Thursday, July 28, 2011

Throwback Thursday: A Bottle in the Gaza Sea

A Bottle in the Gaza Sea by Valerie Zenatti 2008 (English translation done by Adriana Hunter)
Bloomsbury U.S.A. Children's Books

Rating: 3.5/5

IQ "Only complete idiots are really ugly. That's a rule I made up, but I do believe it. You can't be as sensitive, inquisitive and intelligent as she is and have a face like a rat. People's qualities show on their faces, in their eyes, in whether or not they tense their lips when you're talking." Gazaman pg. 75

Tal Levine is an Israeli but she's curious about the "other side". The other side being the Gaza Strip so she decides to write a letter, place it in a bottle and throw it into the Gaza Sea. She's not 100% positive that she will get a reply but it's worth a shot. The letter lands in the hands of "Gazaman" (the email address and pseudonym he uses), a sarcastic Palestinian guy. Tal spills her guts to him, Gazaman refuses to reveal much of anything about himself. He makes fun of her constantly but things slowly start to change and they become-against all odds-acquittances via email. Beliefs and attitudes will be changed, expectations will shatter and the world might appear a bit more hopeful than before.

The author is an Israeli and I personally thought it showed. Her portrayal of "Gazaman" felt incomplete. I might be being too hasty but I was annoyed that "Gazaman" was so down on his faith and all aspects of Muslim culture. He had nothing positive to say about Palestine which I thought took away from the supposedly neutral tone of the book. He mocks his culture in addition to Tal and since I have a lot of respect for the Muslim culture, this grated on me. In addition I have mixed feelings about the ending. I liked how open-ended it was (which is rare for me because I usually detest those. I'd take a sad ending over no ending almost any day), it works just right for this book. I would however, have appreciated a sequel/epilogue just to know where both of them are in their respective lives three years later. I finished the book not liking Tal but I respected her. She was just SO CHEERFUL and optimistic, it was too much. No wonder Gazaman felt the need to bring her back to reality sometimes. I found her a bit unrealistic in that she immediately told this male stranger all about her life, included a picture, etc. Also on the author's part, sometimes she would explain a lot about a character (for example Tal's brother, Eyyan) but not others (like Tal's boyfriend, Ori). Plus Tal would write down conversations she had with people and they were often extremely long dialogues.

This may sound odd but I was pleased that Ori was a good guy. I'm growing tired of the storyline where a new guy comes in and then the girl wakes up and realizes that *GASP* her boyfriend is actually a jerk. Ori was fairly one-dimensional but he wasn't perfect and yet they had a strong relationship, even though Tal was writing to Gazaman. I adored Gazaman and his biting sense of humor, mainly because I'm sarcastic all the time with my friends so I have a fondness for good sarcasm. The author did an excellent job of making it clear when Gazaman was being sarcastic and when he was serious, "[w]e should set up an Israeli-Palestinian asylum, you and me. It would be a beautiful symbol of reconciliation as Westerners say. We could call it the Majnun & Meshuga Institute, with our motto engraved over the door: Peace comes from insanity" (pg. 121), I think that's an utterly brilliant motto. Perhaps the email exchange between two strangers is an easy way to explain a complex situation but I didn't care because I was fascinated by the descriptions of life in the Gaza Strip (Palestine) versus life in Israel. Different hardly begins to describe the two places.

A Bottle in the Gaza Sea has one of the most appropriate endings I've come across, not hopelessly optimistic but open ended enough that it could be happy. I wanted a bit more clarity but the ending works. I loved every minute of observing Jerusalem with Tal, surveying the Gaza Strip with Gazaman. And like both Tal (and although he wouldn't admit it at first, Gazaman) I eagerly awaited their emails to each other. I became caught up in stories about the bombings, fearing the author would utterly break my heart (and she sort-of did. Just consider lines like the following, "I don't understand how life can hinge on so little: whether or not you feel like going to the cafe along a certain street", pg. 9). I would have liked more space/explanation/introspection in between the dialogue and further exploration of Gazaman's Muslim faith (why is he so delusional? Was he even raised Muslim?). On a more personal note I really enjoyed this book because I knew bits and pieces about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but not much. This book pried my eyes wide open and forced me to do a double-take, I love when a book makes me do that! An arresting tale that manages to walk the fine line between not being naively optimistic nor being pessimistically realistic. I wish I could give this book not only to all American high school students and government leaders but to all Israelis and Palestinians as well. Like the letters Tal and Gazaman write to each other, it would be another drop in the ocean. And to be perfectly honest, before reading this book I would have said I was more sympathetic to the Israeli cause. Now I'm torn. But I will keep reading so that I can make up my mind and be truly well-informed.

Disclosure: From the library

PS I actually prefer the French cover (left). Which cover do you prefer?

I also loved the following line said by Tal's (typical wise, artistic, intellectual father) "instead of loving this city [Jerusalem] in the way it deserves, instead of getting along, they've [Israelis and Palestinians] fought over her for more than fifty years, the way men might once have fought for a woman, with passion, with a little more hate for their rivals every day. They don't even realize their wars are now damaging the thing they claim to love, damaging it more and more violently in one way or another" (pg. 9)