Sadness Is a White Bird

Sadness Is a White Bird

by Moriel Rothman-Zecher

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Overview

Sadness Is a White Bird by Moriel Rothman-Zecher

In this “nuanced, sharp, and beautifully written” (Michael Chabon) debut novel, a young man prepares to serve in the Israeli army while also trying to reconcile his close relationship to two Palestinian siblings with his deeply ingrained loyalties to family and country.

The story begins in an Israeli military jail, where—four days after his nineteenth birthday—Jonathan stares up at the fluorescent lights of his cell and recalls the series of events that led him there.

Two years earlier: Moving back to Israel after several years in Pennsylvania, Jonathan is ready to fight to preserve and defend the Jewish state. But he is also conflicted about the possibility of having to monitor the occupied Palestinian territories, a concern that grows deeper and more urgent when he meets Nimreen and Laith—the twin daughter and son of his mother’s friend.

From that morning on, the three become inseparable: wandering the streets on weekends, piling onto buses toward new discoveries, laughing uncontrollably. They share joints on the beach, trading snippets of poems, intimate secrets, family histories, resentments, and dreams. But with his draft date rapidly approaching, Jonathan wrestles with the question of what it means to be proud of your heritage, while also feeling love for those outside of your own family. And then that fateful day arrives, the one that lands Jonathan in prison and changes his relationship with the twins forever.

“Unflinching in its honesty, unyielding in its moral complexity” (Geraldine Brooks, Pulitzer Prize–winning author), Sadness Is a White Bird explores one man’s attempts to find a place for himself, discovering in the process a beautiful, against-the-odds love that flickers like a candle in the darkness of a never-ending conflict.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781501176265
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: 02/13/2018
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 185,980
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Moriel Rothman-Zecher is an American-Israeli writer, poet, and novelist. Born in Jerusalem, he graduated from Middlebury College with a degree in Arabic and political science. A recipient of a 2017 MacDowell Colony Fellowship for Literature, his work has been published in The New York Times, Haaretz, The Paris Review’s Daily, and elsewhere. Moriel lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio with his wife, Kayla, and their dog, Silly Department. Read more at TheLefternWall.com and follow him on Twitter @Moriel_RZ.

Read an Excerpt

Sadness Is a White Bird


  • EVERYTHING WAS SALT AND SWEAT, summertime and sharpened swords. It was Friday, July 25th. The date of our catastrophe, Laith.

    Or mine, at least.

    Two days after my 19th birthday. Two days before I was sent here. One lifetime ago. Now, in the fluorescent glow of this jail cell, I can still feel echoes of the South Hebron heat on my skin. Mostly, the desert painted in shades of red on the canvas of my face, but when I looked in the mirror that morning, on July 25th, I thought I saw a faint hum of brown glimmering beneath the sunburnt crust, threading between the black and ochre tapestry of my almost-full beard. A twinge of Saba Yehuda’s complexion, maybe. A twinge of my grandfather’s Salonican toughness. You might not have recognized me. My scalp was a hedgehog. My eyes glinted strangely in the glass of the base’s bathroom, yellow-green and nearly fearless.

    We’d been in the Territories for almost a month by this point. One night, on guard duty outside the settlement of Kerem El, I pulled hair after hair out of my beard, just to stay awake. Afterward, back in my bunk, I wondered blearily if the Commander would notice patches and revoke my beard permit, make me shave it all off. He didn’t. I kept the tiny, coiled hairs in my pocket for three days, until I came to my senses and realized how weird that was.

    Patrolling the Palestinian villages in the area was more interesting. No one else called them “Palestinian,” of course: everyone said “Arab villages” or “enemy villages” or “Arab outposts.” They were wobbly shanty-clusters that seemed like something you’d expect to find on the outskirts of Mumbai or Sao Paulo, only here there was no major metropolis in sight, just desert and the sprawling town of Yatta, whose economy was reportedly based on stolen cars and whose yellowish houses huddled together along the horizon’s hills.

    None of the South Hebron villages had running water or electricity. Eviad claimed that was how they chose to live—“It’s their Bedouin culture, and shit”—but I was skeptical. I was usually skeptical when other Israelis spoke about Arabs. I was a discerning soldier, a different kind of soldier: ears always perked, eyebrows always raised. Almost always, at least. I remembered Kufr Qanut. I’d promised myself to sever my right hand, Laith, to suture my tongue to the roof of my mouth before I let myself forget: I was here to protect the Seven Other Villages, just like I told your sister I would be.

    Some of the dusty children scampering between the tin-sided structures would ask us for candy during our patrols, and I’d give it to them when I had it. American candy too, that my dad brought back from a visit to our old home in Everbrook, Pennsylvania. I could feel through the wrappers how the heat turned the sweets gooey and soft, just like I liked them, but I didn’t allow myself to open even a single package. They weren’t for me. They were for the saucer eyes and twinkle laughs I’d get as I told the kids, in Arabic, not to eat all the candies at once, making a silly face to go along with my silly suggestion.

    And then there were the dogs: chained to various desert shrubs, their rib cages bulging like broken accordions, raspy gurgles in their throats as they barked halfheartedly. They didn’t seem threatening, the dogs or the villages, but still, in the back of all our minds (yes, even mine) were the stories: the shepherd Yaron Ben Yisrael, stabbed in the throat. The ambulance filled with explosives. The old farmer in the suicide vest. The ambush at the Sheep Junction in ’03, where three guys from the Lavi unit were taken out in less than a minute. One moment: three boys laughing, pulling jackets tight, thinking about warm blowjobs and hot chocolate. Next moment: three corpses draped in torn olive green, blood coagulating in their chests alongside foreign lead and misplaced bone shards and half-baked hopes for the coming weekend and the one after that.

    On a shelf inside my head, alongside the piles of my good intentions, I’d placed a little sign that read “No Illusions.” These were the Territories, after all. This wasn’t Beit al-Asal.

    There was one village, Suswan, which seemed to have more going on than the other villages. Structurally, it was the same: dilapidated houses, tragic mutts, graffiti sprayed on the rocks reading “Freedom Falestine” in English and “No to the Zionist Colonization” in Arabic. The difference in Suswan was the number of people who seemed to be constantly coming and going. On the day of my birthday, July 23rd, our patrol passed by Suswan and I noticed a big group seated in a semicircle by the village’s olive grove. We were packed into the belly of an armored vehicle called a Ze’ev—a Wolf—whose shell was built around the skeleton of a Ford F-550, and was designed to protect against light weapons’ fire, as well as Molotov cocktails and rocks. The driver was a sullen, chain-smoking professional soldier named Evgeny. He was at least five years older than us, and Russian, and it wasn’t clear how well he actually spoke Hebrew, so he sort of faded into the background of the Wolf: dashboard, windshield, Evgeny. I’d been appointed patrol commander for the afternoon, and I told Evgeny to stop at the outskirts of the village. At first, it didn’t seem like he’d heard me or, if he had, like he gave a shit about what I was telling him to do.

    “Evgeny, man,” I repeated, in louder, slower Hebrew, “Atzor kan. Stop here.”

    The Wolf veered left and rolled to an off-road stop, earth clods and small plants crushed under its tires, and from the way Evgeny looked over at me, I wondered whether he might murder me in my sleep. This was a running joke I had with Gadi and Tal and Eviad: “Good night, dudes,” we’d say. “See you in the morning, unless Evgeny gets you first.” I looked at him now, at the bluish bags under his gray eyes, and felt a little bad that we’d decided he might be a serial killer, just because he was pale and brooding. Maybe he wasn’t even brooding. Maybe he was just shy.

    “You don’t have to come,” I said. “You can wait here and smoke or something.”

    Evgeny blinked.

    I looked back at Gadi, Eviad, and Tal, at their lopsided smiles as they stretched their arms and cracked their knuckles and tumbled out of the Wolf into the sweltering sunlight.

    “I’m going over there, guys,” I said, closing my door gently. “Any of you want to join?”

    “Is this Arabian booty call, America?” Gadi said, in English, and Tal and Eviad laughed.

    “Go fuck yourself,” I said, in Hebrew, running a hand over the side of my beard to obscure some of the blood vessels glowing below the skin of my cheeks.

    “The Commander said we should make sure they notice us, right? And anyway, aren’t you curious to see who all those people are?”

    I gestured toward the semicircle: eight or ten fleshy pink faces sheltering from the sun in the sparse shade supplied by Suswan’s silver-leaved olive trees. They were wearing beige vests, and some had crucifixes dangling from their necks. In the silence that followed my question, I could hear that they were speaking what sounded like German. There was one Palestinian guy sitting there with them.

    “Not so curious, to be honest,” Eviad said, and Gadi made a thrusting motion with his pelvis and I flicked both of them off and Tal laughed. I took a deep breath, tasting the smoke from the three cigarettes lit, almost in unison, around me. Evgeny had gone to smoke on the other side of the Wolf. I was the only guy in my platoon who didn’t smoke, as well as the only one who spoke Arabic. A few others could speak a bit, and everyone knew “Waqaf, waqaf walla ana batukhak” and “Iftah al-bab.” We’d all learned those phrases—“Stop, stop or I’ll shoot you” and “Open the door”—from postdraft friends or older siblings, back when we were still in high school. And “Jib al-hawiya,” of course. “Give me your ID card.”

    As I walked toward the group, leaving Gadi, Eviad, and Tal leaning against the Wolf’s boxy frame, I felt the hot air grow brittle. The Germans began babbling anxiously and a few reached into their fanny packs and withdrew digital cameras, which they pointed at me. I froze. I was tempted, for a split second, to raise my hands, just to clarify that I meant no harm. But then I reminded myself that I didn’t owe anyone an explanation, definitely not a group of Germans. I decided to try talking to the Palestinian guy, who I saw as my likeliest ally, alone.

    “Ta’al hoon,” I said, gesturing to him like he was an old friend. “Come here.”

    He was wearing a purple polo shirt with a tiny silhouette of a porcupine emblazoned on the left breast. His hair was cropped close on the sides and was longer and heavily gelled on the top. He had dark skin, and hazel eyes whose color I found comfortingly pretty. He looked up at me and then looked around.

    “Ana?” He asked, touching a finger to the center of his chest.

    Who else would I be talking to in Arabic, I thought, Rolf and Hildegard? Then I felt bad for feeling impatient. This guy was probably a decade older than me, and I was holding an M-16—and one that was fixed with a grenade launcher, at that. Although “holding” might not be the right word: too separate, too distant. My weapon had come to feel like a fifth limb. We’d only been out of Advanced Training for a few weeks, and this was the first time I’d ever actually spoken to a Palestinian adult while in uniform, not including the occasional text messages I sent to you, Laith, or to Nimreen, but that was different.

    “Min fadlak,” I said, making my voice softer, taking my sunglasses off. “Please.”

    The man stood up slowly and walked over to where I’d stopped, about ten paces away from the group.

    “Ma saweitish ishi,” the man said, as he neared me, his hands tilted upward, palms out. Not totally unlike how I’d thought to position my own hands a moment earlier, but I didn’t think about that then. My mind was focused on the sandpaper hs and guttural as and rumbling rs. I wanted my accent to sound good, for him to know how well I spoke his language.

    “Aarif, ya zalameh,” I said. “I know, man. I didn’t say you did anything. I just want to talk.”

    It did. My accent did sound good. Languages are mostly about confidence. At that moment, my private tutor was shaped like an M-16.

    His shoulders relaxed a bit, but his eyes were still narrowed, and his hands floated for a moment like two confused birds, wondering whether to flit into the safety of their nests or not. He eventually pretzeled his arms across his chest, burying his hands in his armpits. I get, in retrospect, as I retell this story, that he was probably afraid. That his pockets were not comfort nests for the birds of his hands but rather the opposite: his pockets were filled with danger. The danger that I, the armed soldier, might suspect danger: knife, screwdriver, grenade, box cutter, et cetera. But I didn’t yet know myself as someone to be feared.

    I cleared my throat. I could hear the guys laughing back by the Wolf.

    “Salam aleikum,” I said. “May peace be upon you.”

    “Wa-aleikum,” he said. “And upon you.”

    “Ana ismi Jonathan,” I said, introducing myself, taking my right hand off the handle of my gun and extending it toward him.

    The man hesitated, and I felt a burst of sour fear in the back edges of my mouth. That he might not shake my hand at all. That he might leave me standing in humiliating limbo, vulnerable and exposed to the flashes of the German Canons and Nikons and to the knowing smirks of Gadi and Eviad and Tal. I wondered if they would see this rejection and turn their laughter on me: “Bleeding Heart Yonatan can’t even get a handshake from the Arabs he loves so much.”

    After a moment, though, the man did shake my hand, limply, but no one else around could know that, not the Germans, not the Israelis. He did not introduce himself in return.

    “Tell me about your village,” I said.

    “What?”

    “About Suswan. For example, how many people live here? What’s life like? Who are they?” I gestured toward the group.

    “Our guests,” the man said.

    “Guests from where?”

    “Austria,” he said. “International solidarity visitors.”

    “What kind of solidarity?” I said, my Arabic sharpening as I glanced at the dangle of crucifixes, at the shiny cameras cradled in veiny hands. “Against the Jews?”

    I wasn’t thinking about my accent, then. I was thinking then about my grandfather, about Salonica, about the Germans.

    “No, no,” the man said, “just against the demolition orders given to us by the Jews.”

    “What demolition orders?”

    The man snorted and mimicked my question in a nasally voice, “Ei awamr hadim?”

    I bit down on the soft flesh of the inside of my cheek.

    “Demolition orders for our entire village,” he said.

    “Why?” I said.

    “B’tisalni ana?” he said, with a woodchip laugh. “You’re asking me?”

    I took a moment to try to pluck the splinters of his laughter from my mouth before speaking again. “Did you get permits to build here?”

    “You don’t give us permits, here or anywhere. Do you really not know this, or are you playing games with me?”

    “I’m—I’m new here,” I said, my accent faltering. I wondered if I should switch to Hebrew.

    He snorted again.

    I thought about my grandfather, about his voice when he said he was proud of me. I straightened my back and spoke in what I hoped was a crisp tone, still in Arabic: “What I mean to say is, I’m sorry to hear that. I don’t know all the details. It seems complicated.”

    The man was quiet.

    I thought about you and Nimreen, about how I told you I’d be decent, told you I’d still be me.

    “But if there’s anything I can do to help,” I continued, “just tell me, okay?”

    The man looked up at me, his eyes wide, a little smile playing on his lips. I thought he looked grateful. I felt hairs rising on my nape. This was why I’d started learning Arabic in the first place: to communicate with the Other. Even before I met you and Nimreen, that was something I wanted.

    Do you remember that night on the beach in Haifa, when you and Nimreen tried to list for me all twenty-six Arabic synonyms for “love”? I only remember two of them now, aside from the basic one, “al-Hub,” which is the root of the word “habibi.”

    “Al-Kalf,” Nimreen said, passing the joint to me, our fingers brushing. She blew two pillars of smoke out of her nostrils. I told her later that night that she’d looked like the most elegant walrus ever to grace the coast of Palestine, and she’d laughed, wild and loud, and punched me in the shoulder, “It’s like . . . exaggerated love. Overstated.”

    I looked down at the sand, where Nimreen’s bare feet were buried up to her ankles. On her left leg, there were two tiny black hairs that she’d missed while shaving, right above the shell anklet she always wore. I thought these two hairs might be the most beautiful thing in the entire land.

    “Al-Jouah,” you said, the bass of your voice blurred by the rush of the water, “love that leaves you with a feeling of, like, deep sadness.”

    You looked beautiful too, Laith, your lanky frame origamied into compactness, knees pressed to your chest, arms wrapped around your shins. The dark threads of your scraggly beard were glistening, catching shards of hidden sunlight reflected off the moon, nearly identical to the hairs on your twin sister’s ankle.

    I held the joint between my fingers, testing the give of the melted hash and wisps of tobacco rolled tightly into the little white paper.

    “Puff puff pass, J,” you said, laughing, and I was blown away by the fact that you knew that phrase.

    Al-Kalf and al-Jouah.

    Of course those are the two I remember now, habibi.

    I know it sounds silly, Laith, but I was thinking about that night on the beach and how the Arabic blended with the sizzle of the sea and the crackle of the slow-burning joint, and so I was caught off guard when the man in Suswan spit, a heavy, viscous glob that stayed intact as it landed on the toasted earth, not far from my red-leather Paratrooper boots. He looked back up at me, and only then did I understand that the smile growing bigger on his lips was not one of gratitude.

    “You want to help me?” he said. “Here’s how you can help me: Get out of Palestine. All of you. Go back to Europe.”

    I was frightened by how quickly the tingle on my nape turned to raised hackles; by how ugly his eyes seemed; by how much I wanted to drive my fist or the butt of my M-16 into one of them. If I’d been Gadi or Eviad, I might have done it. Instead, I just spoke: “It didn’t exactly go that well for us, back in Europe.”

    He was silent.

    I thought about telling him that Tal’s whole family was from Iraq and that Eviad was part Moroccan, but decided that would sound defensive. Anyway, I thought, what did it matter, Baghdad or Fez or Warsaw or Salonica? Jews deserved a home here too.

    “This is our home too,” I said.

    He didn’t say anything.

    His silence pushed me over the edge.

    “No, you know what? You’re right. Maybe the Holocaust was just a mu’amira sahioniya,” I said, repeating the Arabic phrase I’d heard a handful of times over the past year and a half, mostly from your sister. Usually Nimreen would grin when she’d say it, but I wasn’t grinning now: “Maybe everything is a Zionist conspiracy. All your problems are because of a Zionist conspiracy. Is that right?”

    The man spit again. He no longer looked at all afraid of me.

    “Do you want anything else?” he said. “To search me? To arrest me?”

    I pressed my tongue against the back of my teeth. It’s hard for me to admit how badly I wanted his fear to return. I glanced over at the group under the olive trees, whose members had seemingly lost interest in the two of us and were gabbing to each other, comparing pictures on the small screens of their cameras. I thought about Jacko and about my grandfather and about refuge and about hopeless yellow-eyed revolts. About how history never seems to manage to wipe its tracks clean as it slumps into the present.

    “No,” I said, “go ahead. Go make up some more stories for your German friends.”

    Anger flashed unmistakable onto his face. He didn’t say anything.

    “Sorry,” I said, “Austrian solidarity visitors.”

    I shifted my grip on my M-16 and glanced over my shoulder performatively, reminding him of my brothers standing by the Wolf. I didn’t think about you then, Laith, or your sister, or what you would have thought if you saw me like that, chest swelling, nostrils flared, palms resting heavy on my pygmy angel of death, twisted into four kilograms of black metal warmth. He remained in place and swallowed. A current shot through my teeth. I felt invincible.

    “What sort of critical intelligence did you gather, Yonatan?” Eviad asked as I rejoined the group. Tal rested his hand on the back of my neck, stroked his thumb over the nub at the top of my spine. You once told me it was called the axis vertebra, Laith, but I clucked my tongue and said that I was pretty sure that “topmost spinal nub is the more technically accurate scientific term,” and you conceded. I took off my helmet and Gadi patted my head, bursting the sweat droplets balanced on the spikes of my hair like dew, and we all climbed into the Wolf, where Evgeny was already waiting in the driver’s seat. I sat shotgun.

    “Nothing,” I said, trying to steady my voice as I shifted from Arabic to Hebrew, and from Jonathan the Curious to Yonatan the Patrol Commander, “I just wanted to know who the internationals were.”

    “Nu? And?”

    “Nazis,” I said.

    Gadi leaned forward, smiling impishly. “Listen to America here. Forty seconds in the desert and Yonatan’s already getting hard.”

    Evgeny may or may not have let out a small laugh. He could have just been clearing the postsmoke mucus from his throat.

    “You know what else?” I said. “That guy I was talking to said some shit about how the Jews want to destroy his village, and when I offered to help, he told me to ‘go back to Europe.’ ”

    “Wait, what?” Tal said. “You offered to help? What exactly were you planning on doing?”

    I shrugged.

    “Exactly,” Eviad said. “They live in this dirt pile, and we try to help them, and what do they do in return? Jihad. They blow up our buses and cafés in order to get their fucking seventy-six virgins. It’s not about land or freedom. It’s a holy war for them, and they’re mostly just starved for pussy. Ha!”

    Eviad’s laughter then was a hyena’s, and everyone in the Wolf went quiet. Eviad’s little sister, Maya, had been on a bus that exploded in Haifa in 2004. She was thirteen and had lost most of the right half of her face. The doctors managed to keep her alive for almost a week.

    “Seventy-two,” Tal said.

    “What?” Eviad said.

    “It’s seventy-two virgins.”

    I turned around in time to see Eviad’s dark-blue eyes widen first, and then crinkle as he started to laugh, a pretty, clear laugh, like a cool spring bursting forward from the earth’s belly. The tension inside the Wolf evaporated.

    “Wait,” Eviad said, “don’t tell me that if an Iraqi Jewish guy gets killed in battle, he gets seventy-two virgins also?”

    All of us laughed, except for Evgeny, who wasn’t really one of us anyway.

    Tal was bespectacled and as scrawny as Eviad was muscular. His dad’s parents were Communists from Baghdad, who fled to Ramat Gan in 1950. Despite his familial history of flight—and from Muslims, at that—Tal was the other bleeding heart in our company.

    We drove in silence for a few minutes until we arrived back at our base. We climbed out of the Wolf, and Evgeny shuffled slowly inside, his hands stuffed deep into his uniform’s pockets. When Evgeny was out of earshot, Tal spoke in a hushed tone, and Eviad and Gadi and I crowded around him, leaning close, inhaling each other’s familiar scents and recycling each other’s familiar breaths.

    “I heard there’s going to be a demonstration there on Friday,” Tal said.

    “Really?” I said. “In Suswan? Where’d you hear that?”

    We’d finished Advanced Training ready to be sent into battle, but we hadn’t seen any action to speak of so far, just patrols like this one, and a false alarm outside Kerem El, when a fox had tripped the security wire. Eviad shot at it and actually hit the stupid critter, which lay there whimpering for a good three minutes until we finally got radio permission from the Commander to leave our posts and put an end to its suffering. Eviad executed it with another bullet to the head, and I covered it in rocks, trying to stay somber but gagging as the weight of the stones pressed into the creature’s soft body and a bit of its organs bulged from the hole in its side, blood surging out onto the ground around it, stench filling the air. We left the animal half covered, and Eviad and I ran back to our post in silence.

    “I just heard it,” Tal said.

    I pictured then what I wanted to picture: men wearing purple polo shirts and keffiyehs wrapped around their faces, brandishing weapons and burning tires, chanting “Go back to Europe,” a row of Germans standing there, clucking their tubby tongues and clicking pictures with their fancy cameras, proving to the world that the Jews were just as bad as they’d always said we were. I had mixed feelings about guarding the settlement that I didn’t think should be in the West Bank in the first place, and I felt a little uneasy about waltzing into tin villages like we just had, but I was ready to fight the actual enemy. I was ready to feel like I was there for a reason.

    “If you’re wrong, Saddam,” said Gadi, “I’m having you transferred into one of those shacks.”

    Eviad laughed. I did too. Tal raised his hands.

    “Hey, I’m just repeating what I heard. As they say, ‘Don’t force the messenger to go live in a Bedouin shack.’ ”

    I laughed again. “I hope you’re right, man.”

    “Inshallah,” Tal said. “God willing.”

    And of course, Tal was right.

  • Reading Group Guide

    This reading group guide for Sadness Is a White Bird includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

    Introduction

    In this lyrical and searing debut novel, a young man is preparing to serve in the Israeli army while also trying to reconcile his close relationship to two Palestinian siblings with his deeply ingrained loyalties to family and country.

    When Jonathan moves back to Israel after high school, he is eager to join the army and defend the Jewish state that his grandfather helped establish. But Jonathan is also conflicted about the possibility of having to monitor the occupied Palestinian territories, a concern that only grows more urgent when he meets Nimreen and Laith, the twin daughter and son of his mother’s friend.

    From that winter morning on, the three become inseparable, caught in a whirlwind of passion and connection. Jonathan is forced to confront the suffering of his Palestinian friends and their families under Israeli rule, leading him to question his loyalties. As he is pulled in different directions, he must grapple with what it means to be just one person in an epic historical struggle with so much at stake. And then that fateful day arrives, the one that lands Jonathan in prison and changes all three lives forever.

    Topics & Questions for Discussion

    1. Given that Jonathan shares an intense bond with both Laith and Nimreen, why do you think he addresses the novel to Laith? How does this second-person perspective contribute to the experience of the novel?

    2. Throughout the story, Jonathan keeps referring to the twenty-six Arabic synonyms for love that he learned about from Laith and Nimreen that night on the beach. Why are these so important to him? What do you think the novel is trying to communicate about the connection between language and culture?

    3. The title of the novel comes from a poem by Mahmoud Darwish called “A Soldier Dreams of White Lilies.” Why do you think the author chose this title? What is the significance of the poem to the story the author is trying to tell?

    4. What did you think of the author’s decision to make Jonathan’s sexuality fluid? How did that aspect of his character affect the story?

    5. Does it make a difference to the story that Jonathan knows Arabic? How does the author’s inclusion of Arabic and Hebrew phrases affect your reading experience?

    6. Consider the conflict that transpires when, on page 97, the three friends hitchhike a ride back to Haifa with a pair of Jewish siblings before Shabbat. Can you identify a turning point when the car ride goes awry? Do you feel the blame lies entirely with the driver and his sister?

    7. On page 128, Nimreen takes Jonathan to meet her grandmother Selsabeel Ziad, and there he learns about her past, beginning with her marriage in 1956. How does reading her story influence your perspective on the conflict? How does her account compare with Saba Yehuda’s perspective?

    8. Why does Jonathan embark on a pilgrimage to Salonica, Greece, in chapter twelve? What is he hoping to discover there, and what does he end up with?

    9. What did you make of Jonathan’s insubordination in chapter eighteen, following the riot at the climax of the story? He knew there was no way he’d go unpunished, so what do you think was going through his head?

    10. Near the end of the novel, on page 261, the ghost of Jacko, Saba Yehuda’s late brother, appears to Jonathan as he is languishing in his cell. What exactly is going on in that scene, and why do you think the author chose to end the book with it?

    Enhance Your Book Club

    1. Read “Why I Won’t Serve Israel,” the author’s New York Times op-ed piece about why he refused to join the Israeli Defense Forces.

    2. Watch 5 Broken Cameras (2011) or The Lemon Tree (2008), critically acclaimed movies that humanize and explore different aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

    3. Read about the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and explore some of his poems at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/mahmoud-darwish. Read about Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and explore some of his poems at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/yehuda-amichai. Compare the two poets and their works.

    4. Learn about grassroots organizations like Breaking the Silence and Adalah that are working to promote human rights in Israel-Palestine. Visit http://www.breakingthesilence.org.il and https://www.adalah.org/en for more information.

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