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Review: 'City of a Thousand Gates' by Rebecca Sacks

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Rebecca Sacks is the author of City of a Thousand Gates.

The lasting division brought about by the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the painful truths about occupation and the larger tensions of living in this contentious warring space are at the center of Rebecca Sacks’ debut novel "City of a Thousand Gates." But so is a poignant humanizing of this story as the characters battle for security and dignity and a convivial space for the future of their own children.

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From the outset, you realize that "City of a Thousand Gates" is ambitious and expansive. The book’s opening pages include a directory — with the names and brief descriptors of some 28 characters whose lives intersect in the West Bank setting of the novel. There are Israeli settlers and Palestinians and a diversity of storylines and relationships to keep track of.

But don’t be daunted. There is something about the structure of the book, the ways that the author builds the tangential or more wholly realized connections that move you away from constantly referring to the list. A few short chapters in, it becomes unnecessary as the immersion in this space is that fluid. The smaller Venn diagrams of the characters and how they connect directly or indirectly becomes rather seamless.

For instance, Hamid is a student from Bethlehem University. He bumps into Vera, a German journalist who is almost hit by a car that is driven by Ido, an Israeli who works as an animator and is married to Emily, a Jewish American. Their daughter is Mayan. Every generation is represented, with a decided focus on the 20- and 30-somethings trying hard to fall in love, to connect, to make a life — a happy one.

At the heart of the novel is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fomented again by two events. One is the killing of a 14-year old Jewish girl by a lone perpetrator who climbs up the family home in an Israeli settlement and into the girl’s window.

What follows this tragic and senseless murder is the revenge beating of a 14-year-old Palestinian boy just minding his own business inside a shopping mall in Jerusalem. The boy later dies in the hospital and his family will suffer more unbearable insults if the boy’s body is taken — stolen — from the hospital, an act that extends the nameless and faceless retaliation that confounds as much as it fills in an expected gap people seem to silently, collectively hold their breaths over after the murder of the young girl.

This is a place of tension and conflict. Characters cross checkpoints and are wary at every turn of their daily lives.

But there is a beauty, too, the beauty we all deserve to have — in matters of family or love or marriage.

Author Rebecca Sacks lived in this part of the world for a time and demonstrates not only a profound knowledge of the place and the people on either side of this entrenched divide, but also an impressive knowledge of the languages spoken by each group and an abiding respect for what they hold as sacred.

The character Samar Farha is a Ph.D. in comparative literature at Bethlehem University. She is unmarried and lives with her mother who seems far more concerned with Samar’s marriage prospects than Samar’s dreams of leaving her mother’s home. For years, Samar has dedicated her research to “national narratives as forms of codified remembering.” Says Samar, “In the memory economy, the ultimate luxury is to forget.” She wants to make sure the forgetting, any erasure, can end.

Vera, the German journalist whose “sometime lover” is Amir, a professional soccer player, interviews Samar. She seeks her out after reading her work about nationalism and erasure. But far more than the erudite or esoteric academic concepts she could represent, Samar helps humanize this space further, beyond the myopic impression some may have of this place as being only a dusty, arid locale. Samar takes us into her parents’ home, with its olfactory and sensory imagery that evoke family and domesticity and pushes back against some far-flung and unknowable place.

Here in America, we’ve known terrible division that has flared up many times over our history, including in the first month of 2021. The worst-case scenarios of what have been heretofore unimaginable horrors for some — and still denied by others — portend the potential for something far worse that what we’ve already watched, mouths agape, on cable television. The characters in Rebecca Sacks’ "City of a Thousand Gates" carry the trials and tribulations of daily life plus the larger conflicts of borders and barriers that surround them just as a matter of daily life. The many characters in this novel seem to want what we all want.

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Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.