American readers may not be familiar with the conflicting loyalties some Israeli combatants feel regarding their government’s policies; sometimes Israelis go so far as to enlist in the army and then refuse to serve.
But Sadness Is a White Bird, a lyrical debut by a rising literary star, may change that. The novel tells the story of a very young soldier who is driven to his breaking point when his friendship with Palestinian twins interferes with the expectations of country and family.
The novel begins in a jail cell just days after the narrator’s 19th birthday. Two years ago, Jonathan’s family moved to Israel, where he completed high school and readied himself for mandatory army service. As a committed Zionist, Jonathan’s ideals were shaped by his grandfather’s childhood in war-torn Salonica, Greece, and his later involvement in the early militias that led to Israeli statehood after World War II. But after meeting two Palestinian students at the University of Haifa—Laith and his sister, Nimreen—Jonathan’s hard-won perspective begins to change. His new ideals are tested when his unit is called on to protect a new settlement from protesters.
Before that day, Laith, Nimreen and Jonathan formed an inseparable trio, hitchhiking cross-country, hanging out in seaside cafes and spending more than one pot-fueled night on the beach. The friendship has an erotic edge; Jonathan finds himself attracted to both of the siblings, as much a physical attraction as a meeting of the minds fueled by the sharing of ideas, memories and poetry. The novel itself is written as a passionate letter to Laith from the imprisoned Jonathan, and is peppered with lyrics and phrases from notable Palestinian poets and filled with the urgency of a young man trying to understand where he stands.
Informed by author Moriel Rothman-Zecher’s background in Arabic literature and social activism, both of which add passion and integrity to the story, Sadness Is a White Bird is part coming-of-age tale and part unblinking observation of a political situation that continues to defy solutions, treaties or agreements.