Tales of the Mizrahi

Tara Menon

The Best Place on Earth. Ayelet Tsabari. New York, NY: Random House, 2016. 256 pages. $26.00.

Currently, the media blitzes us with images of refugees fleeing war-wracked countries for the uncertainty of life as foreigners in another continent. We find ourselves moved by pictures of dead or suffering Asians on Mediterranean shores, but photographs only partially reveal the humanity of these individuals. The right kind of fiction conveys an understanding beyond images, showing us that external differences in skin and culture only obscure the similarities in thoughts, desires, and concerns that we all share as humans. Lovers are passionate; mothers worry; sensitive children hanker for their anchor people during a crisis; illegal immigrants fear crackdowns; and daughters ignorant about their parentage speculate.

Ayelet Tsabari is an Israeli-Canadian writer whose debut collection of short stories The Best Place on Earth imparts an understanding of what it is like to be an Arab Jew in Israel. Many of her characters are Yemeni Jews, like herself, or other Mizrahi Jews. When Tsabari was growing up in Israel, the canon of Mizrahi literature was sparse, and she didn’t have an opportunity to read about a Yemeni character she could identify with. In this collection, she creates a cast of diverse Mizrahi people anyone can empathize with or relate to. Through first- or third-person perspectives, their thoughts are laid bare. For Tsabari, the locale is as important as the people who occupy it, and she transports her readers by masterfully evoking the five senses to fashion a world readers can inhabit regardless of their background.

In the opening tale, “Tikkun,” personal life intersects with public tragedy. Lior spots his ex-girlfriend Natalie, who disappeared from his life seven years ago in Tel Aviv after they broke up. His wrenching thoughts, wrapped in prose that could have belonged to a feminine protagonist, make it clear he is still deeply in love with her. Lior’s emotions are urgent and immediate and in spite of the melodrama, we sense the spell he seems to be under. His meeting with Natalie is intentionally set against the rich diversity of Jerusalem and the dangers inherent in living in Israel. The flashback to their past relationship is intertwined with the portrayal of Tel Aviv in the 1990s, when it was known as “the city that never stops.” The ex-lovers catch up on their lives in a cafe. Later, to distract himself, Lior takes a walk and Tsabari vividly recounts the religious details of his surroundings as he passes a mosque and enters a church. Ironically, in a city vital to three faiths, Lior is faithless. His mobile phone rings, and a glare from the priest makes him rush outside, where he learns from Natalie they narrowly escaped a pigua (terrorist attack). The development at the end of the story is a twist on faith.

“Brit Milah” features one of the collection’s best developed characters, Reuma, a Yemeni-origin widow from Sha’ariya. Her emotions, like Lior’s, leap from the pages into the reader’s mind. She has come to Toronto to help take care of her daughter Ofra’s baby, who, she’s thrilled to note, looks like a Yemeni and resembles her husband. Her relationship with her daughter is strained, to say the least. Ofra didn’t want to be recognized as a Yemeni—she threw away her mother’s food in school, straightened her hair, and lost her “guttural hets and ayins.” In her mother’s eyes, she “first became Ashkenazi then Canadian.” Though Reuma comes across as traditional, she thinks of herself as progressive—she is willing to drive on Shabbat; she raised her daughter to be highly educated; and she has shown tolerance for her half-Jewish son-in-law. The daughter and mother clash when Reuma gets upset that her grandson is not circumcised. We feel the angst of an archetypal mother whose family doesn’t live according to the script she would have liked to create for them. At the same time we sympathize with Ofra, who lives by her principles and handles her mother in a mature fashion. The emotions of Reuma and her daughter are mirrored in the snowy landscape, which appears bleak to the mother and beautiful to her assimilated child.

“The Poets in the Kitchen Window,” set during Operation Desert Storm, gives us insight into how war affects human lives, delivered in a touching and vivid manner. Before the fighting, Uri—a half-Yemeni, half-Iraqi boy—romanticizes war: in his dreams he is a blue-eyed, fair-skinned Ashkenazi soldier fighting for the liberation of Jerusalem. He wins a contest for his war poem but his classmates ridicule him. His father wrote poetry once, though he chose to become an accountant. Uri understands since he doesn’t know any Mizrahi poets. Faced with the prospect of Saddam Hussein unleashing a chemical attack, the school prepares drills and the children carry gas masks wherever they go. With Uri’s help, his father covers the windows of his bedroom with plastic sheeting and duct tape. Tsabari vividly captures the aural sensations of war:

When the first missile hit, Uri’s heart lurched in his chest like a jerked knee. His father—looking like a frightened giant ant—wrapped his arm around him and pulled him closer. Five or six more explosions echoed in the distance, sounding like fireworks on Independence Day, or a fighter jet that had broken the sound barrier. And then one more, closer this time; the seventh-floor apartment walls shuddered with the reverberation.

The reader feels the anguish of the sensitive boy, whose mother is in a psychiatric ward and whose absent sister is the only one in the family with an emotional connection to him.

Stitches of nostalgia embroider the collection. In “Borders,” Na’ama reminisces about her childhood. The story concerns Na’ama’s father’s identity, which seems as shifting as the identity of Sinai, which is part of Israel when Na’ama was born and raised but becomes part of Egypt weeks after she leaves. The main character in “Invisible” is Rosalynn, a Filipino, who takes care of her employer, whom she calls Savta. Rosalynn worries she’ll be deported when the crackdown on illegal immigrants intensifies. We empathize with her, knowing she affectionately cares for Savta and sends money home so her mother can look after her thirteen-year-old daughter. Rosalynn yearns for her daughter, whom she hasn’t seen for eight years. Savta gives her employee a ring made by her dead husband, once the king’s silversmith in Yemen. The conclusion of “Invisible” is a suspenseful scene crafted to make the reader hold her breath.

Tsabari’s skill in depicting places and the passions they evoke in people is especially evident in “A Sign of Harmony,” set in India:

From the rooftop restaurant above the Krishna, New Delhi is bathed in amber smog. Square crowded roofs are punctuated by a few tall apartment buildings, and two round domes in the distance are a hazy mirage. On neighboring roofs kids are flying kites. The sky is a thin golden sheet, the sun a cigarette-burn at its center.

The protagonist, Maya, is an Orthodox Jew of Yemeni origin. Maya means “illusion” in Hindi and it is in India that she feels “she was unveiling her true self.” She looks like an Indian and is mistaken for one in Indian clothes. Her half-Indian boyfriend, Ian, raised in England where they met, has been in the country for only a short period. They are similar in appearance, both small and dark, leading a barista to comment they look like siblings and to add, “It’s a sign of harmony.” However, the couple’s opposing viewpoints toward India seem like a challenge they will have to surmount. Ian is exhausted and accusatory after seeing the poverty at Chandni Chowk, the famous bazaar in Delhi. We know why he recoils, as we are affected by what he witnesses. In contrast, Maya’s first time experience at Chandni Chowk left her mesmerized, enriched with her purchases and samplings of food. The tale, unfolding through an abundance of authentic and sharply-observed details, turns disappointing with an easy resolution.

Together, the stories in The Best Place on Earth bring the Mizrahi people alive through the details of their cultural and physical characteristics: the spices that flavor their cooking, the women’s headscarves, the hamsas they own to protect them from the evil eye, their Arabic appearance, and their distinct accents. We see, hear, smell, taste, and feel what the characters do and, therefore, we understand them as if we have inhabited their minds and the places that shaped them. All of these particulars give the characters a distinct identity, but the success of the book ultimately lies in the depiction of their thoughts, emotions, and relationships as universal, allowing readers—no matter their background—to relate to both the seismic upheavals of a relationship and the nuances found within numerous epiphanic moments.

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