All the Rivers is set in New York in 2002. It depicts the intense taboo relationship of a young Middle Eastern couple: Liat, a Jewish Israeli woman, and Hilmi, a Muslim Palestinian man. In the following passage, Liat, at her couch in Greenwich Village, is watching a home video that’s sent to Hilmi from his brother in Ramallah. Like many Israeli citizens, Liat had never before viewed Israel from the Palestinian side of the ’67 Green Line. For the very first time in her life, she experiences her homeland from the neighbor’s opposite perspective: She sees it as it’s seen from the West Bank toward Tel Aviv City.
“I fast-forward the next scenes until I get to the balcony. From the ninth-floor west-facing balcony, Marwan photographs the sky spread out in soft pinks and blues. The camera moves to the right and down the valley, caressing the landscape of soft hills. The sunset paints the hilly ranges in warm honeyed light, elongating the shadows on the slopes. About ten or twelve miles deep, grazing pastures come into the picture. Olive groves, stone terraces, green and brown plots of land, with pale rows of houses in between, and sparkling lights from the little villages embedded in the valley’s inclines. I easily recognize the Arab villages by their mosques and the pale green light at the tops of the minarets, and the Jewish settlements by the gleaming, modern whiteness of the rows of single-family houses.
The picture loses focus, melting into a glowing mist. After a moment, the whole screen fills with the redness of the sky and the ball of sun melting in the west, and I am amazed all over again, just as amazed as I was yesterday, scarcely able to believe it: far, far away on the horizon, gray and pale like a hazy vision, a dense urban clump emerges, towering up high. From the Ramallah balcony, Marwan’s camera clearly picks up the entire coastal plain and the Gush Dan region, the skyscrapers of Tel Aviv, right up to the sparkling blue strip of sea. And it’s all so close, so amazingly close, perhaps forty miles away: close enough to touch.
I rewind the movie and freeze the image. Astounded again, I move my gaze from north to south, south to north, travel in my mind’s eye along the Coastal Highway, old Highway 4, and reconstruct the signs for exits to Rehovot and Rishon LeZion, Ramle and Lod, Ben Gurion Airport, Holon, Petach Tikva, Rosh Ha’Ayin. I go back and circle the whole crowded mass of concrete in grays and blues, the complete skyline of Tel Aviv and its suburbs fading away in a haze, and I find that, like the picture on the screen, my hand gripping the remote control is also frozen.
Israel as seen by Marwan from the ninth floor in Ramallah looks like an enormous island. A towering mountain of concrete sprouting up from the sea, with buildings and skyscrapers and towers all crushed into one lump. An optical illusion, a huge megalopolis from a science fiction movie, Tel Aviv on the horizon.
I can clearly spot the Azrieli Towers, proud and sturdy, and the edge of Shalom Tower. I even make out the chimney of Reading Power Station, and the buildings in the army compound, the flagpole above the Ministry of Defense, the shopping center in east Ramat Gan. Beyond the huge city swathed in the setting sun’s glow, all the while I can see the golden blue strip of sea.
With the same goosebumps I had yesterday, I am struck by thoughts of my parents, my sister, my niece and nephew, and all my other relatives and friends out there. Where were they while Marwan filmed this sunset from Ramallah? What were they doing? It takes me back to when I was six or seven and I peeped into our kitchen one day from the window in my neighbors’ apartment. I stood there secretly watching my mother’s busy figure washing dishes, and the back of my father’s neck as he leaned over a newspaper eating watermelon, and I was transfixed by the newness of this different observation point. Now too, with that same contradictory feeling of strangeness and intimacy, of guilt and betrayal, a slightly indecent secretiveness, I cannot look away.
How strange the reversal is—seeing us from outside, looking in from the neighbors’ window, seeing ourselves from the hidden side of the mirror. To observe from here in New York what is visible to them in Ramallah. To stand in their place on the balcony, like on Mount Nebo, and to see Israel every single day, to see the Tel Aviv suburbs and our lives that proceed on the other side, self-confident, unaware, as if we had no reflection. How peculiar and how frightening to discover how much they can see.
The sun dives farther down, bleeding flames into the sea. Marwan’s camera follows another flock of migrating birds on the edge of the sky. But my eyes are fixed firmly on the bottom of the screen, scanning the outline of the increasingly gray rooftops in Tel Aviv. Because although Marwan’s thoughts are with the expanse of sea and sky, only incidentally picking up the urban landscape that occasionally appears as he marvels at the birds, I cannot help but see us there. I cannot help but see Israel as it appears to its enemies.
I cannot avoid seeing my home in the crosshairs of a missile, from an artillery launchpad, through the telescopic lenses of God knows what. I cannot avoid realizing how exposed and vulnerable everything is there, how short and intimate the distance. I am struck by the precious, bustling Israeli life we conduct on the other side, by the spectacle of prosperity, with our fleets of towers dominating the sky. The sight sends a chill down my spine again, as it did yesterday. How enviable, how infuriating, how hateful we look to them from that vantage point.”
Dorit Rabinyan was born in Kefar-Saba, Israel, to Persian parents and wrote her first novel, Persian Brides, at twenty-one. An award-winning international bestseller translated into ten languages, Persian Brides established her as the voice of a new generation in Israel. Rabinyan won the Israeli Film Academy Award for best television drama of 1997 for Shuli’s Fiancé, and the Eshkol Prize for her second novel, Strand of a Thousand Pearls. She lives in Tel Aviv.