Traditions and cultures collide in half-Jewish, half-Palestinian writer’s novel
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InterviewBirthright trip 'complicated' for daughter of Safed refugee

Traditions and cultures collide in half-Jewish, half-Palestinian writer’s novel

First published in 2017, Hannah Assadi’s ‘Sonora’ is in the spotlight again after the author made The National Book Foundation’s ‘5 Under 35’

Hannah Lillith Assadi, author of 'Sonora.' (Ulysse Payet)
Hannah Lillith Assadi, author of 'Sonora.' (Ulysse Payet)

It feels appropriate when beginning a conversation with Hannah Lillith Assadi to touch upon two subjects dear to her heart: home and family.

“Home is a very strange concept,” the 32-year-old American author explains from her New York apartment. “And when we lose home it becomes more real.”

There is a melancholic pause.

“Home is more magnified when somebody goes into exile,” Assadi eventually says, with philosophical reservation.

Exile is something Assadi’s father, Sami, strongly identifies with. He was just four-and-a-half-years old during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence when his family were evacuated from the Upper Galilee city they had been living in for over four centuries. His family’s forced exile saw them move from Mandatory Palestine to Syria, Kuwait, and Italy, before eventually settling in the United States.

“I also know that Safed has a [strong connection] to kaballah,”Assadi says, referring to the ancient Jewish mysticism. “So the Jewish and Islamic traditions both collide somewhere inside of me.”

Growing up in a secular cosmopolitan home meant Assadi’s cultural and ethnic identity were evenly split between both parents. Assadi’s mother, Susan, comes from a Jewish family in Alabama whose roots go back to mid-19th century Central Europe.

“My parents met in the 1980s in a bar in Tribeca,”Assadi says. “They dated for six months, married [after a year], and are still together.”

Eventually the family moved to a suburb in the heart of the desert in Phoenix, Arizona. Spending her formative years in this amorphous cultural space appears to have brought Assadi her own share of confusion and alienation growing up.

My feeling of being an outsider growing up was more about a spiritual and intellectual compass than being a Palestinian and Jewish girl

Although the writer is reluctant to chalk all of this up to her mixed faith background, “My feeling of being an outsider growing up was more about a spiritual and intellectual compass than being a Palestinian and Jewish girl,”she says.

The transient flow of selfhood — its paradoxical connections to history, mythology, spirituality, and shared collective memory — is a central theme of “Sonora,” Assadi’s debut novel.

First published in 2017, the book was thrust back into the spotlight last November after being selected by the National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35.”

The trance-like tale is narrated by Ahlam, a young woman who, somewhat like Assadi, grew up in the desert suburbs of Phoenix with a Palestinian father and an Israeli mother.

In her freshman year of high school, Ahlam meets Laura, a kindred spirit, and a fellow drifter and dreamer. The two young women eventually flee to New York, experimenting in a multitude of hedonistic, spiritual, and sexual adventures. They attempt to shake off their past lives and reinvent their identities in the anonymous faceless world that only a vast global metropolis can allow for.

The book appears to be Roman à clef portrayal of Assadi’s own life, though the novelist is keen to point out that it’s not entirely based on truthful experiences or real people.

“The father in the book is definitely an amalgamation of many Palestinian men I have known,” Assadi says. “He also resembles my own father, just slightly, but not quite.”

“Of course the recurrence of the problems of the Middle East in the last few years hold much more immediate sadness for my father then they do for my mother,” she adds.

The reaction of Assadi’s parents towards her book — which in a roundabout way they inspired — has been supportive, but complicated.

“Some parts are difficult for my mother to read, where it feels close to home,” she says. “My parents also realize that a lot of this story is hyperbolic and exaggerated. They know it’s not quite them, but of course it’s difficult to be on display, even if it’s not quite them, and it’s just through the lens of fiction.”

‘Sonora,’ by Hannah Assadi. (Courtesy)

“My father has been reading the novel slowly over the years,” she adds. “It’s a little bit more upsetting for him.”

Readers of “Sonora” encounter snippets of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — both historic and present day events — either through Ahlam’s experience of watching it on American television, or from the stories she continually hears from her father. He lives a despondent, melancholy, regretful, and embittered existence from the decades he’s spent in exile in the United States.

As an American, it’s an attitude the author finds somewhat estranged from — perhaps with just a slight tinge of touristic naivety.

“A lot of the conflict that has happened in the Middle East is based on historic traditions written thousands of years ago,” says Assadi. “Israelis and Palestinians actually have a lot of similarities.”

Similarities notwithstanding, Assadi’s prose also document the vast tribal differences that have historically divided Jews and Palestinians over the course of the 20th century. In one scene, the narrator recalls a fictionalized memory of the Deir Yassin massacre of 1948 — when the Zionist paramilitary groups Irgun and Lehi attacked a Palestinian village outside of Jerusalem. There was an estimated death toll of between 100 and 250 people.

Recalling the emotional affect of hearing such stories growing up, Ahlam’s father tells her that his first memories of childhood are vividly connected with silence.

“I was trying to use the [idea of] silence as a metaphor for the Palestinian people,” says Assadi. “Palestinians do get the attention from most of the world from time to time, but their suffering goes on and on.”

In conversation, Assadi is passionate, emotional, honest, eloquent, and philosophical in spades. But just as the writer appears to head in a direction where politics will trump the artistic and free-natured spirit she projects, she holds back — momentarily at least.

“I don’t ascribe to any religious code, but I’m a very spiritual person,” she says. “I’m part of my own mystic religion that is neither Jewish or Muslim.”

“It’s funny because in Judaism you are your mother’s religion, and in Islam you are your fathers,” says Assadi. “ Officially I’m both — or neither.”

I grew up with much more of the Arabic culture, although we did go to High Holidays. But I would say it was more culturally dominant from the Palestinian side

“I did grow up with traditions on both sides though,” Assadi goes on. “My mother’s family assimilated much quicker than my father’s did. So I grew up with much more of the Arabic culture, although we did go to High Holidays. But I would say it was more culturally dominant from the Palestinian side.”

This worldly, noncommittal attitude to religion, identity, and tribe is something that Assadi brings into her writing too. The novel isn’t meant to be read as allegory or parable. But metaphors, motifs and symbols play a distinctive role in the book’s hypnotic language. The metaphor of the desert is especially important to the book’s multidimensional meandering tone.

“The desert, so dead always littered with our leftovers — evidence of the living,” Assadi writes in the book’s opening pages.

“I guess I use the desert in the book on two levels,” Assadi says. “On a personal level I grew up in the desert, and it was this magical place for me as a child.”

“But for Jews the desert is also a place of wandering exile,” she goes on. “In Islamic culture the desert is this place where Muhammad meets the prophet. So it’s this place, traditionally, where the underworld, the afterlife, and all of these [other spiritual] things [collide].”

The streets of Safed (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
The streets of Safed (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Dreams are another important recurring motif of the novel. The narrative in many instances feels like one long dream, where images from a confusing, complicated, violent and traumatic past connect to the present. They come at the reader sporadically, in fits and starts. The talk then turns to writers like Jung and Freud — and to the possibility of dreams providing some kind of map to the unconscious mind.

“I wouldn’t say I have academically studied dreams or anything,” says Assadi. “But I certainly write down my dreams every morning. I’ve always been really into the language of dreams — the stories and symbols that lie behind them.”

Assadi says she firmly believes it’s possible for human beings to connect telepathically to one another in dreams. “Growing up there were times when my father and I would have similar dreams the same night,” she says.

“And so I wanted Ahlam to have these prophet visions, even though she cannot really help the world,” Assadi says. “So in a way these dreams are my response to people asking me questions about the Middle East.”

“Also, Ahlam, in Islam, means dream,” she says. “And she has these dreams, and visions — and yet, the world goes on, no matter what she sees.”

This dreamlike tone is one that Assadi uses with great effect in her novel to try and come to terms with her fraught and complicated feelings about Israel. For Ahlam, the story’s sole narrator, it represents what she calls “an underworld, where the dead lurked… where the voices from thousands of years in the past [condemn] the present.”

Assadi’s own impressions of the Jewish state were formed on a Birthright trip when she was 18.

“I had a very complicated reaction to visiting Israel,” she says. “I found it very beautiful, and did have some feeling of home and familiarity — like it was some place I may have lived in a past life.”

But visiting the city of Safed, which her father once called home, was a deeply upsetting experience, the writer says.

The northern city of Safed (photo credit: Alana Perino/Flash90)

“I did call him from Safed when I visited, and he was remembering the details of what his home was like, trying to guide me on the phone,” says Assadi. “He remembered this tree that was parked in the courtyard. He was crying and just in disbelief that I was actually there.”

“We have often planned a trip to go together to [Safed] as a family, but I don’t know if that will ever happen,” Assadi says, getting visibly emotional as the interview draws to a close. “My father heard stories from a friend about being interrogated at the airport and was just afraid to face that.”

Assadi says she experienced similar problems herself when visiting Israel as a teenager: “First of all I was taken away from the group I was with and questioned for two hours in LAX airport on the way there, just because my father was Palestinian.”

The Birthright visit was “a very complicated experience,” says Assadi. “There was a huge disregard for the Palestinians in the Birthright narrative. It was all about how this land belongs to the Jewish people and how everyone should make aliyah [immigrate].”

“So obviously it was a very difficult position for me to be in. If I had to do it again I would probably prefer to go to Israel on my own terms,” she says.

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