The Mideast: All are prisoners of the same war

March 11, 2001|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Sun Staff

"Martyrs' Crossing," by Amy Wilentz. Simon and Schuster. 311 pages. $24.

A 2-year-old boy is acutely ill with asthma. His mother walks in search of a taxi to take them to a hospital. But Marina Raad Hajimi, watching her son Ibrahim turn blue, must navigate a checkpoint on the road, as well as barricades in her mind. For there are innumerable barriers to a normal life in the Middle East. On this afternoon of stone-throwing and tear gas, the Israeli soldiers at an army checkpoint have orders to stop Palestinians from traveling farther, even a young mother carrying a sick child.

Young Ibrahim's death at the checkpoint, at the beginning of Amy Wilenz's affecting first novel, is the fulcrum for a story of unwilling martyrs, Palestinian and Israeli. Ibrahim will serve as another blunt instrument for authorities on both sides of the conflict to further their own causes, just what Marina and her father, an eminent Palestinian-American physician named George Raad, have feared most.

Wilentz, a Jerusalem correspondent for the New Yorker from 1995 to 1997 and author of a highly regarded book about Haiti, has accomplished nearly the impossible in this densely plotted story. She has captured the corrosive moral shortcomings of Israeli and Palestinian leaders and the near helplessness of the people pulled into their wake -- yet renders virtually all of them with a deeply knowing sympathy. They are all prisoners of the same war.

Those in "Martyrs' Crossing" who try to show courage are frail, hesitant and almost paralyzed with fright. Lt. Ari Doron was the officer in charge at the checkpoint that afternoon. He searches for a way to apologize for Ibrahim's death, compassion that dangerously isolates him. George Raad, famous for his dignified defense of his people's cause, comes to feel he must choose between protecting his daughter and protecting the cause.

Then there are the politicians and professional revolutionaries, who are no less frightened. Corrupt in a hundred ways, they count on patriotism -- to the Israeli army or to the cause -- and they count on people lying. To them compassion in war is undesirable and dangerous. "In war, even a little bit of feeling was already too much if it was wasted on the other guy," thinks an Israeli army colonel, Daniel Yizhar, in charge of containing the growing public relations damage from the death of young Ibrahim. "Understand the other guy, okay; but feel only for yourself."

The battles are not only between Israelis and Palestinians. It is generation against generation, the secular versus the religious, truth against image. And in a sense, Wilentz needed to invent nothing for this novel: It rings as true and tragic as the best news reporting from the Israel and the West Bank. The army checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem is both real and her invention. Colonel Yizhar's semi-secret office in Jerusalem is from her imagination but also exists in stone. The novel's Palestinian leaders, and their empty slogans, are more real, convey more of the region's day-to-day truth, than can a hundred news accounts.

"My heart is giving out, I think," a character says near the end of the novel. We can read the character's lament as referring both to the organ that pumps blood, and to an exhaustion of compassion. Martyrs fatefully cross paths in this fine, disturbing story, our spirits breaking with theirs.

Robert Ruby is deputy foreign editor of The Sun and its former Middle East correspondent. He is the author of "Jericho" and his "Unknown Shore: The Lost History of England's Arctic Colony" will be published in June.

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