Arts & Culture

Return of the Jewish Nose: Yasmina Khadra’s “The Attack”

Unless you are a fan of Tex-Mex, truck with balls, scorching heat, and museums commemorating George W. Bush, there are very few reasons to spend the summer in southeast Texas. But I happen to be here visiting someone, and so … Read More

By / June 30, 2008

Unless you are a fan of Tex-Mex, truck with balls, scorching heat, and museums commemorating George W. Bush, there are very few reasons to spend the summer in southeast Texas. But I happen to be here visiting someone, and so I’ve taken the opportunity to sit in on his Texas A&M University class on contemporary world literature, where the focus is literature and terrorism. For today, we read Yasmina Khadra’s The Attack (2007). Khadra (his real name is Mohammed Moulessehoul) is a former Algerian army officer turned novelist, and this novel, despite its unsophisticated writing style, does a pretty good job of getting college students to think and talk about terrorism in an unfiltered way. The only problem is that the book is so severely biased against Israelis and Jews that one wonders how unfiltered the discussion can truly be.

The storyline goes something like this: Arab-Israeli surgeon is called to the hospital where he learns his wife has been killed in a restaurant bombing. He later finds out that his wife was in fact the suicide bomber. The rest of the book, with all of its undeveloped plot threads, is about his attempts to uncover her secret life and come to grips with what he sees as her betrayal of him. The important thing to note is that it’s not that he needs to come to grips with what his wife has done to innocent men, women, and children in a crowded restaurant, but with what he sees as her personal betrayal of him.

A bit self-absorbed, no?

It’s not that the novel doesn’t tell a good story or address timely issues. It definitely kept me reading, but perhaps that was also because of the all but latent anti-Semitism that kept jumping out at me. Like many people, I tend to like to stare at things that repulse me. Although I run the risk of sounding like an anti-Semitic ambulance chaser, it is difficult not to read between the lines when nearly every time Khadra’s narrator introduces a new Jewish character, he refers to his “unattractive nostrils” or depicts him looking down his “nose” at the narrator. Or, in the absence of the description of a character’s unflattering nose, he depicts them as fat, selfish, and always gobbling things up. Those nasty Jews—always gobbling things up and looking down their unattractive noses at everyone else. I’m not quite sure how the reviewers who suggested this book depicts both sides of the Arab/Israeli conflict missed this aspect of the book. But I’m sure it’s not the author’s main point.

The main point, actually, seems to be one long, whining “what about me?” Once you sift through the rambling prose, the narrator seems to say little more than: “Why didn’t my wife think about the trouble her suicide bombing would cause me? Why do Israeli Jews stop me at checkpoints because of the way I look? Why do the Jews keep talking about their problems when it’s really the Arabs who’ve suffered?”

The narrator visits an old Israeli Jew who goes on and on and on about surviving the Holocaust, only to say, finally, “I talk too much . . . I’ll never understand why the survivors of a tragedy feel compelled to make people believe they’re more to be pitied than the ones who didn’t make it.”

Take that, you blabbering large-nosed Jewish survivor. It’s MY turn to suffer, the narrator seems to say. Everybody wants to talk about their suffering.

The point the author makes seems to be the question of why Jews are still talking about the Holocaust when Palestinians are being subjected to the same kind of evils in Israel. But the problem isn’t that the author draws attention (justifiably) to Palestinian pain. The problem is in the comparison.

Suffering is suffering. It does no good to compare one group of people’s suffering to another, or to minimize one in favor of another. I cannot blame the Palestinian boy who sees his family home bulldozed by Israeli soldiers and vows to take revenge any less than I blame the Holocaust survivor for finding it impossible to stop talking about his experience.

They have both earned the right to hate. And we are all responsible for acknowledging both perspectives. But even the right to such hate does not justify a lashing out that takes innocent lives, though this novel seems to suggest otherwise in its villainization of Israeli Jews.

The narrator says, “All too aware of the stereotypes that mark me out in the public square, I strive to overcome them, one by one, by doing the best I can do and putting up with the incivilities of my Jewish comrades.” Words of wisdom from the narrator who can’t stop himself from seeing Jews only through negative stereotypes. (Then again, note above my own heinous Texas stereotyping.)

But the person teaching the literature class tells me that while the narrator is indeed despicable when it comes to Jewish stereotyping, we are also supposed to see in him a critique of male Arab culture. The narrator’s preoccupation with his male ego and his anger over his wife’s betrayal of him on a personal level may reveal (from the author’s point of view) some of the problems of Arab male-female relationships. Indeed, at one point he goes nuts thinking that his wife may have cheated on him with another man, and suggests that such an act is worse than the suicide bombing.

The narrator, my friend suggests, cannot escape from the stereotypical Arab masculinity that forces him to see Jews with big noses and gluttonous appetites, and to see women as his private property. But sometimes he has a breakthrough: “Every Jew in Palestine is a bit of an Arab, and no Arab in Israel can deny that he’s a little Jewish.”

It’s unclear what we’re supposed to think in regard to this character. I find him to be pathetic, self-absorbed, and downright despicable. But students in the class tended to be more sympathetic toward him. And I guess that is the danger of this novel—if the author meant to critique Arab culture’s own biases, it’s not altogether clear. My fear is that this novel does more to reinforce negative stereotypes than critique them.