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Shani Boianjiu Goes Home Again

Not far from her village near Lebanon, the Israeli novelist—who published originally in English—talks war and books

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Rachel Papo, detail of Serial No. 3817131 #2. (Courtesy of the artist)

Sitting in a café in northern Israel, many of her friends having been called up for reserve duty in Gaza for operation Pillar of Defense—and facing the real possibility that she could be mobilized—Shani Boianjiu, 25, reflected on her childhood. “I really sympathize with people in the south,” she said. “We spent our daily life under the constant threat of attack, and only occasionally did that get any coverage. Now when half a rocket falls in the center of the country, that gets all the attention.” Though born in Jerusalem, Boianjiu grew up a two-hour drive from Tel Aviv, in Kfar Vradim, a small village in western Galilee. Just six miles from the border with Lebanon, it is one of the “frontline communities” that suffered Hezbollah rocket attacks throughout the 1990s. Kfar Vradim is part of Israel’s so-called periphery, in a country whose center is the narrow strip of land around Tel Aviv—40 miles long and 10 miles wide between Hadera and Gedera.

That feeling of remoteness pervades Boianjiu’s childhood memories as well as her novel, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, which was published in English last September to great acclaim. Episodic in nature, the novel revolves around the lives of three young Israeli women—Lea, Avishag, and Yael—during their last years of high school and through their military service and civilian life after being discharged. In the army, Lea, bossy and sarcastic, is stationed at a West Bank checkpoint, somber Avishag serves in a combat unit tasked with guarding the Egyptian border, while Yael trains soldiers on the use of weapons. From the outset they are both playful and melancholy, imagining the interior lives of others—Palestinians at the checkpoint, Egyptians across the border, and Sudanese refugees desperate to cross it—without ever really making contact. It is a disturbing read, but also very funny. Before the book was published, Boianjiu was named a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree. She sold the translation rights to more than 20 countries and had one of her chapters featured in The New Yorker.

Pillar of Defense has since given away to a ceasefire, and the north, where Boianjiu still lives, has remained the quietest part of Israel, as it has been in recent years. “Having grown up under fire while the rest of the country went on with their daily life, seeing the suffering in the south has been really frustrating for me. The people there shouldn’t have to feel like second-class citizens,” she said. “But while Israel has every right to respond, I’m not sure what this operation will achieve, and I doubt it will solve our problems. I’m just hoping my friends will be alright, and if I get called up of course I’ll go.”

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The unnamed village in which Boianjiu’s heroines grow up is not unlike her own. Kfar Vradim is small and picturesque, with many of its residents working in the nearby Tefen Industrial Zone. The most prominent company there, Iscar, “makes parts that go into machines that help machines that make airplanes,” as does a company in her book. (Iscar was sold to Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway six years ago for $4 billion in a deal that made the area Israel’s national pride for a few weeks.) But not much happens in the village, and the girls spend most of their time socializing and watching television. Boianjiu was a reader: She taught herself to speed-read while in her early teens and has averaged about two books a day ever since.

Books kept her company when she enlisted in the IDF in 2005 for her mandatory two-year service. Like the character Yael, Boianjiu was a weapons instructor, training young soldiers in the Golani infantry brigade. Her book makes clear something all IDF alumni already know, that much of military service is spent waiting for things to happen. She was bored out of her mind, sneaking novels into guard shifts and into kitchen duty. “Once, a cook got so annoyed with me reading that he grabbed my book and tossed it in the gutter. I simply wasn’t right for the system, I didn’t fit in. I couldn’t tie my boots; I just wasn’t good at any of it.” She couldn’t stand the shallowness of the conversations and says she never felt particularly well-liked, similar to Lea in her book.

Sharing with her characters a very particular love-hate relationship with the IDF, Boianjiu smiled while recalling the technical details of the weaponry she specialized in, and she enjoyed comparing the pros and cons of the different bases she’d spent time at (with a particular emphasis on the kitchens). And unlike the impression given by her book, it wasn’t all boring. While in basic training she took part in the withdrawal from Gaza. A year later, she trained soldiers about to enter Lebanon during the 2006 war. She admitted to some nostalgia, recalling “coming back from the shooting range late at night to the girls’ barracks, drinking coffee and fooling around, or watching the sun rise after guarding all night. But that’s in all in retrospect. When I was still in, I was counting the days and the hours. I don’t regret having served, but I really wasn’t the type of person that blossoms in the army.”

The army was also when she began to take writing seriously. “I’d overhear something on the train, or see some image that stuck with me,” she said. “I’d hang on to them for two or three weeks until I’d get home to a computer, and then I’d write them as stories,” only small parts of which ended up in her book.

When she was finally discharged in 2007, Boianjiu opted to forgo the traditional Israeli rite of passage of a year-long journey to South America, the Far East, or the antipodes. Instead, just weeks out of the army, she moved to the United States to attend college—not the most obvious choice for Israelis who, due to their mandatory service, start school years after Americans do. While at Harvard, struck by the relative naiveté of her American peers, she realized how much her army service had changed her. And Harvard was also where she began to write the stories that would eventually become The People of Forever Are Not Afraid. Her characters experience many things that she did not (many of them borderline fantastical), but one gets the feeling that their boredom and anguish are very much her own.

Perhaps the first Israeli author to originally write her first published work in English, she thinks that writing in what is for her essentially a foreign language—she didn’t speak English at home but learned it at school and by watching TV shows—was helpful for the book. “I was often at a loss for words, and I had to think much harder about what exactly I wanted to say and which words I should use to say it.”

Much of the book’s charm is in the language Boianjiu uses. Had she originally written the book in Hebrew, she said, any translation into English would have had an entirely different feel from the book she ended up writing. “I didn’t want the readers to forget for a moment that even though the story they’re reading is in English, it takes place in another world. Hebrew phrases which sound so obvious to me acquired a whole other layer of meaning when I translated them literally. So, instead of trying to figure out what the English equivalent would be, I took advantage of the oddness of the phrases to make the book more interesting.” In describing a street in the village, she writes that “it has a view of the entire world and its sister,” which is common slang in Hebrew meaning exactly what it seems to mean. The characters speak in understated, clipped sentences, common in a place where the military molds the way its soldiers talk for years to come. Even the book’s title has a genesis worthy of its length: It’s a phrase coined by the Israeli Rabbi Yehoshua Weitzman alluding to the spirit of the Jewish people, unfazed by the hardships they have yet to overcome. Set to music, it became a rallying song popular among those protesting the Gaza disengagement and featured prominently on bumper stickers in the summer of 2005.

Ironically enough, the linguistic charm of the novel will probably be lost in the book’s Hebrew translation, which Boianjiu is currently working on with a translator. But those are the least of her worries. She isn’t looking forward to the thorough political examination the book will undoubtedly attract when it is published here in the summer, with readers and critics who will try to ascertain whether or not the book is “good for the Jews.” The book has already had some coverage in the Israeli media, true to the national obsession with Israelis making it big abroad. (Firgun, an untranslatable Hebrew word essentially meaning being happy with another’s success, is something most Israelis aren’t actually very good at.) Some have dismissively hinted at maneuvering, with a then-22-year-old Shani Boianjiu writing a book in English to achieve the sort of success she’d never reach at home, where girls in the military are a common sight and don’t make for compelling literature.

But Boianjiu maintains that she wrote the book in English “completely by accident. There was no ideology or commercial thinking behind it, it just happened. I never thought it would be published, and I had no imaginary American readers in my head while I was writing.” She wrote the book about young Israeli women because that’s what she is, and large parts of the book take place in the IDF because that’s an important part of life for Israelis, just as young American authors would likely incorporate college life into their books.

Boianjiu tries not to let the acclaim her book has received get to her. “I would have thought my life was about to change dramatically,” she said, “but thankfully that hasn’t happened. I’m not a celebrity in my home town, and my friends just think it’s strange so we don’t talk about it much.” In fact, if there’s something Boianjiu is dreading, it’s what will happen when the book is published in Hebrew and the people she knows read it. “I wish there was a rule stating that anyone who personally knows the author won’t be allowed to read their books, because of how embarrassing that can be,” she said. “The stories in the book aren’t about me, and those aren’t really my thoughts. While I was abroad and writing it, I never thought too many people would read it, certainly not those closest to me. Otherwise, I probably would never have dared write the things I did. When I actually sold the publishing rights, I was tempted to make some changes, but I knew it wouldn’t be good for the book, so it’s all in there.”

Boianjiu’s own political opinions aren’t as clear-cut as many would think. A freshman at Harvard while the previous IDF operation in Gaza, Cast Lead, was under way four years ago, she was first exposed to people who don’t believe Israel has a right to exist. “I was fresh out of the army and it just felt awful. Israel really didn’t look good,” she said, “but I had to be a whole lot more careful about the things I’d say against the government.” On the other hand, she found the various Arab-Israeli coexistence initiatives supercilious, “as if all our problems stem from the Israeli or Palestinian mindsets, and all we need is for Americans to sit us down for coffee or a barbeque, to show us the correct path of acknowledging the other and then everything will set itself straight.” Growing up, she spent plenty of time in neighboring Arab villages in the Western Galilee, she said, “and that assumption that Israelis and Palestinians are that rare breed of people incapable of seeing the humanity in others was just so offensive to me, because the vast majority of both peoples are not like that at all.” The region’s problems, she said, are a veritable Gordian knot of a far more practical—and complicated—nature, and she hopes the book is successful in conveying that complexity.

The book’s bleak vision is in stark contrast with its humor. Boianjiu clearly loves her characters and there is nothing misanthropic about the pain she puts them through. She is jaded but earnest, and as personable as they come. Personable enough, even, to reflect on a political reality she considers all but hopeless without completely depressing you in the process. As for a solution to Israel’s problems, she said, “I don’t focus on that too much because I really don’t see that there is a solution. I was born during the first week of the first Intifada, so nothing has ever been quiet or normal for me. I don’t believe there will be a solution in my lifetime; I can’t even imagine how one would look.”

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It seems somewhat poignant that success of this book baffles Israelis. It’s clear most of the world gets buried under political news about Israel but doesn’t receive much sense of Israeli culture. A book about young women in the IDF coping with the stress of Israeli life on the ground is good insight. I often wish Israelis were better at projecting their culture, better at humanizing themselves in front of the excessively negative propaganda bleated about in world media. Give us more, Ms. Boianjiu!

Sounds like a good read. However there is one thing that never ceases to annoy, and that is Israelis persistent misreading of their American peers as “naive.” Yes, of course, if she went to Harvard at 21 with 18 year olds there would be a difference. Any 21 year old American who had been through the military would find 18 year old American freshman to be naive also. But it goes deeper than that. Israelis are incredibly naive about what it means to live in an open, multi-cultural, politically liberal society. They love to speak with the voice of jaded cynical experience and to imagine that they see the world more realistically than young Americans. Have you ever heard an Israeli young adult NOT say that Americans are naive and innocent? It’s just the way they talk, and it is by and large nonsense, based on a profound misunderstanding of America and the world.

One thing that Israelis really don’t get is American Jewish culture. They are, in my experience, truly clueless, and as a result dismissive. Likewise in regard to the larger American culture, the reality is they are, far too often, woefully incapable of opening their hearts and minds to others who are different from them. All of this they believe is more realistic… but in fact it is a sign, at best, that they are adapted to a different environment, and, as I tend to think, rather damaged by it. You don’t get Americans, young Israelis? That’s true, you probably don’t. But don’t claim some kind of superiority as the result of it, or mistake openness for naivete. I’ve seen and heard that too many times and it is the talk of innocents who know too little of the world and its ways. Enough of your cynicism masquerading as worldly wisdom.

A hundred words on a minor point. I look forward to reading the book.

Shani is not the first Israeli to write her maiden book in English. I beat her by six years.

Shani is not the first Israeli to write her maiden book in English. I beat her by six years.

Shani is not the first Israeli to write her maiden book in English. I beat her by six years.

Shani is not the first Israeli to write her maiden book in English. I beat her by six years.

Have you ever heard any young non-American adult NOT say that Americans are naive and innocent? :.P

Yes. I’ve met some foreign exchange students who do not seem to have that attitude.

The double point, point, capital p sort of indicates it is a joke you know? Of course not all young non-American adults think like that, but it is a stereotype associated with Americans.

I know. I gave you a serious reply anyway. Jokes are a serious matter, no?

Hehe, very true indeed.

The lovely photograph illustrating this article is included in a must-see, encyclopedic exhibition of war photography currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and which travels to NY, DC and LA. There are numerous other Israeli and Jewish photographers and subjects included as well. Heartbreaking and unforgettable.

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Shani Boianjiu Goes Home Again

Not far from her village near Lebanon, the Israeli novelist—who published originally in English—talks war and books

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