“Palestine revealed itself to me in layers,” reflects Becky Klein, the Jewish American protagonist and narrator in Alison Glick’s novel, The Other End of the Sea (Interlink Books, 2021), near the beginning of the novel. She discovers that a voyage to gain insight into her Jewish heritage leads her to a completely different trajectory.
From a sheltered kibbutz in the Carmel Mountains, Becky ventures into Palestinian territory after listening to a talk by a Palestinian man about being an Arab in Israel. She gradually becomes acquainted with the separate lives of Palestinians living under colonial rule and military occupation.
“It was hard to believe I was in the same country,” she notes. After experiencing a brief detention along with her friends, she is taken to the Russian compound by Israeli soldiers who at first even refuse access to the US Embassy. The Palestinian experience suddenly becomes more tangible, despite her privilege. “This isn’t a democracy,” says an Israeli soldier in response to requests to contact the US Embassy as is the detainees’ right.
From that day onwards, Klein’s life serves to confirm the Israeli soldier’s statement. She falls in love with and marries Zayn, a Palestinian man involved in the anti-colonial struggle who has spent 15 years in prison. His family was uprooted during the 1948 Nakba. Zayn’s freedom is conditional and under constant threat from Israeli officials, as compromise is asked from him on occasions that would land him in trouble with the colonial authorities. Palestinian freedom, as Klein discovers, is burdened with the spectre of exile that not only threatens to disrupt their lives, but actually does so, with consequences that require delicate attention and assertion.
The Palestinian experience defined by exile permeates Glick’s novel. As a result of Zayn’s activism, Becky finds herself constantly on the move, from Gaza to the occupied West Bank and beyond to Egypt, Syria, Libya and, ultimately, back to the US. Cultural differences start playing out in their life together, at times humorously and at other times testing their relationship, as common ground between the couple becomes increasingly difficult to find and attempts at compromise are overshadowed by issues that go beyond their marriage.
Away from Palestine, Zayn unravels while Becky attempts to keep their union intact. Without legal travel documents, Zayn’s exile becomes imprisonment on several grounds. His estrangement from Palestine plays upon his mind, while his options become increasingly limited, particularly when Becky decides to return to the US with their daughter Amira.
Despite several attempts to bring Zayn to the US, his resistance activity is classified as “terrorism” by the US authorities, thus ensuring their permanent estrangement due to Washington upholding Israel’s colonial and security narrative. Zayn’s request for reconsideration is a powerful narrative in its own right which is not acknowledged by Israel’s greatest ally.
“Had the Israelis applied the Geneva Conventions to my case as international law requires,” Zayn argues, “I would have been held as a political prisoner of war and not tried as a criminal.” He reminds us that anti-colonial resistance is legitimate under international law.
Becky’s subsequent visits to Lebanon with her daughter bring her earlier political and social observations to the fore. Despite her own experience of living among Palestinians, Glick’s protagonist keeps to a respectful narrative and does not speak for the Palestinian experience.
“I tried to imagine what life had been like under this Israeli occupation,” she explains. “Thousands had been imprisoned, tortured or killed during that time. I wondered to what lengths I would have gone as a mother to protect my children. To whom would I express gratitude for my husband walking through the door every night? Whose flag would I fly?”
Years later, as a university student it is Amira who experiences Israel’s checkpoints and military occupation. She has to learn to navigate her way through the violence which is intertwined in questions while waiting to cross the border, stopped by soldiers demanding details of her father’s identity, for example.
Glick’s novel is fast paced and replete with detail. It is particularly strong in exposing how the cycle of exile and the pains of return remain identifiable in the Palestinian story, even when told through an outsider’s lens.