The Most Unpleasant Woman in the World? Married to the Most Unpleasant Man?

This is what I get reading Lipika Pelham’s “The Unlikely Settler”, her new book describing her life in Jerusalem.  The only sadder than her life there is her determination to write about it, which, as she says, was a form of therapy.

The background.  Pelham was born in India of a mixed family – one parent a Hindu, one a Muslim.  She was born in Bengal near the Bangladesh border.  But she went to London to live and study and become a journalist, and there she met Leo, a British Jew.  So far, so good.  They were both attractive intellectuals, interested in many of the same things, attracted to each other.  Race and religion and ethnicity didn’t matter.  They fell in love; they married.

Now Leo was not a typical British Jew.  He was the grandson of a man who fought in the 1948 Israeli war of independence, and he was convinced that the Israeli Jews had done the Palestinians a great wrong.  And his goal was to right the wrongs, so he studied and became fluent in Arabic and Islamic studies, and went to work for an international NGO, spending most of his time in the West Bank and Gaza, but also traveling throughout the Middle East, hiding from everyone the fact that he was Jewish.  This is what took up most of his time.  What else did he do?  He ignored his family and argued with his wife.

She, on the other hand, was more interested in learning about her husband’s Jewish heritage – somehow her son had a Bar Mitzvah (seeming to skip the need to convert to Judaism first – the mohel at the bris of her second son caught on though – he circumcised the child, but refused to perform any religious rituals.  Her son attended an international school where his best friends were Palestinians; he was clearly confused as to his identity – which I think he too may have kept hidden at the school.  She had given up her BBC job to move to Israel, where she became a housewife and mother of two.  Eventually, she became a freelancer and then a film maker, choosing as her subject Israeli Arabs and Palestinians and their life in Israel and the territories.  She also spent time worrying about her bad mothering, trying to understand her Jewish and Arab friends, and becoming disgusted with everything that she saw and heard.  Oh, yes, and she argued with her husband a lot, and complained to him even more.

They broke up several times, but rather than have enough sense to stay apart, they kept coming back together.  They fought, they yelled, he left the house – sometimes to a hotel, sometimes for months.  It was really awful.

And throughout this, there were health issues, and visa issues and problems with (and of) their friends, and moving to a new house each year, and on and on and on. And she had even greater problems in a country where ethnicity matters – and she was a minority of one.

The Israel she presents is carefully crafted to look like a horribly bureaucratic and ethnically divided place with no hope of redemption, but…….of course, this is where she wants to be; she can’t think of anywhere else she’d rather live.  And even at the end of the book, when her third child (she had one miscarriage, described in detail in the book, where the villain of the piece were the Israeli guards at Ben Gurion Airport) is still a baby, and she seems to have lost all ability to communicate with her teenage son, but where she and her husband are back together again (although now Leo is running around covering the Arab Spring, never home – am I the only one who sees a pattern here? This book was published this year, so probably completed in 2013 – I’d bet you they have broken up three times since the book was finally finished.).

There are a lot of portraits of Israel.  Some are beautiful.  Some are ugly.  This is an ugly one.  But an ugly one from a unique perspective.  And a perspective of someone who would find any place ugly, and make herself unhappy wherever she went.

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