Bittersweet memoir of a multicultural marriage riding the perilous shoals of Jerusalem’s ethnic split.
In the 1990s, Bangladesh-born author Pelham, a journalist with BBC World Service, married Leo, a London Jew whose job as a roving Middle East reporter took the family from Morocco to Syria to Jerusalem. From the outset, the author was deeply conflicted about her own divided upbringing and balked at the thought of living in strife-ridden Jerusalem: The daughter of a Bengali Muslim father, Pelham considered herself more Hindu and Indian; while respecting her husband’s Jewish faith, she balked at conversion. Leo’s work with international NGOs took him often into Gaza, while Pelham was keenly aware of the Israeli slight to Muslim culture, music and Arabic language. Frequently going to Ramallah to visit her Arab friends and conduct interviews, she realized she was entering a thriving world that Israelis knew little about. The children, too, were conflicted: The elder boy, who attended an Anglo international school, resisted learning Hebrew and hated letting others know his Jewish last name; the younger daughter adored her Israeli “peace” nursery school and broke out into patriotic songs in Hebrew. Israel’s “South Africa syndrome” exacerbated the underlying trouble in the marriage, and the enforced vigilance, entrenchment and pressure both oppressed her and prodded her to “reinvent” herself. She quit her position and became a stringer at the Jerusalem bureau, which took her on an interview to a refugee camp, where Palestinian children spit on her daughter. Immersed in her documentary work on honor killings, she was led deeply into Palestinian life, while “the rotating cycle of doom” both within Jerusalem and the marriage caused violent scenes and recriminations between the couple, who loved each other but could similarly not find peace, until the birth of a third child.
A touching personal delineation of divided loyalties and riven hearts.