BookBrowse Reviews Sadness Is a White Bird by Moriel Rothman-Zecher

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Sadness Is a White Bird

by Moriel Rothman-Zecher

Sadness Is a White Bird by Moriel Rothman-Zecher X
Sadness Is a White Bird by Moriel Rothman-Zecher
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2018, 288 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2019, 256 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Dean Muscat
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Passion, poetry and politics come to a head in this lyrical coming-of-age tale concerning a young Israeli soldier and his twin Palestinian soulmates.

Days after his 19th birthday, narrator Jonathan is detained in an Israeli army jail cell from where he begins reciting an internal epistle to his friend, Laith. By summoning piecemeal memories from his life, Jonathan desperately tries to sort through the events that led to his incarceration—as much an attempt at personal understanding as an explanation and confession to his beloved friend.

Thus, we learn how two years prior, Jonathan's family returned to their homeland of Israel after having lived in the US for several years. Due to a childhood that was heavily informed by his proud Zionist grandfather who fought for the establishment of the Jewish statehood after World War II, Jonathan sees his homecoming as a chance to fully embrace his cultural heritage. But as Jonathan eagerly awaits mandatory military service, which he believes will further imbue him with a sense of national pride, he befriends two fellow students, Palestinian twins Laith and Nimreen.

The trio fast become inseparable and Jonathan steadily realizes that he is intensely attracted, both physically and intellectually, to each of the siblings: the jocular free-spirited, Laith, as well as his enigmatic, world-wise sister, Nimreen. During the countless hours they spend hanging out in cafés, hitchhiking, and smoking marijuana together on the beach under the stars, the three share memories, jokes, poetry and politics, through which Jonathan begins to learn about the other side of the conflict, the Palestinian struggle under Israeli rule. As his love for the twins deepens and his draft date finally arrives, Jonathan finds himself impossibly conflicted, unable to reconcile his own liberal-minded ideals with his Zionist loyalties that preach segregation between Jews and Palestinians. Things reach breaking point when Jonathan's paratrooper unit is dispatched to keep the peace at a Palestinian riot.

Much of Sadness is a White Bird is an exploration into cultural identity and how even newer generations of optimistic, progressive, humanistic youths are unable to shake off the historical shackles that pull them back into a never-ending cycle of conflict. As the trio go about their daily escapades, they continue to encounter prejudice from both sides—Arabs giving shady looks to Jewish Jonathan, Jews feeling threatened by the presence of the Palestinian twins. Living under such boiling point conditions, where even the most innocuous encounter outside of one's cultural circle can lead to a potential physical confrontation, can only result in toxic nationalistic partisanship. These dualities are intensified once Jonathan begins active service, which causes tension and division among the friends. Jonathan may wholeheartedly believe that not all Palestinians are his "enemy," but as his grandfather counters, "But neither are the Arabs your family." When it is forever a case of us against them, there is only safety and kinship with those of your own kind.

Rothman-Zecher has an exquisite ability to vocalize the historical contexts that shape personal identity. As Qamar, one of the twins' friends, states: "I'm from before Israel, from beneath the Israeli towns and cities built over my homes and orchards and fields. I am an Arab Palestinian, not an Israeli." Every new relationship is entered into with such complex systematic baggage. At a time when his relationship with Nimreen is strained due to their incompatible politics, Jonathan has a brief affair with a Jewish girl. From his jail cell, he now admits to himself and to the Laith in his head, that this girl "was a mirror to my own national lusts and adolescent longings," a way of somehow getting more in touch with his true nationality and heritage and forgetting the twins. Even love and lust, sentiments supposedly blind towards race and creed, become profoundly political acts for these teens on the brink of adulthood.

Perhaps Rothman-Zecher's greatest achievement with Sadness is a White Bird is how he has created a weighty politically charged novel that never reads dry. The recurring fragments of Palestinian poetry, most notably the references to Mahmoud Darwish's poem "A Soldier Dreams of White Lilies" from which the novel borrows its title (see 'Beyond the Book'), imbue the narrative with a hallucinatory, dreamlike quality. As Jonathan continues to dip into pools of childhood and more recent memories, flitting between different moments in his past, reality is interspersed with images of "raisin stars," "blood-red boxthorns" and snaky plumes of "white lilies."

Through shimmering prose and a pointedly intimate narrative, Rothman-Zecher has written a powerful, passionate but even-handed criticism of the ultimately futile Israeli-Palestinian conflict where both sides only stand to lose.

Reviewed by Dean Muscat

This review was originally published in February 2018, and has been updated for the February 2019 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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