“All the Rivers,” a complicated love story, unfolds during the endless New York City winter of 2003. The Second Intifada has been going on for almost three years and the United States has just invaded Iraq. Liat is an Israeli living in Manhattan on a Fulbright scholarship and Hilmi is a Palestinian artist who lives in Brooklyn. The two begin a passionate love affair, which neither expects to last. But in the end, these lovers cannot forget each other.
Dorit Rabinyan and her novel became cause célèbre in Israel after the country’s Ministry of Education banned the book from the national high school curriculum. In the process, Rabinyan, who gained the support and admiration of many mainstays of Israeli literature, including A.B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz and David Grossman, won the Bernstein Prize in 2015. Rabinyan recently spoke to JewishBoston about her book’s reception in Israel, as well as its more biographical elements.
Why do you think “All the Rivers” touched so many different emotions in Israel?
It has to do with presenting a perspective of knowing the Palestinians from within. The official education system and other powers driving Israeli culture try to eliminate the Palestinian “other” from the consciousness of mainstream Israel. It has to do with the government keeping Israelis comfortably numb to the pain, the needs and the justifications of the other side.
The book also humanizes the other. Hilmi is not the stereotype of a Palestinian man. He is not ignorant or a demon or a religious fanatic. He is relatable. What frightened the Ministry of Education most was that he was loveable. Banning my book had nothing to do with depicting a romantic involvement between Jews and non-Jews. It had to do with challenging the blindness the government wants us to have in acknowledging that there is a partner on the other side.
Are there biographical elements in the book?
I lived in Brooklyn in 2002, where I met a group of young Arab intellectuals. Among them were scholars and artists from Palestine. I became close with Hassan Hourani, a Palestinian artist who died in 2003. He was my muse in shaping and creating the character of Hilmi. The book is not only dedicated to Hassan, but addresses him. He accompanied me in my study and I could sense his presence as I wrote. I wanted to maintain the dialogue we had before his death. I also wanted to commemorate his art and his spirit. Yet I couldn’t be precisely loyal to him because when you write about departed dear ones you only want to say good things. Since I’m a novelist I had to mix a decent portion of imagination with my memories. But Hilmi is not Hassan. Liat is not me. As we say in Israel, our relationship acted like the box of matches that sets a forest on fire—it inspired the book.
The book’s title in Hebrew translates to “Border Life” or “The Hedge.” What is the significance of those titles?
Most of the languages the books have been translated into call it “All the Rivers.” Only Hebrew and Arabic have a poetic expression to describe a hedge as a fence that is alive. It’s also a border or barrier that is alive and portable. It travels within your consciousness. That was the echo I wanted to have in the original title.
“All the Rivers” presents another theme the novel revolves around—all the rivers run toward the Mediterranean. I like this title too because it calls up the Mediterranean Sea without mentioning it. The Mediterranean is the living fence of a horizon that is in both the Israeli and Palestinian subconscious.
Has the Israeli public embraced your book?
In the 18 months between the publication of the book and the decision made by the Ministry of Education to ban it, my novel was loved and appreciated by the Israeli public. Many teachers found it to be relevant to their high school students by exposing them to our country’s reality. After the ban, the book went from a literary work to a symbol of what happens when free speech is threatened.
People marched to bookshops and backed me in every media platform. And because of the ban and the fact that the Ministry of Education labeled me as a danger to my nation, many of my political opponents read the book and wrote me letters thanking me for my work.
The novel has also been translated into 23 languages, and I went on a book tour in the United States. While the political scandal surrounding the book attracts some people to read it, I have to defend the book as a literary work that took six years to craft. I composed an authentic life experience. I’m not a politician. Politicians have a different acoustic system than authors. They care about their black and white one-dimensional slogans. As novelists, our labor has everything to do with tuning the acoustics of the heart.
What kind of support have you received from Israeli writers?
I cherish the moment when all the masters of modern Israeli literature circled me like bodyguards. They were saying: “Don’t be afraid. We’re with you.” I had a phone call from A.B. Yehoshua that I will never forget. In the midst of the storm when I was being attacked from all sides, he protected me. Amos Oz was interviewed throughout the scandal. He also wrote about my situation in newspaper articles, and David Grossman gave speeches supporting me. As A.B. Yehoshua told me: “Today it’s your book; tomorrow it is my book. If you’re afraid, I’m afraid too.”
This interview has been edited for clarity.