Lea, Avishag and Yael are school friends in a small town in Northern Israel. During dull lessons they play game and daydream about boys they fancy. When they reached 18, they are conscripted into the army.
Stuck on mundane checkpoint duty with fellow soldiers she hates, Lea relieves her boredom by creating an imaginary family life for a dishevelled Palestinian man that passes the checkpoint everyday; Yael is a weapon instructor based in Hebron who teaching boys barely younger than her to shoot better but also takes into sleeping with young boys she is training, in between getting back together and breaking up with her boyfriend from home; and Avishag’s days are spent guarding the Egyptian border, catching smugglers and preventing Sudanese refugees from crossing the border.
Stories about a young lady in a predominantly man’s world, intrigues me. Here we have not one, but three atypical female characters who are part of the Israeli army. Reading this book brought back memories of my experience visiting Israel 2 months ago. My family and I were in the Palestinian bus. Our bus stopped at the checkpoint to Jerusalem. A young Israeli women soldier clambered up to the bus, asked us to produce ID cards and passport cards. No smile, her body smelled of sweat under the thick bullet proof vest and mid-day sun, she asked what we are doing in Jerusalem. She flipped a few pages, look at our face to tie in with pictures in the passports; her big machine gun was just inches away from my body. She returned our passports, muttered a thank-you and went down from the back exit of the bus. I must admit the whole experience was a bit unnerving.
So, imagine how unnerving it is for both the Palestinians and the soldiers go through the routine of the checkpoints everyday. The checker is fearsome of the possible bomb that may explode in their face, the Palestinians anxious of being turned away from the checkpoint or being humiliated.
Some checkpoints were places in the middle of a Palestinian village or on a main road, like Route 433, that linked one Palestinian town to another; those soldiers checked them while they were inside their land….. Others checked people for medical permits, people who could only get the treatment they needed in our hospitals. … both these types of checkpoints showed that we would not let our lives be cheap, but my checkpoint only showed that we wanted our homes to be cheap, and that the Palestinians’ anger could be bought off, that very same ager that was so deep it sometimes killed us. – page 57
The first half of the book was a page turner. I read with fascination about the girls being put in a toxic gas chamber without a gas mask and were asked questions about their patriotism of their country and to see how long they could last before they rush out of the chamber. It was the same four questions:
- Do you love the army?
- Do you love your country?
- Who do you love more, your mother or father?
- Are you afraid to die?
The People of Forever are not afraid. We have no one to lean on but our Father in the sky. – page 219
I read with interest Lea’s imagination about the Palestinian man who has been refused entry through the checkpoint. Lea imagined the wife is angry that there is no money for the day’s work, the man felt humiliated at the checkpoint and sobbed at home. I read with amusement when a group of young Palestinian boys played cat and mouse game with Yael, who remove bits of an Israeli army base in the West Bank – kit, signs, the periphery fencing – while the base is guarded round the clock at Hebron. Yael was amused. And also a group of Palestinian protesters inviting Israeli checkpoint soldiers to use their most deadliest “means of suppressing demonstrations” so that they could be make tomorrow’s headline. So Lea and fellow colleague starts with Grenade 30 to create a loud noise to disperse the protesters. When the protesters came back the next day, Lea used tear gas, then rubber (which could shoot like real bullets if not careful) and live fire.
Again, I was at Hebron last February 2013. I saw how the Palestinian boys were. They provoked, they laughed at the soldiers at the checkpoints, a cheeky lot they are. The soldiers and the civilians developed a very strange relationship as they see each other every day at the same spot. The boys will provoke the soldiers to react. A jeer, a joke. The bus driver will convey a sarcastic “Your kindness is very much appreciated. May God bless your family!” to the checkpoint guard who lifted the barrier for the bus to get across with a smirk. There is a strange relationship between the two people in the occupied territory. A relationship that was forged, first by hatred, then familiarity, then as a verbal sparring partners.
The book captured what went on at the Israel checkpoints and border control very well. Then the book went a little weird after that. The second half of the book was disjointed.
The timeline and progression of the story was a bit chaotic at the second half. It talks about life after the army for Lea when she worked in Tel Aviv. Lea was a little not right in her head trying to recover from her experience in the army. Yael remembered her mother’s experience of being an air traffic controller for the army and the ending sort of revert back to Yael’s mothers bade farewell as she gets ready to see her daughter off to the army. The story then jumped off to Avishag’s sad childhood. The girls got involved in some weird conversations and weird antics that I couldn’t quite get my head around. (such as sinking teeth into each other’s arms etc). It just got weirder and weirder. There seems to be a lack of structure and sometimes I confused whose story was the passage meant to be? Lea’s, Yael’s or Avishag’s?
Boianjiu has a very strange writing style. I read that Boianjiu wrote the novel in English but translated the Hebrew phraseology literally. It sounded unnatural to me. A chapter was called “Once we could pretend we were something very else.” Or something cryptic like this:
If Lea was having a hard time talking or leaving her parent’s garden when we were 21, it was not because of the past; I know that. I admit it; the problem was the future of the past. It existed outside our heads, too large.
Do you get it?
There are half-finished sentences, narrative drags. Things that could have been said in one sentence, it was dragged on for more.
The selling point of the story is a group of young girls transition into womanhood in a grim setting of military service. Promiscuity, sex, abortion, lessons in firearms and weapons, tension. It is a book that may divides opinion. Amusing in parts, uncomfortable and harrowing in other parts, it feels like a compilation of short stories. I don’t really care about the characters. They seems emotionless to me. I don’t think this will make it to the shortlist but it is nice to read about women soldiers in Israeli army.
Hardback. Publisher: Hogarth 2013; Printed Length: 320 pages; Setting: Israel. Source: Reading Central Library copy. Finished reading on: 24th March 2013, Saturday.
About the writer:
Shani Boianjiu (born 1987) is an Israeli author and former soldier in the Israel Defence Force (IDF). Her first novel, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid was released in 2012 and is based on her experiences as a soldier in the IDF. Boianjiu was born in Jerusalem and grew up in Kfar Vradim, a village in the Western Galilee. After her military service, which she spent training combat soldiers in the use of weapons, she attended Harvard.
This first novel was picked up for translation into 22 languages when it was a just-commissioned promise based on a string of short stories. Some of those stories ran in the New Yorker and Vice magazine, and made 25-year-old Shani Boianjiu the youngest recipient of the US National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35 award. The novel has also been longlisted for the Women’s fiction prize 2013.