By Yasmina Khadra
Translated from the French by John Cullen
Doubleday. 257 pp. $18.95
The paradoxical condition of Arab citizens of Israel, of whom there are about a million and a quarter, should be meat and drink to any novelist with the imagination to take it on. To date, only a few have done so, most notably Anton Shammas, A.B. Yehoshua and Emile Habiby, author of the aptly titled Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist . There is an Israeli Arab on Israel's Supreme Court, and there has been an Israeli Arab "Miss Israel." B'nei Sakhnin, an Israeli Arab soccer team whose fans drape themselves in Israeli flags and chant "God is great" in Arabic, has won the Israeli Cup, and there are, of course, Israeli Arab members of the Knesset, Israel's parliament.
On the other hand, Arab citizens of Israel have been on the receiving end of government discrimination with regard to funding for social programs, and they still find themselves in the most awkward of social situations in a Jewish state. For the most part, Israeli Arabs do not serve in the country's most important institution, the army, and -- like Catholics in Northern Ireland some 30 years ago -- feel themselves very much to be second-class citizens, often regarded with suspicion if not outright hostility.
Yasmina Khadra (the female pseudonym of the male former Algerian army officer Mohammed Moulessehoul), author of The Swallows of Kabul , has written a brave new novel that tries to get to the heart of the Israeli Arab predicament by setting up a situation in extremis. Amin Jaafari is a successful surgeon in a major Tel Aviv hospital, a kind of poster boy for the integration of Israel's Arab citizens into the mainstream. Thus it comes as an enormous shock when his thoroughly Westernized and wealthy wife, Sihem, blows herself up in a local restaurant, killing herself along with a number of men, women and children. In an irresistible and dark irony, Jaafari operates on some of the surviving victims (one of whom doesn't want to be touched by an Arab surgeon) before discovering that Sihem was the suicide bomber.
Jaafari is devastated. The structure of his life, built on ambition, talent and resistance to prejudice, collapses around him. Everything, personal and public, is up for interrogation -- from his own marriage, friendships and professional status to his religious, national and political affiliations. By turns angry, mournful and perplexed, Jaafari staggers from indignity to indignity: He is roughed up in turn by the Shin Bet (the Israeli FBI), his Israeli neighbors and Palestinian Islamists in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. The big picture, the irrepressible conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, fills out.
The novel is at its best when Khadra explores the twists and turns of Jaafari's tortured descent into his own soul and the tensions and tugs of his convoluted identity. Jaafari is a fascinating and credible character: a doctor who wants to do good, as William Blake put it, "in Minute Particulars," only to discover that his work is irrelevant to those who put cause before effect.
But The Attack has problems . First, its author does not seem too familiar with Israel, its landscape or the fabric of the country's daily life. The novel contains a number of highly unlikely or dubious scenarios, of which the improbable conversion of Sihem to radical Islamism is the least egregious. (Of the hundreds of suicide bombers in Israel, only one, a worker from a Galilee village who blew himself up in the seaside town of Nahariya on Sept. 9, 2001, has been an Arab citizen of Israel.) Second, with the stellar exception of Jaafari himself, most of the characters embody attitudes rather than emerge as personalities: There is the Muslim fundamentalist perspective, the Holocaust survivor perspective and so on.
Khadra does his best to present an even-handed picture of the individuals who populate Jaafari's expandingly dark world, but too often he falls into predictable typing: Israelis in positions of authority are almost without exception physically grotesque, while the only truly sympathetic and empathetic Israeli in the book is a lovely female doctor. By contrast, the Arab characters, no matter how vicious, have a redeeming dignity.
"I have never felt implicated in any way at all in this bloody conflict, which is in reality just a slugfest at close quarters between the punching bags and the scapegoats of history," Jaafari muses at one point. But of course he is "implicated," whether he wants to be or not, and therein lies the tragedy: History takes the little guy and tosses him around. By the end of The Attack , Israel's heavy firepower appears to have marginally eclipsed Palestinian suicide bombing in the ugly-weapon stakes for Khadra, but his achievement in this novel is neither his take on the local politics nor his moral finessing. Instead, it is the way that he limns, quite brilliantly, the character of a man torn to pieces by extremism and extreme social distress, neither of which has been of his own making. ·
Jonathan Wilson is the author of "A Palestine Affair" and, most recently, "An Ambulance Is on the Way: Stories of Men in Trouble."