Enemy in the Promised Land, by Sana Hasan
Enemy in the Promised Land: An Egyptian Woman’s Journey into Israel.
by Sana Hasan.
Pantheon. 335 pp. $18.95.
From 1974 to 1977 Sana Hasan gained notoriety as “the Egyptian in Israel,” the wayward daughter of Egypt’s former ambassador to the United States who had undertaken a “personal mission for peace” in defiance of her parents, her government, and her diplomat-husband, who divorced her shortly after her arrival in “the promised land.” Her new book about those three years suggests that Israel had been her destiny long before she decided, at age twenty-five, to take leave from her studies in political science at Harvard in order to act out her belief in “dialogue” and direct negotiation.
From an early age, the hatred of Israel inculcated in Miss Hasan by her Egyptian education had produced unexpected results: “‘Zionist’ . . . held for me the allure of the forbidden.” At fourteen, she entered an exclusively Jewish group in Cairo, and while still in her teens she sat holding hands and discussing the Arab-Israeli conflict with Moshe Dayan on a TWA jet from New York. Also, she was brought up “spoiled, self-indulgent, and egocentric” by cultivated, wealthy, traditional parents—they are an abiding presence in the book—in an atmosphere that inevitably endowed even her slightest gestures of rebellion with potent meaning. What greater gesture of rebellion could there be than a journey that disgraced her parents, put them (or so they thought) in danger of imprisonment, and convinced them that their mad daughter would be tried by a military tribunal if ever she were allowed to return to Egypt?
Enemy in the Promised Land is based on the diary Miss Hasan diligently kept throughout her stay in Israel. She proceeds chronologically to recount her impressively variegated experiences from the moment of her arrival in Tel Aviv until, three years later, she comes to fear that she has “become vulnerable to identifying myself with Israel” and “grown deeply attached to Israel in spite of myself.” The chronological ordering is, however, frequently (and skillfully) interrupted by Proustian reveries and remembrances of things past, especially of her own genteel upbringing, which serve as a foil to what she sees in Israel.
The motto for this book should have been Ruskin’s assertion, in Modern Painters, that the highest human activity is to see something and report clearly what you saw, because “thousands can think for one who can see.” Miss Hasan’s superb talent as a novelistic observer upon whom nothing is lost is evident from her first description of the lurid phantasmagoria that is Tel Aviv. By the Arab instructors of her youth and by the foolish Israeli professors she heard at Harvard, she had been taught to believe that Israel was an alien European “thorn in the heart of the Arab nation.” Five minutes in Tel Aviv’s central bus station prove sufficient to set her straight:
Pedestrians, buses, horse carriages laden with fruits, bicycles, trucks, cabs—all had right of way. Masses of people zigzagged between cars. Buses suddenly zeroed in from side alleys. . . . Vendors crowded the sidewalks. . . . [A] peddler, seated at the edge of a bathtub planted in the middle of the sidewalk, was hawking toilets, sinks, gravestones, tiles from Italy, and a needlepoint portrait of Moshe Dayan.
She immediately sees, with a clarity and minuteness of vision that are the chief qualities of this book, that “Israel is the Middle East!”
Although she fancies herself a political thinker—how could it be otherwise, after earning her doctorate at Harvard?—Miss Hasan’s standard is primarily aesthetic. The first full-scale blast at Israel in the book comes from the Israeli “dove” Lova Eliav, but, grateful as she is for his contribution, Miss Hasan will not allow it to undo the absurdity of the image she has already created of Eliav as the man who said that real peace would come only when Israeli tourists could see the Pyramids and Egyptian tourists could visit Dizengoff Street, Tel Aviv’s tawdry shopping thoroughfare.
With Israel’s flamboyant right-wing politician Geula Cohen, however, Miss Hasan strikes up a warm friendship. Although she is attracted to Geula Cohen partly out of admiration for her singleminded dedication to the land of Israel, and partly out of a certain revulsion at “liberal and left-wing Israelis, whose relentless self-criticism embarrassed me,” it is clear that the dominant magnetic force is aesthetic (and perhaps also, as is very often the case with Miss Hasan, sexual):
I had conjured up an elderly woman in a dowdy suit, with sharp features and short-cropped gray hair. . . . Instead, there stood before me a gorgeous creature with long black hair that fell in unruly curls over her amaranth robe. Her eyes were dark and sensual.
Another “strikingly beautiful” Israeli with whom Miss Hasan becomes entangled is a prostitute named Leila, whom she tries to “help” while working as a volunteer in a home for delinquents. When she hears of Leila’s death, she marvels at her own “hardheartedness: I had not shed a single tear.” There are several moments in the book which lead the reader to believe that if Sana Hasan were to see a young woman atop the railing of a bridge over the Nile, poised for her own destruction, she would first take out her diary to write a description of how the light fell over the poor woman’s hair and only then try to stop her from plunging in.
Another aspect of Miss Hasan’s artistic sensibility is her chameleon-like ability to assume false identities in order to satisfy her “savage curiosity” by trying out ways of life alien to her own. At various times during her three years she experiments with (among other things) cow-milking, chicken-packing, social work, lesbianism, and scullery service in the King David Hotel kitchen (her description of which is likely to serve as an antidote to anyone’s desire to eat in that famous institution). Often she “passes” as a Jew, and on one occasion insinuates herself into the household of an ultra-Orthodox couple doing “missionary” work, persuading them that she wishes to be rescued from her Jewish secularity. “I had been about to tell her my real identity, but now I thought to myself, why not? Here at last was a chance to live the religious life. . . .” Her powers of imaginative sympathy enable her to feel, for the first time in her life, respect for religious devotion, and, in consequence, resentment of the narrow-minded bigotry of secular Israelis toward their religious countrymen. She is awed by the “kindness, generosity, and sincere faith” of these people. But, aware that she has betrayed their friendship by deceit, she abruptly removes herself when they bring a prospective bridegroom home for her.
Incidents of this kind evoke a double reaction from the reader. On the one hand, he wonders whether someone who has been so adroit a liar in so many different settings can be believed about anything. On the other hand, he is likely to have a grudging respect for a writer who shows herself capable of learning, even if very slowly, that the moral life, unlike the aesthetic one, requires exclusion as well as inclusion.
The embarrassment that Miss Hasan feels in the instances where she allows or encourages Israelis to believe that she is a Jew is, however, as nothing to the embarrassment she feels before Israelis who have suffered grievous loss at the hands of her fellow Arabs. Among these are her Israeli lover, a (married) reserve officer whose son was killed in the Yom Kippur War; a member of a tragically war-afflicted family, with whom she soaks and scrubs tombstones at Kibbutz EinHarod; and the famous actress Hannah Meron, who lost her leg as a result of a savage attack by PLO terrorists at Munich airport in 1970. In each case Miss Hasan is drawn to Israel’s pain, and her heart goes out to these people as if they were bone of her bone, flesh of her flesh, made by the same God. Yet in each case she “vacillates between deep sympathy and mistrust,” and feels she “could not pity them without a risk.”
The “risk” is to her inherited version of the Palestine conflict, which is strictly Arab League party line, and to her political notions, which never rise above the level of leftist cliché. To her lover, who has some business ties in South Africa, she lectures that “Jews, as victims of racism, had a special moral responsibility to boycott it.” This argument, as Conor Cruise O’Brien once pointed out, carries with it the corollary that the descendants of those who have not been victimized by racism have no special responsibility to combat it, and that descendants of the victimizers can be excused altogether for behavior that would be inexcusable in descendants of the victims. Given. Miss Hasan’s own loyalty to the “Palestinian” cause in the shape it was forged by an active collaborator with Nazism—the Mufti of Jerusalem—one can see why this corollary would appeal to her.
To the bereaved mother of EinHarod (called Kibbutz Vatik in the book), Miss Hasan feels compelled to remark, “with heartless obstinacy,” that none of the four fallen members of her family would have died if not for Golda Meir’s policy of “annexation,” and that “all the wars, leading up to the 1973 war . . . could have been avoided had it not been for . . . new Jewish settlements . . . being established in the occupied territories.” But there were no “occupied territories” (except, of course, for those occupied by Jordan) until 1967; and how does the assertion of Egypt’s continuing desire for peace comport with Nasser’s relentless insistence that “Israel’s existence is iteslf an aggression,” or with Miss Hasan’s own admission that during Nasser’s rule such a personal gesture toward peace as her own trip to Israel would have landed her family in jail?
To Hannah Meron, she “tried to explain the desperate circumstances” that required Palestinian “commandos” to attempt to blow the actress to bits while she was drinking coffee in the Munich airport. But by this point in the story she is more “embarrassed” than ever before by what her better self tells her is morally unconscionable. She finds that “the sharp edges of my convictions were being eroded, but I could not yet see what would take their place.”
Neither can I. At last year’s PEN conference in New York, Amos Oz remarked, with dismay, on the contradiction between the subtlety, flexibility, and discrimination that writers exercise in their novels and poems, and the raw, blind, and dangerous crudity and blatancy of their political utterances. Sana Hasan is a striking example of this paradox. In the very book where she recounts, with intelligence and compassion, the experiences with Israelis that made her cringe at the conventional Arab equation of Israel with unredeemable evil, she does not shrink from invoking a moral desperado named Israel Shahak who equated Israeli behavior during the 1967 war with Nazi behavior in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Nevertheless, of a writer with Miss Hasan’s ability to be self-critical as well as self-respecting, one may hope for better things. In the book’s supreme example of her capacity for self-correction, she tells how the novelist A.B. Yehoshua proves to her that she is hypocritical to claim she accepts the existence of a Jewish state while insisting at the same time that Israel can justify its existence only by being an exemplary society. “This recognition—that despite the many pronouncements I made to others and the things I told myself, part of me still held out against fully accepting the Jewish state—was very unsettling.”
Since Israel appears destined to have enemies, Israelis and supporters of Israel alike should pray for more enemies like Sana Hasan, perhaps in the words that John Stuart Mill once recommended for such occasions: “Lord, enlighten thou our enemies . . . sharpen their wits, give acuteness to their perceptions, and consecutiveness and clearness to their reasoning powers: we are in danger from their folly, not from their wisdom; their weakness is what fills us with apprehension, not their strength.”