The Sephardi Bulletin
Yasmine: a novel of irreconciliable dualities
It was translated into Arabic and well received, but Yasmine, by the Iraqi-born Israeli writer Eli Amir, has only just been published in English. Lyn Julius, in this review for the Sephardi Bulletin, finds this Arab-Jewish love story a good read, but the book's political message out of date:
Jerusalem, 1967. Israel has just fought a war to reunite the city’s two halves. Nuri Imari, Israeli ministerial adviser and Arabist, has been entrusted to help restore ‘normalisation’ by reaching out to the conquered Arabs of East Jerusalem. One of his tasks is to attempt to persuade Abu George, a Palestinian Christian and his Muslim partner, Abu Nabil, to start re-publishing their newspaper.
Enter Yasmine, the voluptuous, sophisticated, Sorbonne-educated daughter of Abu George. Yasmine, a steadfastly nationalist young widow, has just returned from several years of radicalisation in Paris. Nuri finds himself falling in love with Yasmine, and she with him. But can love ever be permitted to blossom between Jew and Arab?
Yasmine is the third book of Eli Amir’s trilogy.after The Dover Flyer and Scapegoat. It has only just been published in English by Halban with the help of a grant from Naim Dangoor.
The reader is reunited with many of the characters we find in The Dove Flyer, the largely autobiographical story of the family’s uprooting from Baghdad and their resettlement in Israel.
Sensuously written and skilfully constructed, Yasmine is a novel of irreconciliable dualities. Not only is Jerusalem divided, but Nuri, the narrator, is culturally divided. ‘Like a Pasha with two wives’, he plays classical music in the morning. In the evening, it is the Arabic music of his Iraqi-Jewish childhood. He describes himself as ibn arab, a son of Arabia, as attracted to Arabic poetry, song and language as he is to Yasmine. But he is also an adopted son of the kibbutz and a fully-fledged, if somewhat conditional, member of the Israeli establishment. Jews from Muslim countries have passed the ultimate test of integration – they have spilled their blood in defence of the Jewish state. The older generation, like Nuri’s own father, are overriding the disappointment of their failed aspirations and beginning to take pride in the achievements of their children.
Nuri holds the ring between staunch Zionism and sympathy for the Palestinians. While the characters around Nuri rehearse the familiar arguments – for a Jewish state, against a Jewish state, for Jewish rights in the land of Israel, for Arab rights, for settling the West Bank and against. Characters like Nuri’s uncle Hiskel, who suffered most – spending long years of imprisonment in an Iraqi jail - are surprisingly conciliatory. Nuri himself - almost too scrupulously - tries to straddle both sides.
Abu George and Abu Nabil also represent a duality: the former is a pragmatist willing to collaborate with the new Israeli overlords. Abu Nabil, on the other hand, clings on to Arab ideological intransigence, reverting to printing the old lies about Israel.
Yasmine represents Nasserist yet westernised Arab womanhood, while Ghadir, the pretty shepherdess Nuri befriends on Mount Scopus, symbolises the downtrodden fellah, screwed alike by Israeli bureaucracy and by the cruelty of her male-dominated shame-honour culture.
With the same scrupulous duality Eli Amir balances the narrative of the Palestinians with his own Jewish refugee narrative. “We have the refugee complex and they do too”, he writes. “The difference is that our belly is full and theirs is empty.”
While politics intervene to end Yasmine and Nuri ‘s ecstatic coupling, Yasmine does come around to a grudging acceptance of the other. “I never believed that our conquerors also had wounded hearts as we have.”
Written in 2005, Yasmine is a novel of its time, vaunting the two state-solution. What a difference seven years can make. If Eli Amir were to write it today - with Hamas in power and after the upheavals of the Arab Spring - perhaps it would turn out somewhat differently, divested of the moral equivalence of the Oslo years.
24 February 2012
© 2012 The Sephardi Bulletin