Golda Meir was Israel's prime minister during the Yom Kippur war. She was an ardent Zionist, who became known as the Iron Lady long before the term was applied to Margaret Thatcher. The idea that she had a passionate love affair in the 1930s with a Palestinian banker seems far-fetched, even as a subject for fiction, but Selim Nassib takes the claim seriously in this slender, controversial novel.
Nassib is Lebanese by birth, although he lives in Paris. He began his writing career in journalism, and his two novels occupy the uneasy territory between fact and fiction. Nassib says he has "always" known about Meir's affair with Albert Pharoun, a wealthy Palestinian who lived in Beirut before abandoning wife and children to live in his birthplace, Haifa. The two cities are only three hours apart, underlining the fluid geography of the area in the 1920s, a period when both countries were still under colonial rule.
Nassib heard the story of the affair from his friend Fouad, Albert Pharoun's grandson. At first it seemed incredible, but Fouad's source was Pharoun's niece, who makes a brief appearance in the novel before being packed off to an unhappy marriage in Cairo. According to Nassib, Pharoun used to visit her and talk about Meir, who had ended the affair many years earlier but still seemed to him to be the love of his life.
That is how Nassib tells the story, in a series of short but intense chapters which present the lovers' encounters as both defiant and elemental. They take place against the background of Meir's involvement in the struggle to found the state of Israel, which the apolitical Pharoun regards for much of the novel as an unrealisable dream. Living in self-imposed exile from his family, he is "a man without society, without a past" - an observer of turbulent events.
In that sense, he calls to mind Ahmed Rami, the poet who wrote lyrics for the great Egyptian singer Om Kalthoum, and the narrator of Nassib's earlier novel, I Loved You For Your Voice. Nassib's fictional Rami has him hopelessly in love with the singer, who rose from a conservative Bedouin background (at the beginning of her career, she had to disguise herself as a boy) to become the leading artist of the Arab world.
Both novels have a tremendous sense of place, and one of the achievements of The Palestinian Lover is its vivid portrait of Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s. While the novel inevitably raises questions about the morality of turning real people into fictional characters, Nassib writes with regret about a period when Jews and Arabs lived without mutual hostility; he is unhappy about Zionism, but sees it as one of several competing factors - including Palestine's British rulers, whose policies lead to a series of disastrous conflicts.
It could be argued that Nassib's underlying theme, here and in his book about Om Kalthoum, is the conflict between tradition and modernity. In both books, the modern world is represented by extraordinary women, while the upholders of old values are men who fail to understand how fast the world is changing. Nassib's lush romanticism conceals a humanist message which challenges conventional assumptions about the Middle East conflict.
by Joan Smith