Palestine, 1929. Albert Pharaon—scion of a wealthy Arab family, heir to an enormous banking fortune, husband and father—takes a lover. Not just any lover, but a Jewish girl born in the Ukraine, brought up in Milwaukee, a militant Zionist. Her name is Golda Myerson, but she is better known today by the name she took some years later: Golda Meir.
The young Golda Meir
This incredible story is the basis of Selim Nassib’s new novel, The Palestinian Lover, published in English in a fluid translation from the French by Alison Anderson. Some years ago, Nassib—a left-leaning journalist of some repute—heard about the affair from Pharaon’s grandson, a close friend of his. “They talked about it in the family, but it was a bit shameful,” he tells me at his Paris loft. Intrigued, he began searching for corroboration. “Pharaon’s niece is still alive. An eighty-year-old lady, living in an old house in Cairo filled with hundreds of birds. . . . She told me how he used to visit her . . . and tell her stories about the love of his life, Golda Meir.” Later, he went to Israel and met with Meir’s children, who knew nothing of the affair. “They were real old kibbutzniks, completely lost in modern Israel. The son said to me, ‘You know, we didn’t even know what Arabs were. The first Arab I ever met was when I was seven years old. It was the day of the first train journey between Lod and Tel Aviv. There was an Arab man peeling an apple, sitting on a bench. I’d never seen an apple before. And the Arab man cut the apple in half and gave it to me.’”
Despite the lack of hard evidence, Nassib—whose first two novels were well-received in France—decided to go ahead and fictionalize the affair. The result hovers uncertainly between fact and fiction; and Nassib suggests that the book should be read as a fable rather than a true story. “I wanted to write a novel about the impossible love between the Passionata of Israel and an Arab aristocrat. It’s a story of impossibility.”
Nassib, as it happens, is well positioned to write about both Arabs and Jews. Though he’s lived in Paris for the last thirty years—most of his adult life—he grew up in Beirut, in a middle-class Jewish family, of Syrian origin. “My grandfather was 100 percent Arab. He didn’t speak a single word of French. The difference between him and his Muslim neighbour was zero. One went to synagogue, one went to the mosque, but otherwise there was no difference. They had the same mental structure. It wasn’t a golden age; it’s just how it was.”
His parents, conversely, spoke French at home and aspired to European values and ways of life. “Arabs and Jews were really local, but in our heads we carried this fantasy of France,” he explains. As an undergrad at the University of Beirut his sense of himself as European—rather than Middle Eastern—developed further, so it was something of a shock when he arrived in Paris, in 1969, and was viewed as a foreigner rather than a native son. “I spoke Arabic,” he says, “no one guessed how badly. And I knew Palestinians, when no one else did at the time.”
But that Arabic, no matter how bad, guided his career. Within a few years, he was back in the Middle East reporting for the left-wing newspaper Libération. (His searing dispatches from the 1982 siege of Beirut were later collected under the title Frontline Stories.) And Nassib may then have realized the extent to which he was indeed of the Middle East. “I wasn’t just another French journalist reporting on the Middle East. I felt like I was translating one reality into another language, another culture.”
By 1990, dispirited by the impasse in the Middle East—“How many times am I going to write the same old story?”—Nassib turned to fiction. His first novel, Clandestin, is a fictionalised account of his early life in Beirut. His second, Oum (published in English as I Loved You for Your Voice), like The Palestinian Lover, fictionalizes a somewhat scandalous real-life relationship, that between Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum—a legend in the Arab world—and the poet Ahmad Rami.
Like his journalism, Nassib’s fiction turns around the twin themes of the struggle between tradition and modernity and the relationship between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East, albeit in a style that critics tend to describe as “lyrical.” But The Palestinian Lover strikes at the heart of the latter issue in a rather more straightforward manner than his first two efforts. Nassib sets out to evoke the vast and complex political landscape of 1920s and ’30s Palestine, from bloodless British diplomats and bankers, to half-starved settlers intent on making the desert bloom, to anti-Zionist German refugees who care nothing for politics.
Pharaon and Golda’s relationship seems, at the outset, to represent the ideal fusion between Jew and Arab—it helps that Pharaon, a melancholy, intelligent man, is both apolitical and genuinely interested in Golda’s political ideas—but by the novel’s end it’s clear that such an ideal is impossible. “It ends in 1948 with the expulsion of the Palestinians from Haifa,” Nassib says. “How the city fell. How the British were so powerless, how the Haganah bombarded the city. How the mayor begged the Arabs not to leave. All this fantasy, this false sentiment . . . the ambiguity in this bad faith.”
Whether or not Nassib was hoping for a succès de scandale, it was not to be, at least in his adopted homeland. The novel was favorably reviewed but didn’t make much of a splash when it was published in France in 2004, nor when it appeared in Spain and Italy, a year or so later. The few reviews of this new translation have praised Nassib’s vivid, complicated rendering of Pharaon, his “even-handed” depiction of the Arab-Jewish divide, and his “fascinating” depiction of Mandate-era Palestine.
A film version is in the works, scripted by Nassib and directed by his partner and sometime-collaborator, the filmmaker Yolande Zauberman. (Zauberman’s credits include Moi Ivan, Toi Avraham (1993), a favorite on the international Jewish film festival circuit, which chronicles a friendship between two Polish boys, one Jewish, one Catholic, in 1930s Poland.) Their most recent project is a documentary, Un juif à la mer, about Nassib himself, filmed during a stay in Jaffa. Nassib wrote about the trip in an evocative piece for Le Monde Diplomatique titled “Jaffa: land of sad oranges” and in it, as elsewhere in his writing, he focuses on being in two worlds but belonging to neither. “You hear Hebrew, Russian, French, English, every language on earth except Arabic. When I speak it, people grow tense around me; it’s almost delicious,” Nassib writes. “I rediscover the same light that Beirut has, the special sea air, salt on skin, a permanent, implicit sensuality, the East. Everyone is beautiful.”