It gives me no pleasure to write this, but Miral by Rula Jebreal is a painfully poor book. There may be little more discouraging for a reviewer than reading a novel that treats vitally important subject matter with clay-handed incompetence. That is the case with this novel. I want to like it but I can’t; it’s just too poorly written.
Jebreal is a native of the Palestinian city of Haifa, and not surprisingly, her story takes place in that wretched corner of the world. The Occupied Territories, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, serve as the settings for the action, and the generations of children who have grown up in those places, especially since the 1967 war and during the first intifada, are the main characters. Peace and war, love and despair, hope and vengeance provide a rich well of thematic material. More than anything else, the Palestinian voice in the Arab-Israeli conflict has historically been buried, at least for English-language readers, under a barrage of sympathetic, pro-Israeli portrayals like Leon Uris’s Exodus. If this book seeks to redress one tiny aspect of that historical imbalance, then what’s not to like?
Well, plenty. The problems start early, with page after page of exposition. After some chapters have trudged by, the reader realizes that Jebreal isn’t front-loading information about character and setting in order to set up the story; this is just how she writes. Long passages are nothing more than summary: “In response to her mother’s weakness and the oppression she had submitted to, Nadia had developed an uncommon pride, becoming a beautiful, arrogant young woman who was too injured to share her sadness with anyone else.” Where another, more skilled writer would construct scenes that demonstrate these attributes, Jebreal is content simply to summarize them.
Nowhere has the oft-repeated mantra of “show, don’t tell” been more ignored, with dispiriting results. Examples are countless, as when later we are told, rather than shown, that “Nadia was endearing herself to all and fitting seamlessly into the city’s social fabric.”
Then there are the odd, Arabs for Dummies insertions into the flow of the story. “According to Arab tradition, it was not good for a woman’s reputation if she and her daughters lived alone, for the common belief held that a husband guaranteed social protection.” This statement serves as an introduction to yet another chapter-long passage of exposition.
Clichés and tired expressions are much in evidence. When two characters meet, “it was as if they were the only two people left in the world.” Later, a character “felt as though the weight of the world had been lifted from her shoulders,” while a dancer’s movements “seemed to belong to another world.” The fact that “world” is repeated in all these examples is just a bonus.
Perhaps the translator is at fault for some of this, as the book was originally published in Italian, but I doubt it. Original expression in one language tends to be translated into original expression in another, while stale, familiar turns of phrase tend to be translated with equal fidelity.
Random point of view shifts are a sign of a writer struggling to control his/her material, and Jebreal is guilty of them here. Chapters may follow a single character for page after page, yet jump into another character’s mind for a paragraph or a sentence—only to leave that character’s consciousness again, never to return.
Consistency is key; if the narrator were jumping with regularity among characters, then the reader would accept this pattern, but there is no pattern here. After pages focusing on the character Nadia, we suddenly jump into the head of a man named Hilmi for exactly two sentences. “He wouldn’t even stay in Beirut, he thought, but rather start over in some distant place, perhaps in Europe.” This is the first, and last, time we experience Hilmi’s point of view.
A final cringe-inducer is the dialogue, which is naturalistic enough at times, but elsewhere devolves into ludicrous exposition. At one point a girl flees a demonstration which has been broken up by the Israeli army. She turns to her comrades and says, “It’s getting harder and harder to avoid getting hit by a bullet, especially when you’re in a cloud of tear gas. Those madmen are becoming more violent to stop us from protesting!” Well, yes; I suspect the other demonstrators were aware of this already. She goes on: “But they don’t understand that our people’s anger is fueled by injustice, by marginalization. It’s as though they’re deaf and blind; they don’t want to hear and they don’t want to see.”
It is unlikely in the extreme that a.) anyone fleeing from the army would stop long enough to make such a speech; and b.) that any of the protesters would need to be told any of this.
There is a story of sorts here, but it’s frankly so overwhelmed by the mountain of bad writing as to be irrelevant. The Palestinian struggle for freedom is a genuine and legitimate, and it deserves to find representation in art and literature, but this particular novel does the intifada no favors.