Review: Fractured Destinies – Rabai al-Madhoun

Park bench in Ramallah, Palestine

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What does it mean to be an Israeli Arab?

There is no easy answer, but Rabai al-Madhoun’s 2016 International Prize for Arabic Fiction-winning novel, Fractured Destinies (American University in Cairo Press, translated from Arabic by Paul Starkey), tackles the question’s complexities head on, with skill and unflinching courage. Although many Western readers will commence the book with a preconceived notion of the Palestinian experience, the myriad of storylines that make up one family’s narrative will quickly dispel that idea.

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When Ivana, a Palestinian-Armenian who fled the Nakba and eloped with a British medical officer, passes away in her London home, she has one final wish: for her daughter, Julie, to return her ashes to Acre, the town of her birth. Julie left Israel as a two-month old infant, and has never returned, but her husband, Walid, was born in al-Majdal Asqalan, in the south of Israel, and spent his early years in a Gaza refugee camp. During the Nakba, his uncle Mahmoud refused to leave Asqalan, and Mahmoud’s daughter, Jinin, is, consequently, an Israeli citizen. Her husband, Bassim, has US citizenship after his family sought refuge there, but having returned to his home country has found himself in a frustrating no-man’s land, unable to gain residency, or even a long-term work permit.

As each of the characters struggles to make meaning of their experience, and, by exploring the essence of home, make the best decisions for their future, it becomes increasingly apparent that there is no one-size-fits-all way forward. Those who have remained in Israel have kept their land, but lost a part of their identity, with Israeli policies systematically reducing the evidence of their history and culture in the region to the history books. They also face jealousy and condemnation from those who fled, for choosing to live alongside their Jewish neighbours. The refugees have their own share of demons, with both a physical, and a spiritual, disconnection from their homeland to comprehend. Some, such as Julie, have a romanticised view of what it would mean to return, whereas those who have done so, like Bassim, often find themselves frustrated and full of regret as they face life without rights in their own country.

Composed in a series of four ‘movements’, Fractured Destinies is as layered and nuanced as a concerto, weaving together multiple perspectives and storylines like perfectly complementary harmonies, and building in intensity as the magnitude of the questions faced by the different characters becomes clear. Unlike a concerto, however, there is no nice, clean resolution to the book, and the reader is likely left with more questions and issues to consider than when they began. A spectacular characterisation of the issues faced by Israeli Arabs, this book puts human faces to an incredibly complex situation, which makes the historical and ethical issues it raises accessible without being too overwhelming.

Highly recommended for anyone interested in historical fiction, the Middle East, or exploration of diverse cultural experiences, and one of the best books I have read this year.

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Thanks to AmazonCrossing for providing a copy of The Passion According to Carmela for review. It is now publicly available for purchase.

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2 thoughts on “Review: Fractured Destinies – Rabai al-Madhoun”

  1. Putting this on my ever-growing list Jo. We “studied” the Arab-Israeli conflict in school and, as always, texts and biases gave us half a picture at best.

    • I’ve visited the Middle East and still find myself falling into stereotypes. It’s really hard to unlearn that biased history without getting multiple perspectives. I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did!


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