The Haj

The Haj

By Leon Uris

Originally published in 1984 by Doubleday

We read The Haj for one reason and one reason only.  After the terrorist attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001, we attended a dinner with our Great Uncle.  Our Great Uncle had been stationed in Northern Africa during World War II.

As the conversation inevitably turned to what motivates terrorist attacks, our Great Uncle said that if you want to understand this, you need to read “The Haj.”

Now, 10 years on from that conversation and with our dear Great Uncle departed to be with the Lord Jesus, we have taken heed of his advice to read The Haj.

The novel tracks the events that occurred in Palestine from 1920’s through the 1950’s, a time when the displaced Jewish population from Europe and Russia was relocating to its traditional home in Palestine after the horrifying events of World War II on that continent.  This relocation caused much friction and eventually war between the Arab populations which had traditionally lived in Palestine.  It is a war that continues to this day.

The Haj follows a traditional Arab family as they are forced to leave their homes as the United Nations passes the Partition Plan for Palestine on November 29, 1947.  The novel details the struggle as the family finds itself perilously driven by a supposed fear of the Jews eventually into the open arms of their Arab neighbors.  What they find is that their Arab neighbors have closed their borders for fear of being overwhelmed by refugees.  The family eventually finds itself in a refugee camp in the West Bank near Jericho called Aqabat Jaber where they find that they are trapped, not by the Jews but by the refusal of their Arab brethren to evacuate them.

This is perhaps the most astonishing idea presented by the novel, that the Palestinian refugee problem is a result of the Arab surrounding Arab nation’s refusal to negotiate with Israel to allow the refugees to return to their lands, which were now inside the Jewish state.

According to the novel, the Jews were willing to let the refugees return to their villages and to live at peace with them.  It infers that the Arab nations denied this opportunity to the refugees because they wanted to use the refugees as pawns to continue to stir up hatred towards Israel.  If the refugees were to return to their lands, they would lose these pawns.

A secondary reason for this is a circular reasoning that is brought to light in the book through the events at the an international commission in Zurich which attempted to bring a resolution to the plight of the refugees.  The Arab delegates were unable to reach an agreement solely on the basis of their inability to recognize the existence of Israel.  If the state of Israel does not exist, then with who do they negotiate?

Kept in idle in these camps, the Palestinians became prey to a non-stop barrage of anti-Israeli propaganda and many young men were either brainwashed into attacking Israel on suicide missions or sold by their families to be brainwashed for the same purpose.

Whatever the reason, the refugee / martyr problem persists today and is at the heart of the conflict which each day threatens to entangle the entire world in conflict.

The Haj is a raw look at Arab life through the eyes of Ishmael, son of Haj Ibrahim, the Muktar of Tabah, a village in Palestine located in the Ajalon Valley on the main road between Jaffa and Jerusalem.  Ishmael is the youngest son of Ibrahim al Soukori al Wahhabi and, according to tradition, is doomed to become the family shepherd.

While he escapes the fate of tending sheep, one of the many ironies in The Haj is that Ishmael does become the family shepherd.

Tabah’s traditional existence is disrupted with the sale of swampland near Tabah to the Jews by Effendi Fawzi Kabir, a Palestinian absentee landlord who owned great quantities of land and lived in luxury far away in Damascus. Despite initial tensions (the Arabs attack and are repelled by the Jews shortly after the Jews set up camp), the residents of Tabah learn to coexist with the kibbutz that the Jews have created out to the swampland that they have greatly overpaid for.

This tolerable coexistence, which is embodied in the mutual respect and eventual friendship that forms between Haj Ibrahim and Gideon Asch, a heroic leader of the Jewish settlers who is easily mistaken as an Arab.

Throughout the book, we come to understand that Haj Ibrahim is acutely aware of the weaknesses of his culture yet is resolute in his adherence to it.  This inner turmoil marks the Haj’s life and in the end, adherence to tradition wins his internal battle and kills him.

Many reviews of The Haj deride it for its glorification of the Jews and vilification of the Arabs.  This is understandable as the book is a deep exploration of Arab culture during what is perhaps one of its darkest periods.  Honor killings, murder, rape, torture, deception, the woman’s role as chattel in society, backstabbing, grudges, debauchery, sloth, and betrayal are all paraded in front of the reader in what is as often as not an R rated display.

Ishmael sums up what he learns in what he calls “the basic cannon 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.” P.14

Another memorable line from which this view springs is the final discourse of Dr. Mudhil, the Arab archeologist who because of his dealing in artifacts is seen as one of the only Arabs in the West Bank who has contact with the Jews, who voices this fatalistic lament about Arab culture:

“We do not have leave to love one another and we have long ago lost the ability.  It was so written twelve hundred years earlier.  Hate is our overpowering legacy and we have regenerated ourselves by hatred from decade to decade, generation to generation, century to century.  The return of the Jews has unleashed that hatred, exploding wildly, aimlessly, into a massive force of self destruction.  In ten, twenty, thirty years the world of Islam will begin to consume itself in madness.  We cannot live with ourselves…we never have.  We cannot live with or accommodate the outside world…we never have…” P.522

The book ends tragically with Haj Ibrahim, having been thwarted in every attempt to be free to return to his village, takes a bureaucratic post and gives in to fanaticism.  After killing his youngest daughter for dishonoring him, Ishmael takes his revenge on his father not by the sword but with his words.  He voices the ultimate dishonor, a secret that Ishmael has carried and now uses as a weapon against his father.  The Haj dies of shame.

Sadly, Ishmael, who one thinks will be able to escape to a better life, is drugged by his mother and older brother to be sold into the fedayeen as a suicide bomber.  Ishmael does escape, but only to run mad into the Qumran by the Dead Sea, presumably to die.

A thorough synopsis of the plot can be found here at Wikipedia.org.

The overriding theme of The Haj is Arab fatalism.  Leon Uris was Jewish and in this light it may be seen that his depiction of the Jews as heroic and the Arabs and British as the villains in the events that occurred in Palestine from the 1920’s to the 1950’s and today is simply a product of his natural bias.

Be this as it may, a more accurate description would be that the Arab fatalism and brutality (which again may be a product of Uris’ natural bias) which is presented in the novel would make even the Nazi’s appear heroic.

The Arab / Jewish conflict merely provides a canvas upon which one can superimpose the eternal struggle of love versus hate.  Sadly, in the novel, the reader is left with the sensation that hate has triumphed.

Take heart, dear reader, for love will have the day!  It is guaranteed in the blood of Jesus!  Until then, we must pray for the peace of Jerusalem.  For if there is not peace there, there cannot be peace in our hearts.

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