It’s hard to imagine anyone else’s reality. We pretend we do in order not to feel so helpless. But usually, we’re just guessing or faking it. Thus, it is incredibly rare and spectacular to find an author who possesses the literary talent to transport us so completely and persuasively to an utterly foreign realm. First time novelist, 24-year-old Shani Boianjiu, has performed such a feat in “The People of Forever Are Not Afraid” (Hogarth/Crown, $24), her disturbing and provocative new book about the traumatic experiences of three young Israeli girls serving in the Israeli Defense Forces.
It feels as if the book is autobiographically based on the author’s own two year army service. The two-page publicity packet that accompanied Boianjiu’s book provides some basic biographical information about her. She was born in 1987 in a small town near the Israeli-Lebanon border. She has had some of her short fiction published already in small literary journals and an excerpt from this book was just printed in the New Yorker. But her publicist says little else about her. A larger clue lay hidden on the second page of the publicity packet, which is completely filled with a huge color portrait of the young author. One notices immediately a strikingly gorgeous brunette with thick black hair and a sultry mouth, and beautiful huge eyes that slice right through you. At first glance, it almost looks like a Hollywood headshot. But, upon closer examination, one notices a darker reality. There is a steeliness in Boianjiu’s gaze that is unsettling and a tightness around her lips that belies her young years. Some spark has already been extinguished from her face, but you don’t yet understand its source.
The novel follows three very close friends who grew up in the same small boring tiny Israeli village. The three girls relied upon each other for everything young intense friendships demand. When they leave for their army service, their lives take different directions. Yael is assigned to train marksmen. Avishag stands guard at a barbed-wired fence, watching refugees on the other side. Lea is posted at a checkpoint where she can’t seem to stop herself from imagining the inner lives of the men and women who walk past her with their eyes lowered. There is always the nervous tension of imminent danger present alongside the aching boredom of hours spent doing nothing but watching and waiting for something dreadful to happen.
The voice of Yael narrates the first chapter, and it seems somehow to be the one that most closely echoes Boianjiu. Yael is still stuck in high school and irritated with almost everyone and everything that goes on around her. She spaces out in school most of the time dreaming about her friend Avishag’s brother Dan, whom she loves, and thinking about the lunch her mother has packed for her, which is always the same: a tomato and mustard and mayo and salt sandwich. It is the only one she will eat. Bored by the teacher, she writes in her journal “When are we going to stop thinking about things that don’t matter and start thinking about things that do matter? Dan has recently returned from his army service and spends his days shut up inside his home drawing picture after picture of military boots. And then one day, he kills himself playing a game of Russian roulette with some old buddies near the cell phone tower in the village. Heartsick, Yael leaves to perform her own army service.
In the second chapter, we hear Avishag speak to us from boot camp, where she is training to become a soldier. One of her first drills is learning what it feels like to suffocate and trying not to panic. Each soldier is instructed in how to securely fasten their gas mask and then asked to enter a tent that is filled with tear gas. They are each asked the same four questions when they enter the tent, first with their mask on and then again after being forced to remove it. The questions are “Do you love the Army? Do you love the country? Who do you love more, your mother or your father?” And finally, “Are you afraid to die?” The goal is to stay in the tent as long as you can without your mask on and still be able to speak, thus showing your ability to focus under duress. Most of the women struggle, but when Avishag removes her gas mask and feels the tear-gas attacking her lungs she feels a bizarre sense of liberation, thinking “This is my chance. As long as I am choking I am allowed, Yael and Lea are not here to drown my words with their chatter. No one in my family is around to ignore me. My talking serves a purpose. My talking, my tears, are a matter of national security. A part of our training. I will be prepared for an attack by unconventional weapons. I can save the whole country, that’s how prepared I’ll be.” But her tear-gassed induced euphoria is short-lived; she is struggling to cope, and we feel for her.
When Lea addresses us in the third chapter, she outlines her responsibilities, checking the permits of Palestinian construction workers who come into Israel for daily construction work. Lea becomes infatuated with one of them, a man named Fadi, whose glare is always upon her. She notices that, “He had murky rims under his eyes and hairs in his nose. He smelled of sweat and aftershave. He was like the rest of them, but he stood with urgency. He did not want to be there.” At night, Lea is consumed by thoughts of his life at home; she tries to imagine what his wife looks like, even the faces of his children. Later on, when Fadi stabs one of her fellow soldiers in a fit of fury, she feels able finally to crystallize her plans for her future, thinking “I saw I was a soldier and knew that I would be an officer and I was not afraid.” At 19, she applied to continue her service and become an officer in the army.
Shani Boianjiu lays bare for us what these young people must endure and the emotional collapse that often follows. She is able to replicate for us the almost paranoid mind-set the soldier must develop in order to survive and the scars it leaves on their psyches. Recently, in the Boston Review, Oded Na-aman wrote poignantly about his own experiences in the IDF, where he served as a soldier at a checkpoint in the West Bank. Like Shani Boianjiu’s characterization of Lea, he was forced to confront days filled with constant fear and confusion. Na-aman writes “As you stand at the checkpoint, you must constantly consider the various ways in which you may be attacked: Where are they going to come from? What will the strategy be? Is that child as innocent as he seems, or is he smuggling a weapon? Is that ambulance really rushing a woman to the hospital to give birth, or are there enemies hiding inside? Is that old man harmless, or is he deliberately diverting your attention from something that is happening behind your back?...The soldier realizes he should not act on empathy, since empathy can be manipulated. But can he suppress this natural sentiment? It takes time.” Similarly, the three women in Boianjiu’s novel fight to suppress their natural feelings, at great personal cost.
Reading this novel makes you worry for Israel, for Jews everywhere. It raises important questions about army life and the toll it exacts on Israeli youth. The young women here don’t seem to feel part of a heroic mission. Their lives seem devoid of spiritual meaning -- religious or secular. They seem simply cut-off from themselves and others. As a Jew who feels deep concern for the fate of our people, I feel troubled by the chorus of voices clamoring in my head. On one hand, I listen with sympathy and respect to the voices of Amos Oz and David Grossman and even Avrum Burg, who have been writing so eloquently about the massacre they see being inflicted on the Israeli soul by an overzealous military. On the other hand, I hear my dead father’s whispering voice telling me that Jewish safety is only upheld by the presence of a strong Israeli military state. Certainty eludes me.
Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor of book reviews to The Jewish Journal and other publications.