Wednesday, October 03, 2012

The Haj

Title: The Haj
Author: Leon Uris
Bookmark: Panera receipt

I picked this up for free at a bookstore only because I recognized the author's name and figured it was high time I introduce myself.  (and yes, because it was free)  I didn't even get to it for a couple months--but I'm glad I did.

Our narrator, Ishmael, is the youngest son of Haj Ibrahim al-Soukori al-Wahabbi (an early chapter includes some interesting information on Arab naming conventions).  His voice gives us the story of his family's life following the end of World War Two and the creation of Israel from formerly Arab lands.  This is a little like saying the Star Wars trilogy is "about a farmboy."

Uris's work is obviously highly researched and thickly detailed.  Reading it felt immersive and educational, but I was always a little curious how accurate the depictions of life and culture described in the book really were.  Although the bulk of the 566 pages covers the span of Ishmael's life, the book opens with his father becoming muktar (mayor/tribal leader, essentially) of their village after the death of his father, and continues to give a thorough recounting of the years leading up to Ishmael's birth, including WWII from the Arab perspective (white folks fighting in Europe, with a brief incursion into the desert).  We get Ibrahim's entire back story, and later, that of his friend Gideon Asch, a Jewish "desert rat" and later British officer and leader of Shemesh Kibbutz (a Jewish village, or kibbutz, established near Ibrahim's village of Tabah).  Ibrahim and Asch share a complicated friendship, often confiding in each other things they could never tell someone else--especially someone else of their own faith--despite maintaining a charade of constant animosity between their villages.

Ishmael, as the youngest son, is destined to be the family goatherd, but his mother has other plans for him.  Manipulating both him and his father, she manages to move him to a favored spot among the Haj's four sons, and he goes on to finagle himself an education.  His new place at his father's side gives us a detailed view of the manipulations forcing Ibrahim's path.  Ishmael tells us that his world is often Arab against Arab, and that nobody can be trusted.  His father likes to say that if you have one hundred friends, you should get rid of 99--and be wary of the last.  Leaders in the Arab world, realizing the strategic importance of Tabah's location, begin to make deals with Ibrahim to restore Arab power and drive out the Jews, but Ibrahim realizes that for all their talk of brotherhood, he is himself being forced out.

The village is abandoned, and the family separated from the people the Haj has led his entire adult life.  Without a home, without power, they become refugees, spending years in camps near Jerusalem, and finding their own ways to survive in a world that has become constant turmoil and infighting.  I was almost halfway through the book before I realized that the title didn't refer to the traditional pilgrimage to Mecca, but to Ibrahim, who was able to add Haj to his name after he made the pilgrimage himself.  He then spent the rest of his life leading his family through the Arab world, trying desperately to save both, and bring Arabs into a modern age of accord and peace while maintaining his traditional values.

The story is deeply involving, though it was written in 1984, before political correctness, and certain aspects may be offensive to Jews, Moslems, Arabs, and/or women.  I'm not a member of any of those groups, so I found some of the more objectionable passages a point of curiosity.  I was curious about the accuracy of depictions of life in Tabah, Arab and Moslem culture, and the history of Israel.  I wondered a lot about what modern Jews and Moslems would think about the book, and I spent a lot of time thinking about the current situation in the Middle East, the animosity towards Westerners, and how, despite what many news networks will tell you, nothing has really changed in the past 50 years.  The weapons and faces are different, but they're still fueled by old hatreds.  The book was both illuminating and ... pretty scary.  But very good.

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posted by reyn at 1:19 PM


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