Review by Brian Tanguay
Other than Kashmir or the Korean peninsula, no territory on earth is as bitterly contested as that claimed by the Jews of Israel and the Arab peoples of Palestine. The history is long and bloody, often reduced in the American mass media to a story of righteous Jews on one side and villainous Arabs on the other; defenders and terrorists pitted against one another in enmity and conflict. Measured by a yardstick of raw military, economic, and political power, the dynamics favor the State of Israel; it can seize land, sources of water, and build walls. But measured by hatred, distrust, and an appetite for revenge, the antagonists are about even. City of a Thousand Gates, the ambitious first novel by Rebecca Sacks, unfolds against this backdrop.
Sacks tells her story through the perspective of more than two dozen characters, ranging from an opportunistic German journalist, to a Jewish American woman who lives with her husband in Jerusalem, to a female Palestinian university professor. The characters overlap, cross paths, experience the same events, but through different eyes, hearts and minds. At the center of the novel’s first half is the grisly murder of Yael Salomon, a fourteen-year-old Jewish girl, resident of a settlement, and the retaliatory beating and subsequent death of Salem Abu-Khdeir, a Palestinian boy of the same age. We experience the anguish of these senseless deaths from both sides, along with the reflexive desire to dehumanize the perpetrators. Yael’s father suffers no less than Salem’s mother; both have had something irreplaceable taken away by violence, and neither can ever reconcile their loss.
How do people travel, work, shop, fall in love, raise children and dream of a different tomorrow in an atmosphere as claustrophobic as the West Bank? What physical and psychological toll is extracted? Sacks, who earned a degree at Tel Aviv University and spent time in Bethlehem, shows readers what life feels like to a young Jewish soldier standing guard at a checkpoint, then deftly shifts the perspective to that of a Palestinian worker waiting in a slow-moving queue of bodies for his papers to be checked so he can get to work. Exhausted and bored, the soldier scans a sea of faces, wondering which of these people might be carrying a knife or a bomb. Old, young, man, woman — anyone can pose a deadly threat. Is today the day he has to shoot someone? In the queue the worker wonders if he will pass through the checkpoint without incident or be detained for some arbitrary reason. He has a boss to answer to and no control over his time. Already he has spent hours on a bus and waiting at this checkpoint. Is today the day he gets shot by a soldier? It happens, he knows it does.
Sacks brings this constant tension to life on the page without making any political or moral judgments. The Wall and the checkpoints and the surveillance cameras and the metal detectors are a reality. Jewish settlements built on confiscated land are likewise a reality. “They won’t stop coming,” observes one character, “they’ll never stop coming, chewing up the land, building their new cities. The hills are choked with their construction.” We feel how constricted it all is, how complicated and tangled. Emily, the Jewish American who lives with her husband in Jerusalem and considers herself liberal and open-minded, questions her own feelings of moral superiority. “She is tired of how complicated things feel here.” And so is Miriam, the mother of an Israeli teenager doing his mandatory military service at a base not far from their settlement. “Even when her son is close,” Miriam thinks, “he is in another world.” She could walk to the base if the highway was safe, but it’s not; the highway winds past Palestinian villages and camps, and in her mind every shadow is a danger.
Skillfully inhabiting the ensemble cast she has imagined, Sacks takes the reader inside their lives. A less-talented writer might not have made the effect of multiple perspectives work as well as it does. Whether Arab or Jew, the common ground they share is the fear of losing what they love. Loss comes in many guises in City of a Thousand Gates; the loss of a child, the loss of land and identity, the loss of freedom and spontaneity. Fear is a powerful impulse, equally capable of arising from love or hatred.