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by Malka Marom

To read Sulha’s 566 pages is to undertake a long, intense journey that pushes us to see the world through different eyes. Singer and documentary producer Malka Marom’s debut sets us down in Israel in 1978, where her narrator, Leora, has returned after 20 years in Canada, trying to decide whether to oppose her son’s military duty in The Land. Travelling at close quarters with Leora can strain a reader’s patience; she tells us everything as it comes into her mind. We are privy to all she hears, all she observes, yet with some aspects of her emotional life she is maddeningly discreet. The book is driven not so much by specific plot elements (What will Leora decide? What will she do about her stagnant marriage to a Canadian? Will she and Tal, the Army commando who escorts her to the Bedouin camp in the Sinai, get it on?) as by a quest to give meaning to life. Struggling to assimilate the traumatic past she fled as a war widow, Leora is in search of sulha, which means peace in both Arabic and Hebrew.

The most extraordinary section of the book unfolds in the forbidden women’s tents of the mountain Badu (Bedouins), traditional enemies of the Israelis. Unravelling the bewildering complexities of family, love, and honour, Leora learns when to ask, when to be still, how to endure. For whole chapters Marom lets conversations spin out to what feels like real time. At other times, as events spiral toward what could be a double ritual murder, the pages fly past. Marom powerfully and lyrically evokes a people and a country in the grip of obsession. The heat and chill, smells and sounds, and paradoxes of the desert mesmerize; sand sifts from our clothes even after the book is done.