identity in the 1940s and '50s that, he hopes, will reveal why Algeria plunged into a catastrophic civil war in the 1990s. "I've lost my concentration. And the [Algerian] Arabs have driven me to despair," he complains, with "the terrible carnage going on there now." "There had to have been signs, early warnings, by which a serious scholar looking unflinchingly at the present could unlock the past," he thinks to himself, mulling over the Algerian civil war with the same vocabulary he applies to his son's broken marriage.