Alex Galbinski chats to author Claire Hajaj about her novel, inspired by the marriage of her British-Jewish mother and Palestinian-Muslim father
Author Claire Hajaj has spent her life feeling watched. It seems everyone wants to know what she thinks about world events, most of all her family.
Hajaj’s semi-autobiographical novel, Ishmael’s Oranges, which is published in paperback today, tells the story of a young man and woman who meet at university, marry and have children.
So far, so normal. But the couple, like Hajaj’s own parents, are from two ‘tribes’ on opposing sides: the woman, Jude, is a British Jew, while the man, Salim Al-Ishmaeli, is Palestinian.
Salim’s father’s home in Jaffa is a cherished one, complete with orange trees flourishing in the courtyard that the seven-year-old Salim can’t wait to harvest.
From its first few pages, the book deals with the fighting between the Irgun and Arabs before the creation of the State of Israel and the consequences that ultimately cause Salim’s family to lose their home.
The teenage Salim, or Sal, follows his elder brother to London to try to make a new life for himself, having watched their father try to reclaim their family home.
Meanwhile, in the north of England, Judith, or Jude, who has been brought up in a traditional Jewish home, is struggling to understand where she fits in to the world.
One of her uncles is in Israel, so she learns a love for the country she has never visited, while she carries within her the tragic story of her maternal grandmother, Rebecca, who fled the murderous pogroms in the Pale of Settlement in Kishinev, Russia.
Meeting first at a party, Jude and Sal see in one another a kindred spirit, someone with whom they can discover who they are and who they want to be. Hajaj’s prose is beautiful and evocative.
She skilfully brings to life the sounds and smells of the Middle East, and transports the reader on a journey to find the meaning of identity and how it defines a person.
There are strong echoes of Hajaj’s own background, for she is the daughter of a British Jewish mother, Deanne Shapero, and a Palestinian father from Jaffa, Mahmoud Hajaj, whose love for each other eventually floundered – they divorced after 25 years of trying to “rewrite tribal hatred”.
Her parents met in the idealistic days of 1967 at Manchester University and forged a life together in London, before moving to Kuwait for Mahmoud’s work. They returned when Hajaj was 10.
She remembers having to hide her identity, something that has continued as an adult. “I hide my heritage all the time,” she exclaims. “During my career, I have worked in many parts of the world where it has not been safe to be a Jew and I’ve also lived in parts of the world where it’s a disadvantage to be a Palestinian and being Jewish is great.”
Hajaj, 41, who has worked for the UN for many years in conflict resolution and humanitarian aid, has a unique perspective on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
People often ask her if there will ever be peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. “I do sometimes wonder if we’re looking in the right place for answers… I’m as clueless as everyone else,” she says wearily. “We have a very narrow lens on history. Will there one day be coexistence? There already is, in many shapes and forms. Wars eventually end, but how they end and how quickly and how many people have to be sacrificed on the altar of the Middle East conflict, those are the questions we have to answer.”
Peace will come from the bottom up, she believes. “Inevitably it has to come from people, it can’t come from the top.”
Hajaj, who studied Classics and English at Oxford University, knew – and was constantly being told – she had to write a book modelled on her own experiences. But it was when she became pregnant with her daughter, now five, and attended a family wedding in Sunderland, where she is from, that it became more concrete.
“One of my great aunts was there – the last of the first generation, of which there were 13 originally – and she began to tell me stories – some of which are in the book – of her childhood, of her experience growing up with a mother who had also left the past behind in Minsk. Listening to this extraordinary woman, I felt my own child inside me – these stories cannot go, this generation will pass, and now if ever is the time to write this all down, as I want my daughter to know where she comes from.”
Hajaj sees herself as a “Semitic child”. She has attended bar and batmitzvahs, fasted on Yom Kippur and celebrated Ramadan. “I feel very much like a child of the world,” she says. “Do I feel Jewish? Yes, I do. Do I feel culturally Arab? Yes, absolutely, I do. Do I share the most passionate beliefs that both sides hold? No, I do not. And will I raise my daughter in a particular religion? No, I will not.”
The oldest of three children – she has a younger sister and brother – Hajaj describes herself as the “controversialist”. “I’m the one who always argues,” she laughs. “Where would we be without the alternative point of view? “[During] Gaza, it was really quite extraordinary not to hear a single dissenting voice in the room on either side.
From the Jewish side, it was 100 percent: ‘It’s terrible what is happening in Gaza, but what can you do – [it’s] Hamas’, and my father’s family were 100 percent: ‘It’s terrible what’s happening in Gaza – Netanyahu and the Zionists are genocidal murderers’. “And I thought, what it is like to be the person in the room who always says the ‘Yes, but have you imagined what it’s like… have you considered…?’ to show people that there’s another perspective. But these people have access to the same information, they just use it in a completely different way because of how they were brought up. And that is what I can’t do.”
In one article detailing her childhood, Hajaj wrote: “My father blamed me for seeing the grey zones in a war of blacks and whites”.
With this book, she hopes that people will see the grey: the other side of the conflict. “My sole purpose for writing the book was that I wanted a Jew reading it to have an emotional experience through the eyes of a Palestinian child and I wanted a Palestinian reading it to feel what a teenage Jewess felt as she left her home in Kishinev and walked out into a brave unknown world. And that’s the beginning of understanding their stories.”
• Ishmael’s Oranges by Claire Hajaj is published by Oneworld and is out now in paperback, priced at £8.99