The People of Forever Are Not Afraid

  • Shani Boianjiu
  • Hogarth Press
  • 352 pp.

In this novel three 18-year-old women serving in the Israeli army share their stories.

Reviewed by Philip D. Harvey

Shani Boianjiu, a veteran woman conscript of the Israel Defense Forces, gives us a fascinating look at Israeli army life through the eyes and experiences of three 18-year-old girls as they perform their required military service. This is a subject we don’t often read about and the lives of these young women, as they serve their terms in uniform, are quirky, interesting, and well worth reading about.

As a novel the book is awkwardly structured. The stories are told through the first-person voices of each of the three girls — Yael, Avishag, and Lea — and also, confusingly, by a third-person narrator who sometimes refers to “we” or “us.” It is hard to follow the chain of events this way and the stories and anecdotes never quite come together in a unified whole.

But the stories and anecdotes abound, and some of them are first rate. My favorite episode is Lea’s encounter with three Palestinian demonstrators at her military checkpoint on Route 433. “Is there any way you can disperse us just a little?” the older Palestinian asks. Obligingly, Lea and her army colleague (who is also her current lover) study the instructions, move the demonstrators to a safe distance and explode four shock grenades. The demonstrators leave. But the next day the three Palestinians return and demand tear gas “at least.” The soldiers oblige them. Finally, on the third try, they coax Lea into shooting at them with rubber bullets. They are desperate, it seems, to get some publicity for their heroic acts back home. The episode is funny but never condescending. The telling is laced with dark undertones and flashbacks of actual violence that characterize the best writing in this book.

Also engaging: Lea’s relationship with Ron after she leaves the army. Ron is the owner of the We Don’t Judge sandwich kiosk, a shop that will make any kind of sandwich a customer wants. One customer demands that his yellow peppers be roasted for two minutes, the red peppers for 10. Lea accommodates, but one day when she gets a grisly request from an unstable and aggressive customer, things begin to fall apart and the tale moves into a dark and edgy zone. As a short story, this episode works well until the very end, which is too ambiguous to be satisfying.

In another compelling sequence, two of the young women on guard duty decide to strip and lie naked on the ground just on the Israeli side of the Egyptian border. One of the Egyptian guards, who is armed with binoculars, practically swoons. Mayhem ensues in the Egyptian tower. An Israeli trick? Phones ring. The Egyptian chief of staff is brought in. But by the time the Israelis’ superior officers get to the scene, the women are dressed, and armed.

We hear from Yael most frequently. She often sets the tone and tells us about how these young women, together and apart, think about things. “I stare at the ceiling for about an hour, maybe two, trying to imagine what it would be like if I were forced to stare at this ceiling for my entire life.” And “I know exactly what will happen, so it doesn’t even need to.” She also narrates the last chapter, a story of her mother. This chapter includes a riveting description of the Israeli raid on the hijackers at Entebbe in 1976, well told with details that I don’t remember from the news reports at the time. But this narrative has no discernible connection to the lives of the three young women.

Reality in these stories can be slippery. In a perplexing rape episode, the author suggests a shifting level of reality, letting us wonder if parts of the episode are imagined. The three young women are locked up for the pleasure of male soldiers, yet make no serious attempt to escape. Is this really happening? Do the women imagine it? “This actually … happened, and to us,” Yael says afterwards. Then they argue about “whether or not what had happened to them was even interesting, about whether or not anything they did mattered.” I don’t know what to make of that.

The People of Forever Are Not Afraid provides a fine flavor of what Israeli military life is like for young women — no mean feat — and many of the episodes are engaging and revealing. Read it for that flavor and those stories.

Phil Harvey’s short stories have appeared in 15 publications. His first novel, Show Time, was published this year.

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