Book of the week : The People Of Forever Are Not Afraid - Shani Boianjiu

Ever since Greeks and Trojans first fought in Homer’s imagination, the war story has been a male genre. Although women have brilliantly brought war home in fact and film (think Joan Didion’s ‘Salvador’ or Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘The Hurt Locker’), the fiction of war has been dominated by men. Which makes Shani Boianjiu’s first novel, about three young Israeli high school girls conscripted into the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), all the more remarkable

Yael, Avishag and Lea grew up in a tiny, remote Israeli village where the school is housed in a flimsy caravan and everybody knows everybody else’s business. Their only escape came by way of imagination, and together the girls conjured up a fantasy world in which they are different ages and have different names: “We were Esther and Meek and Olga. Never us.” Back then, their world was small “but larger than life” because it only happened in their head. Back then, they “cared so much, about everything”

Life in the army robs the girls of their youth, strips them of any sense of idealism, and leaves them without even a more basic, narcissistic kind of ambition. Their listlessness leads them to question “why the world even gives us words”

Shifting among the first-person perspectives of the three women, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid takes us through the IDF training required of young Israelis - the tear-gas tent, the tedious military checkpoints, infantry weapons instruction - and its aftermath

Seen through the lens of youth, war’s horrors become clear: Palestinian kids kill themselves in launching grenades; Israeli kids commit suicide after returning from military service. As Lea says, “Waking up every morning was a tragedy, like killing your own mother, or losing your virginity to a guy who will only sleep with you once, and realizing what you have done just as you are forced to open your eyes.” Bored soldiers hook themselves up to chilled IV drips for the head rush; checkpoints closed to Palestinians become theater as Palestinian protesters and Israeli soldiers collaborate on creating a newsworthy demonstration

The stories and anecdotes abound, and most of them are first class. One in particular is Lea’s encounter with three Palestinian demonstrators at her military checkpoint on Route 433. “Is there any way you can disperse us just a little?” the older Palestinian asks. Obligingly, Lea and her army colleague (who is also her current lover) study the instructions, move the demonstrators to a safe distance and explode four shock grenades. The demonstrators leave. But the next day the three Palestinians return and demand tear gas “at least.” The soldiers oblige them. Finally, on the third try, they coax Lea into shooting at them with rubber bullets. They are desperate, it seems, to get some publicity for their heroic acts back home. The episode is funny but never condescending. The telling is laced with dark undertones and flashbacks of actual violence that characterise the best writing in this book

In another compelling sequence, two of the young women on guard duty decide to strip and lie naked on the ground just on the Israeli side of the Egyptian border. One of the Egyptian guards, who is armed with binoculars, practically swoons. Mayhem ensues in the Egyptian tower. An Israeli trick? Phones ring. The Egyptian chief of staff is brought in. But by the time the Israelis’ superior officers get to the scene, the women are dressed, and armed

At times, the novel’s reflections on love and loss, desire and despair, read like poetry. Encountering a familiar smell, a character describes it as “the opposite of memory. A thing other than other.” And for all its bleakness, this book is not short on humour: When a sushi place in Tel Aviv closes down because business is slow, it’s replaced by a sandwich kiosk called “We Don’t Judge” that’s wildly successful

When Ron, the owner of the sandwich kiosk, follows his employee and new lover Lea back to her one-and-a-half bedroom apartment what he finds in the half bedroom is a naked Arab man with hands and legs cuffed. Lea explains that he killed a boy in her unit once: “Cut his neck. Just reached in through his car and grabbed him by the collar”. In this novel — as in the real-life version of Israel — the comic and the grotesque exist side by side

The People of Forever Are Not Afraid provides a fine flavour of what Israeli military life is like for young women - no mean feat. It’s a tribute to Boianjiu’s artistry and humanity that she portrays those on both sides of the barbed wire as loved and feared. The People of Forever Are Not Afraid is a fierce and beautiful portrait of the damage done by war

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