Love proves elusive in this soulful tale of missed connections from Palestinian feminist Khalifeh (The Inheritance, 2005, etc.).
Ibrahim is a public school teacher. The 20-year-old Muslim fled his Jerusalem home to avoid an arranged marriage and now lives in an outlying village, where he writes poetry. He first sees Mariam, a Christian, in a churchyard, dressed in black. Almost at once he is in love with her, or perhaps with the idea of love. Ibrahim has led a sheltered life (he never tasted wine until he was invited to a dinner party). Mariam has been sheltered too, by her many brothers in Brazil, where she was raised; now she lives alone with her mother. The two innocents enjoy their first hug in an Armenian convent. Carnal knowledge comes later, in a Jerusalem hostel, but Mariam’s pregnancy is nonetheless a big surprise. Ibrahim, a weakling, hides from her and later from her brothers, just arrived from Brazil seeking vengeance. He discovers a new interest, revolutionary politics, on the eve of the Six Day War. At this point, Khalifeh’s account becomes wildly rushed and jumbled. She skips over more than three decades, during which Ibrahim roams the world and has three failed, childless marriages, but prospers as a businessman. The ailing 60-year-old returns to the occupied territories in 2000, searching for Mariam in hopes of easing his solitude and spiritual emptiness. He finds their son before he finds her. Michael is a psychic with a large following; he flatly rejects his father, this “defeated stranger.” Mariam, now a cloistered nun, is an enigmatic presence who offers Ibrahim no solace. Once again the political overtakes the personal, as stones and bullets fly in Jerusalem: The Second Intifada has begun.
A novel about character and identity needs sharper, stronger protagonists than the blurry Ibrahim and Mariam.