All the Rivers by Dorit Rabinyan was the first book in The Read Around the World Book Club that I am part of on Goodreads, hosted by the lovely Melanie Martin. Each month we read a book by a contemporary female author, travelling around the world country by country.
And so, we started with Israel and a book, which received lots of media coverage as it was initially banned from classrooms by Israel’s Ministry of Education. The written statement argued:
“Intimate relations, and certainly the available option of institutionalising them by marriage and starting a family – even if that does not happen in the story – between Jews and non-Jews, are seen by large portions of society as a threat on the separate identities (of Arabs and Jews).”
(Taken from this Guardian article, a thought provoking read)
All the Rivers is at its heart a love story between Hilmi, a, Palestinian Arab, and Liat, an Israeli Jew. They meet by chance in New York and we read how their story together unfolds. On the one hand, their story is universal with all the passion, hopes, dreams and fears of a first true love. However, it is also a story of how two conflicting, embedded belief systems come together on a very human level and what living alongside each other might look like.
This book spoke straight to my heart in a multitude of ways:
I was totally invested in the characters; not only were they tangibly real, they felt like good friends I was spending time with, but they also had so many layers to discover. I willed Liat and Hilmi to find a way somehow and was so happy for them in every moment they felt free to be themselves, to be in love. At times, I wanted to shake them with frustration and I certainly cried tears of despair too. The book is so jam packed with emotions that it did leave me feeling a little drained at times – a sign of how well it is written.
The rich and evocative language Rabinyan uses is amazing. I was there. I walked the streets of New York with Liat and Hilmi. I looked over the sumptuous valleys of Israel with them. I drank mint tea and ate mouthwatering Arabic delicacies. Hilmi is an artist and the description of his artwork made me feel like his work was right there in front of me. There is a gorgeous description of the two of them wondering along the paint isles of an art supplies shop – I could see every hue of blue so clearly.
I found the portrayal of history and politics incredibly engaging. I loved that Rabinyan posed so many questions for the reader to consider through the contrasting backgrounds of the main characters. I can see why there was such an intense response in Israel, as she openly questions belief systems and prejudices on both sides of the divide. she shows a young couple trying to overcome embedded ways of thinking and seeing, of overcoming the elements of their faith and backgrounds weighing them down, trying to achieve what politicians and religious leaders struggle to define. She asks, what if love and communication can be enough? Putting this on the school curriculum would challenge the adults of the future to question, to find their own way and this of course is dangerous for established, rigid perspectives on what Israel should be.
Reading this book certainly made me realise how little I knew about politics in the Middle East; I was prompted to research both the history and the politics of Israel. Trying to understand the world we live in is more important now than ever. In some ways, the theme of fear and prejudice goes beyond just Israel. I found myself thinking, at several points in the book, of attitudes towards immigration here in the UK, of the racist undercurrent that seems to be raising its head more and more. Of how easy it is to turn to prejudice as a ‘safe’ option when we feel threatened. Of how easy fear is to manipulate.
A further theme which caught my attention was that of mental health, presented through Hilmi and his relationship with art. Depression, paranoia and visions are touched upon with sensitivity and honesty. Portrayals like this mean a lot to me from a personal perspective and I applaud authors who write with integrity and in ways that everyone can access. In a way, I would have liked this to have been explored further in terms of the storyline.
And so, to sum up my ramblings, All the Rivers is a vital book: it inspires, ignites and makes you think for yourself. And all this is wrapped in a love story told with wonderfully evocative language.
Thank you so much for reading this, wishing you a wonderfully bookish day.