Shani Boianjiu – The People of Forever are not Afraid
Setting: 21st century Israel
What it’s about: What happens to everyday, precocious teenage women who grow up in a war zone and join the army? Sparse, powerful writing takes the reader into a wholly original perspective through the interweaving, wholly personal, experience of three female soldiers, weaved into the major upheavals and conflicts of 21st century Israel.
Just like Mahmoud Dawlatabadi from Iran, Boianjiu’s characters struggle to maintain their basic humanity against the conformity of army life and military orders. So when Lea is manning the checkpoint, she cannot help but see people, not danger as the army wants:
…I would still only notice what I happened to notice. This was because I couldn’t realize I was a soldier. I thought I was still a person.”
And when reservists are called up:
They wore green, they had guns on their backs, but they weren’t soldiers. they had beards, long hair, jobs in factories, jobs elsewhere, mortgages, wives, children.
Reservists, they went fast in that war – not the fastest, but they went fast.”
As army life starts to grind Lea down, we see more humanity, not less. When she goes out to the desert to urinate behind a dune and a civilian follows her to hassle and harangue her, he does not “catch her with her pants down”, but the patch of wet sand stands between them:
“When I lowered my eyes and stood without words, I saw that the fruit flies swarmed over the wetness”
Boianjiu describes the transitions to adulthood and the struggle to regain basic feeling in civilian life in completely unique ways. When Lea reaches the end of her service she struggles to imagine the future:
She guess she must want a family or to get into a good school, but she guessed it from the data around her. She did not feel the want herself.”
Why you should read it: The deeply poetic way the normal preoccupations of a teenage woman is magnified by the mostly monotonous, sometimes terrifying experience of military service. The strength of these stories is how they thrive in the everyday. These are everyday women leading what is for Israelis everyday lives, but Boianjiu brings them to life with brilliantly sardonic turns of phrase, and pure attitude:
Maybe trouble isn’t something you do, it is something you are.”
And these three women are trouble, for themselves and others.
Also read this book for the way Boianjiu finds beauty in the mundane, everyday detail of military life:
On her way back to the caravan, grasshoppers were catching their reflections in the gasoline pools that had formed from all the weapon cleanings, and plunging into them.”
Nor does she shy away from the dark side of Israeli society, human trafickking, marital violence and racism are dealt with subtly but directly.
For example, the little hints of the racism against Jews from North Africa, are not overpowering, and the characters do not let them dominate their story:
There was one cook, the oldest of all the soldiers, a twenty-seven-year-old man from a kibbutz in the desert who used to make ha-ha-angry jokes at Mom all the time and say her skin was dark as an old chocolate cake or shit, and that she should not be allowed in his dining room because it was a health risk either way, and who gave her kisses on her neck and hard-boiled eggs he had left over.”
Books you should read from Israel: I feel that I have never felt the voice, the attitude, the “wait a minute” cool of everyday Israelis more than in Boianjiu’s writing. Look beyond Amos Oz and David Grossman and read this.
Two other mentions: Assaf Gavron’s satire on colonies in the Occupied Territories The Hilltop and Yishai Sarid’s redemption tale of an Israeli spy, Limassol.
Read this if you like: Colm Toibin, Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, Jospeh Heller’s Catch 22.