Friday, April 13, 2001

Brave Personal Quest ..Book Review of Enemy in the Promised Land by Sana Hassan

I have so thoroughly enjoyed reading this book it was difficult to put it down until the very last word. This is the story of a young Egyptian Muslim woman, from a very wealthy family who became obsessed with Israel. She left her postgraduate studies at Harvard and went to Israel for a six-week visit that lasted three years. This all happened in the mid 70's before Sadat's visit to Jerusalem and Egypt's peace with Israel.

Sana Hassan delved into numerous aspects of Israeli society. She lived on traditional Kibbutz and on "progressive" Kibbutz; she lived amongst new immigrants from the former Soviet Union and elsewhere learning Hebrew, Judaism and life in Israel, she went through the process of how Israel receive new arrivals. She lived in ordinary apartments in Tel Aviv and amongst the cultural elites in Jerusalem. She also managed to pass herself as a Jew and worked in Israeli factories and restaurants and allowed herself to be recruited into religious orthodox ways. Sana Hassan managed to get herself everywhere imaginable in Israel and the occupied territories.
Sana succeeded in interacting with every possible segment of Israeli Society, politically, culturally, religiously and ethnically. From tea with Golda Meir at her house, lunch with Begin at the Knesset, and dinner with The Sharons all the way to meetings with pimps and prostitute as part of her volunteer work as a social worker. She managed to see more of Israel, perhaps than the vast majority of Israelis ever will.
The portrayal of the Israeli society is that of a country full of contradictions and racist attitudes. We see the lowly state of Eastern Jews and an almost pervasive hierarchy based solely on racial origin and beliefs. She portrays the "subhuman" untouchable type status of the vast majority of the Israeli Arabs and the West Bank Palestinians. She portrays an Israel full of push and shove, of vulgar, inconsiderate people with unabashed racism.
Sana Hassan also portrays an idealism, work ethic, warmth of ordinary people, capacity to love and learn and so much generosity. And yet, we see this hug mental barrier against admission or acceptance of the injustice befallen the Palestinians.
We are also treated to two love affairs of Sana Hassan, one with a married Israeli army officer and a very passionate affair with another young woman who was her roommate at the progressive Kibbutz. I puzzled for days over Sana Hassan's inclusion of these two stories, which undoubtedly would have been very controversial in her conservative home country. An affair with a married officer and a Lesbian episode would undoubtedly dilute Sana Hassan's message of peace. After years of condemnation in Egypt, Sana Hassan was finally rehabilitated, why did she choose to shock again and upset sensibilities?
Sana Hassan quest for peace was always personal, coming out of her inquisitive nature about Israel and things Jewish. From the days of her childhood when she was told off playing with an Israeli boy while on an Austrian holiday, from the unquestioning one sided media of Egypt, it was always a personal endeavor, she never pretended it to be on behalf of anyone else. I suspect for Sana Hassan, her on honesty and integrity were more important than acceptance and continued rehabilitation in conservative Egypt. She must have felt that she could not write about her experience in Israel without her affairs. Her recount of these stories certainly enriches the book and helps us understand her degree of assimilation and acceptance of the unthinkable.
Sana Hassan developed an in-depth understanding of Zionism, history, thought and present day attitudes. She presented the process with which she seemed apparently unable to reconcile her acceptance of Israel's right to exist, with Israel's "right" to be Zionist. She presented herself throughout the book as an unwavering supporter of Palestinian rights. Yet, she admitted to being more troubled by her army officer connections to racist South Africa than his career as an IDF officer. She also seemed throughout the book willing to accept the possibility that her lover was planted by the intelligence service.
With so much going on in her three years of Israel, you would expect a book written in simple straight forward story telling or even text style. That is not the case at all, Enemy In The Promised Land is so beautifully written. Sana Hassan is capable of great prose and lyrical descriptions of scenery, experiences and emotions, and most of all, of people. Her style comes across similar to the early work of Virginia Wolf, at times it seemed like she is even using similar words and phrases.
This is not a straight forward book. It is the sort of book that will truly makes no one happy. It is a confusing book. If you allow yourself the benefit of "learning" while reading it, it may shake many established beliefs and strongly held opinions.
Having read this book, I am absolutely certain of one thing. I will never never eat at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, the standards of hygiene at the restaurant were appallingly low. On most other issues, I am a lot less certain.