All the Rivers is above all else a romance. Dorit Rabinyan’s novel is about the romance between an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Muslim who meet when they are both in New York–safely free of family ties and social pressure. They are free to be who they really are and they really are deeply in love.
Liat is a translator, Hilmi is an artist. They explore New York and each other. It is a wonderful romance in so many ways and Rabinyan is beguiling when she writes about their attraction to each other. Their love has an expiration date, though. May 20th, the day Liat returns to her home in Tel Aviv, leaving Hilmi and all the contradictions behind. That expiration date haunts their romance, creates an artificiality because, at least for Liat, there is no chance of their love ever connecting to her real life in Israel. It’s almost as though New York is some sort of Brigadoon for star-crossed lovers.
I enjoyed this book a lot and, of course, it made me cry. I came to like Hilmi so much more than Liat, but perhaps because we never are exposed to his inner dialogue and Rabinyan is radically honest in exposing the visceral bigotry that Liat feels toward Arabs, including Hilmi. He talks in his sleep and the sound of Arabic sounds menacing, even to her sleeping subconscious. That she asks him to disappear from her life for ten minutes while she makes a call, hiding him from her parents while he told his mother about her after their first day together. Though she does not name it, you sense she feels ashamed of him, as though she is dating down. He’s lucky to have her, while she really should do better for herself. She takes him for granted and sometimes treats him more as a pet than as a man she loves.
Rabinyan makes no effort to pretty up or hide Liat’s crabbed and limited sort of love; she makes Liat stunted by bigotry. Hilmi is never just Hilmi, he is Hilmi the Arab always. This was, I think, the place where the story is most true and courageous. Love does not conquer all–certainly not the kind of bone-deep nationalism that makes Liat assume that their love is wrong and impossible. If Rabinyan’s intent was to demonstrate how bigotry cripples a person, she succeeded. Liat is made small. Sure she loves someone she is not supposed to, but not enough to risk herself. Her love is compartmentalized, dying on the vine, because she won’t allow her love to challenge her nationalism.
In American literature and film, we have an unfortunately common trope, the Magical Negro. The Magical Negro is an unrealized character whose existence in the story serves to teach the white character some valuable life lesson, to help them understand themselves better. Their agency is limited and in the end, they usually die or go away, because they are not real people, they are the avenue of change that help the person who really matters to learn something. Hilmi is a Magical Arab and I guess writing that sort of character makes sense in a country that practices and even more explicit form of segregation and systemic oppression that we do. Hilmi is allowed to be angry, but never gets to stay angry. Instead he shrugs it off and is preternaturally cheerful and forgiving. He stands alone in a room and dances. He cares for Liat when she is ill with beautiful tenderness. He is spontaneous, artistic, free-spirited. When he exerts his agency and returns to Israel, he grows a garden for the people who will rent his house after him…and he never asks Liat to risk one thing. He is showing a more transcendent love in sharp contrast to her love with limits.
So, All the Rivers broke my heart. I wanted love to conquer prejudice, social pressure, family dynamics and everything else. It could not even conquer Liat. She limited love, accepting the strictures of a divided society, and never once questioned those values. It’s as though, for her, loving a Muslim Arab is a sort of annihilation of her Jewishness. We get a hint of why in an argument with Himli’s brother who points out that soon there will be more Arabs than Jews in Israel and it will be even more explicitly oppressive, a minority with its foot on the necks of the majority. Perhaps if you believe your existence relies on never accommodating the Other and perhaps, if your country’s policy is to continue to expropriate their land, drive them behind ever shrinking walls and constrict their lives with checkpoints and military threat, you can never let them be fully human, can never let them express their hopes, or consider even for one moment you could love them as an equal.
All the Rivers will be released April 25th. I was provided an e-galley for review by the publisher through NetGalley.