Dorit Rabinyan is a rising star in the literary world. Born in Israel to Iranien Jewish parents, she has three books translated into English: “Persian Brides”, “Our Weddings” (also published as “Strand of a thousand pearls”) and “All the rivers”. “Persian Brides” won the Jewish Quartely-Wingate Prize in 1999, and “All the rivers” has been an international best seller. However, “All the Rivers”, has been controversial in Israel; despite being well received and winning an award, in 2015 a scandal emerged: a committee of teachers requested the novel to be added to the recommended curriculum for Hebrew high school literature classes. Another committee in the Israeli Ministry of Education however objected to the request and declined to add it, on the grounds, according to The Economist, that it ”promotes intermarriage and assimilation”. In short, ”All the rivers” has gotten flack for portraying an interfaith and intercultural relationship.
Before moving on to the review, I must tell an endearing story about when I was waiting in a post–talk line to have Ms. Rabinyan sign her novel, ”Our weddings”. Ms. Rabinyan had not quite understood that she was suppose to do signings after her talk. Her publisher went to get her for the signing, and when Ms. Rabinyan appeared and saw the line, she exclaimed happily: ”Wow, are all these people here for me? This is fantastic!”.
”All the rivers” tells the sad love story of Liat, a Persian Jewish woman from Israel who, while temporarily living in New York, meets Hilmi, a young Palestinian man. Despite Liat´s internal reluctance, the two fall in love. However the relationship is filled with conflicts and Liat, additionally in her hesitation, hides the relationship from her parents and from many of her friends. Hilmi and Liat, in the midst of their tumultuous relationship, continually revert to mammoth arguments regarding the occupation of the Palestinian territories. Regardless, as the days go by, and the relationship with Hilmi deepens, it becomes harder for Liat to stick with her original plan to merely have a frivolous adventure while on a long trip and to return to her ”normal life” once she leaves the escapade of New York.
While the novels premise may sound banal and the books description would have the book sound like your average star crossed lovers story, ”All the rivers” surprises with a complex, mature and engaging story of politics and life. The novel is told from Liats point of view, and Rabinyan does not shy away from showing her heroine as deeply flawed. Liat often in fights with Hilmi exposes her insensitivity, and she often, and flippantly voices opinions she would be horrified to hear others utter. Yet, at the same time, Liat is very likeable. She is kind, self- critical and deeply cares about Hilmi, her family, and the humanity of all those around her. For those unfamiliar with Jewish culture they will certainly learn much about it through Liat´s narration.
Hilmi as a character is loveable. Hilmi´s an ambitious and aspiring artist, has a deep and subtle sense of humour, and, despite a past of hardships engendered in the experiences of the Palestinian occupation forsakes bitterness for compassion and understanding. While hurt that Liat hides him from her parents, he has also remarkable patience with Liat. However he is not kind to a fault.
In the two leads, Rabinyan explores a different spin on the tropes of intercultural relationships. While often in a text which wants the reader to sympathize with the protagonists, the tendency of the narrative of the two lovers would be written as free from prejudice or bias. Here though, we are exposed directly to Liat´s main flaw of her unremitting bias towards Israelis, and her admission of prejudice regarding Arabs, something she shamefully admits and tries to work on. (Note: people of Iranian descent consider themselves Persian, not Arabic). Liat is not purely a bad guy; Rabinyan shows that Liat deeply cares, supports and loves Hilmi, and listens to his stories of oppression without gaslighting him.
Rabinyan’s plays in a refreshing perspective to the star-crossed lovers story showing us a human relation of real people embedded in both their prejudices and the dilemma of a loving intercultural relationship which resolves to neither the unloving or unkind. The novel paints a very morally complex and honest reality that explores the problematic nexus of privilege and biases, while showing the personal, political struggles the lovers have in recognition of their ignorances and invisible, unchecked privileges. The politics of the story are honest, and multilayered, while also being delicately critical of Israeli norms in understated ways.
Hilmi´s backstory also breaks ground in how Middle Eastern characters are often depicted in both cultural representations and narrative structure. Hilmi talks about his father, who he mentions was an atheist, and while it is never stated Hilmi himself does not seem very religious. While most literature often depicts Middle Easterners as Muslim or Christian, ”All the rivers” depicts two often forgotten groups: Jewish Middle Easterners and Atheist/non-believing Middle Easterners.
The political context of the novel, one which the lovers are entrenched in and struggling against, revolves ultimately around the paramount and continual system of apartheid system towards the Palestinians in Israel. Hilmi, when going to Ramallah to visit his family, describes the oppressive atmosphere of the wall and details the surprising event of his time in prison for painting as a teen (the authorities thought he had painted the Palestinian flag). The novel, despite being written by an Israeli writer, does not shy away from the less than stellar aspects of the conflict.
The book is addictive, and difficult to put down. Despite being utterly depressing, ”All the rivers” also makes the unfortunately still relevant cautionary tale of not letting intolerance get in the way of the most human of things, our relationships with one another. Liat, despite knowing Hilmi is a good person, and despite acknowledging that she loves him, does not allow herself the relationship she desires due to fear of her parents disapproval. This denial leads to a heartbreaking ending where Liat is forced to face the harsh reality, of not only lost opportunities, but also of injustice as a destructive force. ”All the rivers” will surprise readers greatly, while also making them cry and rethink. Rare books do so much.
”All the rivers” is a triumph. Even if love stories are not your usual cup of tea (or if you just generally don´t like star-crossed lovers stories) still this novel cannot be recommend more highly. Beautifully written, brave and filled with both overt and restrained insights, ”All the rivers” is the love story for the person wanting to understand the world just a little bit more, and think of the individual enterprise a bit more clearly.