Shades of Gray

Diverse characters in 'Between Two Deserts' open windows to the Middle East.

Our understanding of Middle East politics is a timely national concern. Germaine W. Shames sheds light on the dark shadows of this current global drama while contemplating the complexity of human relationships in her evocative first novel, Between Two Deserts.

At her desert home bordering the Tucson mountains, Shames explains why she wrote a novel. After two years as a Middle East correspondent in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza during the early years (1988-89) of the intifada, "I wanted to add nuance to the news, and finally cut up my press card with a pair of cuticle scissors. I was so exasperated with how little was written to truly convey the epic of the Middle East."

How do people cope with cultural and personal exchanges when they're stymied by political barriers? Shames offers glimpses into the lives of diverse Israeli Jews and Palestinians. They are interwoven through time that often feels suspended, leaving readers with ideas to ponder and questions for the heart--to be played out by their own imaginations.

The main character, Eve Clavell, the American daughter of a Jew and a lapsed Catholic, serves as a metaphor for transcendence throughout the book. She intends to accompany her grandfather, Abie (a confirmed atheist), to Israel on a sentimental quest, but he dies of a heart attack before the trip.

Having quit her job as foreign student advisor at a New England college, she decides to become a poet. For Eve, her religion is poetry. She settles in the Muslim Quarter--undefended both publicly and privately--and often dances naked, seemingly oblivious to her room's open window.

On one of her first outings, a young Arab boy attaches himself to her skirt, grabs her hand and pops his right eye--glass--into her palm, "as if it were a fallen baby tooth." Visibly upset, she's drawn away by a portly old European man, Mozes Koenig, a historian who four decades earlier wrote A Time for War--his masterpiece that aroused the Israeli nation. Their ensuing friendship softens the loss of Eve's grandfather. The young woman reminds Mozes of his wife, Gizella, who was killed years before by the Nazis.

"For everything we lose, we're given something," Shames gently comments in our interview.

Every chapter focuses on one of the 10 characters. Amal Mahmoud, a Palestinian and the sister of Eve's Arab lover, Salim, is touching in her innocence and ambivalence. In her brother's room, she notices a book of poetry by Kabir, a cultural outlaw whose name she recognizes from a list of banned books. Salim, an "aficionado of poetry?" Flummoxed, she then meets Eve at a demonstration to support an Arab orphanage; her relationship with Salim has already ended. Their shared concern for the children draws them together.

"After all the demonizing on each side, there is still longing for acceptance. And when it happens you see people soften so quickly and palpably," Shames reflects.

Amnon, an Israeli security officer who daydreams about living in New Zealand, confronts Eve: "You're surrounded by enemies. You don't know these people." Her response provides one of life's conundrums: "Perhaps it's you who don't know them. Most people spend their whole lives waging war against people they don't even know. And against themselves, whom they know least of all."

While current Middle East battles are often based on religious conflict, a great deal is cultural. Shames recalls "an Arabic saying, spoken by my character Salim in reference to Israeli-Palestinian relations: 'If a thing isn't black or white, it's black.' In recent days, as the Bush administration unfolds its Middle East strategy, I sometimes feel that our leaders too have begun to operate by this adage--blind to the region's diversity, blind to its myriad shades of gray."

At the end of the book, when Mozes Koenig dies, his son Itzik is tormented by memories of an emotionally unavailable father. After losing his wife, Mozes Koenig was close to suicide. But years later, when Mozes meets Eve, he laments: "Where there's no forgiveness, no one finds rest." His last book, A Time for Peace, is written off by the critics as an old man's folly. His son Itzik's journey of transformation also begins with Eve, when she "turns to him with a smile so poignant it might be made of fallen stars."

What sustains people during troubled times? "We Palestinians are great admirers of poetry," Salim's Aunt Sana tells Eve. "Through the darkest years of our history, Palestine has been kept alive in our imaginations through verse."

The rich language and connections between people in Between Two Deserts will stay with me for a long time --like a dark desert night lit by a full moon.