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Ishmael’s Oranges – Claire Hajaj

April 23, 2016

IOThe author, Claire Hajaj grew up in Kuwait, with a Palestinian father and Jewish mother. Her unusual upbringing is the starting point for this, her debut novel.

One minute seven-year-old Salim is dreaming of taking his first harvest from the family’s orange tree; the next he is swept away into a life of exile and rage. The Israelis shell your village so you escape. Then they tell you that you have forfeited your land and your house because you left it unoccupied so the state confiscates it. A idle-aged man goes back to the tree on is father’s land and sees the carving he made it when he as seven years old – now the Israelis own the tree and he land.

The Jewish newspapers give good reviews for this book – just to remind us that not all Jews support the State of Israel’s goings on.

Salim is just a child when, forced by war, his family must leave their farm in Jaffa, and the orange tree that his father planted upon his birth. This exile splinters his family beyond repair. As he grows up and leaves for school in Britain, he never forgets the orange tree tethering him to Jaffa. Changing his name to Sal, at a party, he meets Jude, a Jewish woman who has had her own experience of religious hatred and intolerance. Not without difficulty, working through deep, longstanding emotions about each other’s religious and cultural identity, and despite heavy familial opposition, they fall in love and marry, determined to be together and to make things work. They carve out a life far from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but they cannot remain inured to it forever.

The Palestinians are haunted by the time when the establishment of the state of Israel after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War was, for them, al nakba – the catastrophe. A massacre took place on April 9, 1948, when around 120 fighters from Zionist paramilitary groups attacked Deir Yassin near Jerusalem, a Palestinian-Arab village of roughly 600 people. Around 107 villagers were killed during and after the battle for the village, including women and children—some were shot, while others died when hand grenades were thrown into their homes. Then between 50 and 80 percent of the Arab inhabitants left their towns and villages because of further Israeli military advances, attacks against Arab villages and fears of massacre. A series of laws passed by the first Israeli government prevented them from returning to their homes, or claiming their property. They and many of their descendants remain refugees. The expulsion of the Palestinians has since been described by some historians as ethnic cleansing,

Hajaj’s book calls up the ghosts of the Holocaust, while the War of Independence hangs like an immovable cloud over the story. Predictably overbearing Jewish and Arab relatives meddle in the couple’s affairs – usually while serving food.

A captivating story about love and loss, Ishmael’s Oranges follows the story of two families spanning the crossroad events of modern times, and of the legacy of hatred their children inherit.

I am all I favour of missed marriages – they usher in a world where multiculturalism is lived out – but the protagonist’s younger brother says, ‘you are a man who does not know  who he is.’ And his children won’t. Do they get taken to synagogue to mosque? Or neither?

But what are ‘hadiths from the Qur’an’’ They’re different documents.

And why the obsession with ‘sweaty hands?’


Each man’s life involves the life of all men, each tale is but the fragment of a tale. Stephen Vizinczey

“Peace is more important than land.” Anwar Sadat

“Why does history only ever repeat its sorrows and not its joys?”

`Most of that stuff seemed psychopathic to me, the kind of thing people would get locked up for if they did it in Newcastle. Do you remember the foundation story, not the Moses one — the first one?’

Jude felt lost. ‘Abraham?’

`Him, yes. It’s one of the worst ones. Truly. I mean, first he marries an eighty-year-old woman and tells her she’s supposed to be a mother to a whole people. She frets herself into a frenzy because — surprise, surprise — she can’t conceive. So he has sex with a servant girl called Hagar and the two of them take the baby away from her. Then when the old woman finally has a kid of her own, what does he do? Tries to sacrifice it on the mountain, because he hears voices from God telling him to do it. What a great story! No wonder we’re so proud of it.’ He smiled again, but this time Jude had to force herself to laugh. That old guilt, the horror of rejecting daily bread everybody else finds so delicious, stirred in her stomach.

`They sent her packing, that Arab girl who had the first boy. Ishmael they called him. Abraham’s original heir. Sarah was jealous and wanted all of God’s goodness for her little Isaac. So they tell us that Hagar and Ishmael went out into the desert. Just a girl and a kid, all alone in the heat, sent to their deaths by his papa like a used rag.

`The Rebbes would tell you it was all part of God’s will, to make way for the chosen nation. And Ishmael had a nation of his own in the end, so no harm done, right? But I tell you, there isn’t an Arab on earth that doesn’t carry a little bit of Ishmael around with him. Who can blame them? They were always the ones to get kicked, first by God and then by everyone else. And they’ll never be finished kicking back.

“He told her, when you choose peace, you choose the losing side. Maybe it was true. But she would not let him win either.”

`I’ll tell you the difference between Arabs and Israelis,’ he said. ‘Arabs want to be judged by the pure law — the one we learn as children where right follows wrong and punishment follows crime like night follows day. But in Israel we have another kind of law. This one is a matter of articles, clauses and sub-clauses, with many interpretations and a heavy bias against you. God has nothing to do with this kind of law. Nor does justice.’

Salim had struggled with this. Compensation for what I lost. What could that mean to me now? He’d lost so much more than money, more than land. Sometimes he imagined opening his old bedroom door and seeing all the might-have-beens that waited there — another self brimming with confidence, a laughing wife and children, his mother with her arms outstretched.

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