When writer Thomas McGuane told me about Hannah Lillith Assadi—“I’m presenting an award to a remarkable first novelist, a young woman from Arizona whose mother is Jewish and whose father is Palestinian!”—I was captivated. What, I wondered, was it like being raised by a Jewish mother and a Palestinian father? How did they choose to raise their daughter? What were discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict like at the dinner table? How did their relationship survive the first intifada? The second? Syria? What insight could Assadi contribute to the conflict?
Assadi agreed to an interview. We met in New York in June in the lobby of the Arlo, not far from the bar where her parents met in the 1980s. Assadi was warm and modest, and told me she was honored that McGuane recommended her novel to me. Sonora is a multifaceted exploration of many things, from the Sonoran desert and the underworld to a young woman’s coming of age and a portrait of a marriage between an Israeli Jewish woman and an exiled Palestinian man. It won the 2018 American Academy of Arts and Letters Rosenthal Family Foundation Award in literature and was a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for debut fiction (which, for the first time, had only women finalists). Assadi, who has also written poetry, uses language to set the mood, a kind of permanent in-between state, where dreams and visions, myths and superstitions, infuse the characters and the action.
At its heart, Sonora is a coming-of-age story that follows Ahlam and her best friend, Laura, from the Sonoran desert of Arizona to the drug-and-alcohol-infused world of lower Manhattan. The novel is as much about young women trying to make their way in a world that sometimes sees them as disposable as it is about cursed lands and displacement.
Early on, Ahlam, the young protagonist whose name means dream in Arabic, describes her parents’ marriage as follows: “I understood that my mother being from Israel and my father being Palestinian was something that made them feel lonely together, and that was why they never felt at home anywhere expect for perhaps, against all odds, with each other.”
That loneliness, statelessness, haunts the atmosphere of the novel.
Like the parents in the novel, Assadi’s parents are Palestinian and Jewish, although her mother is not Israeli. Her father, born in Tzfat in 1943, fled with his family in the exodus, or nakba of 1948. Like so many families, they left on foot first to Syria, where they lived in a refugee camp in Damascus, then Kuwait. Overnight, his family’s 400-year-old ties to Safed vanished.
From Kuwait, her father left for Italy to study in Perugia and then New York City, where he worked in a shipping company and as a taxi driver. Recently, Assadi tells me, her family had planned a trip to visit his homeland in northern Israel. But at the last minute her father couldn’t do it. He couldn’t return. What would he be returning to? A cursed land, a cursed history? One that betrayed his family? Instead, they went to Andalusia, Spain, where Arabs, Jews and Christians had co-existed for centuries.
“I grew up with a very suspicious father who still speaks about his family’s experience as a mythical curse,” Assadi tells me. “He understands the political and historical reasons for what drove his family into exile, but there is this way in which he always spoke about his family’s suffering as supernatural. This idea that they could never escape to a better place, that they were fated to never escape the curse, that they’d be subjected to this leaving, after leaving, after leaving. The idea of his family being cursed haunts him. When we talk about Syria, you can just feel him thinking of how their family is cursed. There is this sense that if you can’t call on God for help, you have to call upon this other realm, a kind of underworld.”
The structure of Assadi’s novel reflects this mythical idea. Until the end of the novel, the characters are stuck in a cyclical pattern of time—August, February, April, August, February, April. The last chapter, October, the holy month in the Jewish calendar, marks a new beginning for Ahlam and her family. Her friend Laura has not survived this cycle and dies of a drug overdose. But Ahlam is offered a new beginning, a new start.
Assadi’s mother’s family came to New York in the late 1800s and her immediate family moved down to Florala, a small town in Alabama that sits on the border with Florida, population less than 2,000. The cemetery has a little corner space that can accommodate, if need be, up to three Jewish families. But Assadi’s mother’s family was the only Jewish family in the town. She, too, left for New York City and there, in the ’80s, met her husband in that bar in Tribeca. “They partied,” Assadi said, “left together, and then got married.”
At first, she said, their backgrounds were not an issue. Their “wealth” however, was. Assadi’s father’s family had lost their wealth, whereas her mother’s family came from wealth. Later, and especially as things have fallen apart in Syria, where her father still has some family, their backgrounds have created a kind of intangible tension, especially at family gatherings. “The tension, the things that are left unsaid, kind of surrounds them,” Assadi said. “It’s not in their marriage but it’s all around them. It’s hard not to feel sad or angry about the situation in Syria, to feel helpless. Even if they don’t argue about the situation, or blame one side over the other, there is still this retreat, a distance that sits between them.”
In Israel, interfaith marriages are prohibited unless the couple weds outside the country or they convert. Even then, it is not wholly accepted and there are concerns on both sides about mixed marriages, the concern being that the culture is threatened by an outsider, that it will change into something not recognizable. Even in the United States, marriage between a Palestinian and a Jewish woman is unusual.
Assadi admits that though her background is a source of constant fascination to others, she herself didn’t grow up acutely aware of how unique it was. Before one of her teachers in high school pointed it out, Assadi said she didn’t think much of it. “I was just like, ‘Oh, they’re [her parents], not blond and Christian and we don’t celebrate Christmas, and that feels weird so I don’t want to think about it.”
Assadi was born in New York but her father, as she said, had a “little freak out” and, when she was 5, they left to the desert of Arizona, a landscape that was familiar to her father. “He felt he was near home again. I mean, his coming of age was in the desert, although on the Persian Gulf.”
When Assadi talks about the desert, one of the most powerful elements of her novel, she starts with words like “morbid,” “ghosts,” and “disquieting.” But she also calls it peaceful, a place where you go to get in touch with the other side. It’s a place of religious tradition, she said, “I’m thinking of course of the Jewish tradition of wandering in the desert for 40 years but also the Islamic tradition where Gabriel speaks to Muhammad. In both there is this mystical sense that this is the place where you can speak to the other world, that other realm.” Assadi considers the desert her “paradise lost” and understands it as a place of transition and transformation. “I even wonder if I’d have become a writer if I hadn’t grown up in the desert!”
In Assadi’s world, the other realm is a landscape haunted by American history, the wars on Native American tribes, on Mexicans, on any other that stood in the way of the United States building its empire. La Llorona, Apache burial sites, jinn, it’s all present in this realm. Assadi, whose writing every morning begins with a recording of her dreams, is drawn to this world. “If I were to be a practicing Jew,” she said, “I’d be a mystic and study Kabbalah.” As it is, no matter where she is on Shabbat, she said a prayer.
Assadi’s novel emerged as an assignment from one of her writing classes at Columbia where she graduated with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and an MFA in creative writing. Students were asked to write a story based on James Joyce’s The Dead. Assadi chose to write about the seemingly unexplained and bizarre deaths of a number of students from her high school. The morning after she finished her writing assignment yet another student from her high school died. “And I just had this really creepy sensation, this metaphysical sensation, that there was something that I owed to this time and place,” she said. Soon after, a dear friend of hers died. And she felt what started it was this curse from her high school, much in the same way that her father felt cursed.
I asked Assadi how much of her parents’ marriage she wanted to explore in her novel. “I wanted to go into my background a little bit in Sonora but what I really wanted to explore is the other story, the story in America.” Assadi said that everyone thinks of Israel as the Holy Land but, in so many ways, the United States is a holy land especially, as she said, for people seeking safety, refuge, like Syrians today. (Her family started a nonprofit for Syrian refugees called Safed House in Arizona to advocate for Syrian refugees.) The United States, she said, is still seen as this mythical dreamland where the streets are lined with gold, drawing immigrants from Mexico and Central America, from all over the world. “We are the object of this fascination, of being the promised land. But we are also engaged in foreign policies that are problematic. We are both things. This heaven and this hell. And that is what I mean by this heaviness of being American.”
This is very much in keeping with the concerns of writers from the American West. Assadi considers herself to some extent part of this canon because she is concerned with the displacement and redrawn boundaries of the American West and its people. “Americans tend to look outside themselves at other conflicts of displacement, exile and occupation—and thank God they do,” she added. “But I wanted to show how we should also recognize our own history of contested lands, of displacement, exile and occupation, especially in the American West. There is so much of that history right here, in our land. We have displaced Native Americans, gotten rid of their names for things, erased their history in the American West. There is horror on our southern border right now. I mean, I’m critical of Israel but I can’t abide people who are overly critical of Israel but refuse to look at our own history and some of the things that we have done.”
As if one could glean solutions to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict because of her upbringing, Assadi said that people look to her sometimes for special insight. But, she said, “I have no solutions. At one point I had strong political views on the conflict but now I just want peace and justice. I think we all do.”
If that sounds a little idealistic, in Sonora the conflict is more destructive and the parents fight, often. They fight over the suicide bombers, over the peace talks, the collapse of the talks, over Ariel Sharon. Yusef will curse in Arabic and then yell at his wife, “You and your fucking people, Rachel. You are never satisfied. When will my suffering end?”
Rachel, in turn, “Why me? Why me?”
Yusef will say, “I am an alien. I was born walking, born in the nowhere between galaxies. The Middle East is like a big black hole. Maybe they should have left me in the road on the way to Damascus. Maybe I would have been mistaken as a Jewish baby.”
Rachel, “Here he goes again.”
In Sonora, the underworld and the desert are always nibbling at the edges of the two young women’s reality, trying to save them or speak to them. They cannot escape the desert or the underworld, the visions or the dreams. But Laura dies, taken, in some ways, by the underworld. And Ahlam survives. Like the biblical tradition of passage through the desert, Ahlam emerges transformed. And so too does the reader.
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Bridget Kevane is a professor of Latin American and Latino literature at Montana State University in Bozeman. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, ZEEK, the Forward, and Brain, Child, among other publications.