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Another View: Timeless Conflict in the Middle East

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In the breath-holding cease-fire between Israel and Hamas over the Thanksgiving holiday, I was catapulted back to the early 1980s when Leon Uris was writing his novel The Haj. The memory is bittersweet, especially of the enormous challenge the author took on: that of a zealous Zionist writing a novel from the Arab point of view.

At the time we both lived in Aspen, Colo., only slightly removed from the world. Uris was a prolific researcher; he excavated deep, thoughtful and insightful backgrounds in his stories, many of them political.

I had been Uris' researcher since the early 1970s, when he wrote Trinity. The whole process of bringing Trinity to life was a joyous one. Leon and his third wife, Jill, were in the early years of their marriage; they'd traveled in Ireland, and much of this Irish novel was a love story.

Uris was also a nut for history. So much so, that while he was writing Trinity, we put a sign above his Selectric typewriter that said, "This is a novel," because he could so easily get lost in the record of time and retell it rather than stitch his fictional tale into the historical fabric.

In contrast, research for The Haj was not easy. Times were troubled, and the Middle East was, to borrow a phrase from Wordsworth, too much with us. As a Zionist, Uris' delving into Islam -- and how the Arab characters behaved and interacted with the Jews -- was a complex and painful exercise for him. While much of what our research revealed supported his views, he had to take negative facts and turn them into character qualities that a reader would find sympathetic.

He had read and digested Raphael Patai's The Arab Mind, and thus formed an idea of what he might learn from the Koran about Muslim attitudes toward the Jews when he assigned me the task of a close reading of the Koran. I read it twice, marking references to the "non-believers," among which were counted Jews as well as Christians. Uris' interpretation was that the Koran is rife with hostility toward the Jews.

An Arab view, posted Nov. 20, 2012, on IsraelSeen.com states:

This hostility [November's Hamas rocket threat] is the direct result of years of anti-Israel and anti Western incitement in the Arab and Muslim world. ... In today's world of the Palestinians, anyone who talks about peace with Israel is a traitor and a collaborator. ...

The Haj opens in the decades before the formation of Israel. Uris paints the Palestinian Jews in as smart and collaborative, while portraying the Arabs/Muslims as hate-filled people who consistently got in their own way.

He rationalized the Arabs' behavior as supremely tribal, as in this statement by Ishmael, the book's narrator:

"So before I was nine I had learned the basic canon of Arab life. It was me against my brother; me and my brother against our father; my family against my cousins and the clan; the clan against the tribe; and the tribe against the world. And all of us against the infidel." (The Haj, p. 15)

For Uris the entire process was turgid and tough, like trying to motor through a swamp of mud. The cheerful attitude that had permeated our lives during the Trinity years was replaced by sourness, a pursed-lips kind of drudgery. He was tormented by the fight between Arab and Jew, a battle that played out in his head and his heart. His use of alcohol increased, along with cocaine and pot. He was irritable and angry and picked fights with those closest to him.

His longtime editor, the legendary Ken McCormick of Doubleday & Co., encouraged Uris in his book, writing that an Arab hero was "an absolutely great idea -- a Jew writing a book from an Arab point of view." Yet, Doubleday's chief, Sam Vaughan, was not as enthusiastic, according to Uris's biographer Ira Nadel (Leon Uris: Life of a Best Seller). Vaughan cited the use of too much history in place of story, the rough writing, the lack of Uris' understanding of the Arab mind, and the book's structure.

I'm certain Uris recognized these as the diversionary tactics of the hesitant part of himself who fought to turn his distaste and distrust of the Arabs into compassion and empathy for his characters. From my perspective as his researcher, he seemed to listen to the facts on any given subject, placing them either in his Jewish camp or his Arab camp, always reflecting the latter against the light of the former.

As the protagonist, Haj Ibrahim, comments to his Palestinian Jewish neighbor Gideon Asch, who is also his best friend:

"You see Gideon that is why you are fooling yourselves. You don't know how to deal with us. For years, decades, we may seem to be at peace with you, but always in the back of our minds we keep up the hope of vengeance. No dispute is ever really settled in our world. The Jews give us special reason to continue warring."

The above passage is quoted in a 2011 essay by Joseph Puder on IsraelSeen.com. Puder goes on to say that:

"The dialogue presented by Uris [in The Haj] is more than relevant in our own day. Israel provides food and electricity to Gaza, while Hamas-led Gaza uses the land vacated by Israel in 2005 to fire rockets at Israel's civilian population in southern Israel..."

Uris believed the battle between the Jews and Arabs in the Middle East would never be resolved, just as he viewed Ireland's religious friction between Catholics and Protestants to be an ongoing fact of life. I do not think Uris would be surprised by this most recent turn of events between Palestinians and Jews in the Gaza Strip. Despite his bias, The Haj provides an insight about the Middle East. Indeed, Uris considered his book, published in 1984, to be a warning of what could happen.