The Lady from Tel Aviv by Raba’i al-Madhoun
Raba’i al-Madhoun’s novel, The Lady from Tel Aviv (shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction), articulates several human experiences: displacement, homecoming, family reunion, heritage, romance, warfare, terror, and cultural barriers. It is a short novel, but in its few pages it has quite a bit to say about all of these subjects.
Essentially, the novel follows a London-dwelling (but Palestinian-born) journalist, Walid, as he visits Palestine for the first time in nearly forty years. The first two sections of the book (which comprise a sizeable, 50+ page chunk, and are relayed by a third person narrator) frame Walid’s eventual situation as an exile. In these sections the reader is given background information about Walid’s childhood situation in Palestine, and his intricate relationship with his homeland and the people in it. The details here work to help us feel closer to the character he becomes later, when he is about to return to his family, and friends.
When that moment of return and reunion approaches, the narrator switches from third person to first person, and all of a sudden, Walid is telling us his own story as he navigates an airport, preparing to venture from London to Palestine. He experiences a plethora of conflicting emotions; relief, anxiety, and anticipation are the most prominent and taxing of them all. Because of the narrative work the first narrator performed, by this point, we already feel a sympathy for and closeness to Walid as he begins his journey.
Walid’s anxiety grows as he maneuvers through the airport. But he is not only anxious about the logistics of making the flight; he is especially nervous when he realizes his airplane seat assignment is next to a beautiful woman, who also happens to be an Israeli actress. This moment functions as a metaphor of one of the driving ideas of the novel: the examination of how two different people cohabit the same space. An Israeli and a Palestinian. A famous person and a normal person. A woman and a man. “One house that has two shadows,” as al-Madhoun puts it.
They have an awkward interaction on the plane, characterized by sweet, self-conscious, polite behavior from Walid and an inquisitive friendliness from Dana, the Israeli actress. The moment is slightly tense, and understandably so, but it is ultimately overwhelmed by a mutual kindness struck between the two seatmates, who make loose plans to keep in contact via email, if only to ascertain the other’s safe arrival in their respective locations.
On the ground and away from Dana, Walid finds himself in an unbelievably stressful situation while trying to navigate the war-torn territory and get to his family in Gaza. Before he gets home, he is detained for hours when there is an attempted-but-failed suicide bombing. When he does eventually make it to his family, the reunion is a truly heartwarming one, and the rest of his stay is filled with interactions between himself and figures from his past. To say the least, these interactions (and their respective discussions) definitely cause the reader to contemplate the situation in Gaza. To be more specific, one of al-Madhoun’s most interesting accomplishments in this novel is his artful and extensive portraiture of the people Walid runs into on his journey. They are vividly brought to life, and their vividness helps the reader conceptualize, to an extent, what living in Gaza can look like.
Al-Madhoun’s talent for rendering characters lies in his use of compelling sensory and metaphorical avenues. For instance, Walid’s mother is not merely vocal, but “a kind of radio whose volume and frequency are difficult to modulate.” His artistic use of imagery creates a profound affective response in the imagination of the reader as s/he is exposed to the story’s fascinating and compelling descriptions of relationships (between both individuals and communities). I think it is safe to say that this novel is propelled forward because of Walid’s relationships with others. Every character is pivotal. Every one has an intentional purpose. They are rich and engaging.
And while there are many reasons to read this book, and one of the best reasons is to find out whether the connection between Walid and Dana ends when the plane ride does, or if it continues. That is a core mystery and point of fascination of this book, in more ways than one.
Raba’i al-Madhoun is a Palestinian-born author, journalist, and editor. His other works include The Idiot of Khan Younis, The Taste of Separation, and The Palestinian Intifada. He currently works in London as an editor for Al-Sharq Al-Awsat.
Kendall Parris is a PhD student in rhetoric and composition. While she mostly researches multimodal pedagogies and affect studies in composition, she enjoys reading novels that explore notions of heartache, relationship, and endurance.