The Book Club

Sweet Revenge

Hi Sarah,

I’m mostly enthusiastic about this book, but since you are, too, let me play the skeptic. Do you think Blumenfeld had a book contract before she set out on her mission? Even if she didn’t, she probably knew she was going to write about it in some capacity. Which gives the book a strangely performative aspect. With most memoirs, the author is recounting events that took place long before he or she chose to write about them. Here, Blumenfeld went about plotting her revenge strategy knowing that everything she did—courtroom theatrics, etc.—would make great copy. She’s essentially written a TV movie of the week, a very good one, and cast herself as the star.A mean thought: Would Blumenfeld have pursued revenge if she wasn’t planning on writing about it?

Blumenfeld plays the naif in this book—not only in her forgiveness of the terrorist but in her narration. For someone quite familiar with the Middle East, she spouts a surprising number of clichés about it. (“Here in the Holy Land, inanimate objects—a rock, a river, an olive tree—were vested with memory. And in this storied land, memory meant power.”) Once the shooter’s family gets to know her, they lavish her with compliments, even promising to name a daughter after her. But anyone who’s spent time in Arab communities should know that florid praise is the norm in that world. This isn’t to say that the compliments and gestures are insincere, but it gives me pause that Blumenfeld accepts them so greedily. For someone who’s covered domestic and international affairs for the Washington Post for 10 years, Blumenfeld has little trace of the skeptical, hard-boiled reporter in her.

Or does she? My favorite character in the book is Blumenfeld’s friend Rachel, who treats the whole project with withering skepticism and dead-on parody. Here’s her take on Blumenfeld’s letters to the shooter, delivered in a nasal, mock-Long Island accent: “We have so much in common. We studied similar subjects in school, I was part of a terrorist cell like you—I mean, I taught aerobics in college. I lost my house too when my parents sold one in Great Neck—oh, yours was destroyed by the Israeli Army? Your brother was deported to Jordan? Mine was deported to Yale.” These bits suggest that Blumenfeld is not quite as wide-eyed as she lets on; after all, unless she tape-recorded her phone conversations with Rachel, Blumenfeld reproduced these scathing riffs herself. It’s almost as if she’s delegated her own skepticism to Rachel.

One of the many avengers she interviews in the course of her research is a Bedouin smuggler named Anez who, abandoned by his wives when he was imprisoned, composed bitter, funny poems about them, which he taught to other prisoners, who taught them to visitors, who repeated them throughout the region. As Blumenfeld writes, “eleven different tribes knew Anez’s poems by heart. It was as if Anez had posted news of his shameful wives on the Bedouin Internet.” Although she doesn’t say so, this book is clearly Blumenfeld’s real revenge. And it’s pretty sweet revenge: Since there’s no harm inflicted, it’s morally impeccable, and since she didn’t succeed in winning Khatib parole, there’s no immediate danger of her becoming the Norman Mailer of the Middle East, responsible for freeing a criminal who then strikes again. And like Anez, she gets to broadcast her story widely.

And I mean widely: Since you’re in London, I should fill you in and let you know that Blumenfeld’s been hitting the airwaves, big time. In the past few weeks, she’s been interviewed by everyone from Diane Sawyer to Charlie Rose to Terry Gross. The most dramatic segment was an ABC interview with Khatib himself, who sent this message from prison: “I don’t agree with choosing the violence as a way for solving problems, as a way for getting to our rights. I feel so sorry for what has happened.” As Blumenfeld herself notes, this is a brave thing for a Palestinian, a former member of a terror gang, to say on television. And it does give credence to your inclination to buy into Khatib’s transformation.

Revenge actually did make me feel a tiny drop more hopeful about Palestinian-Israeli peace, if only because it took me back to the halcyon days of Oslo. Though Blumenfeld only treats it glancingly, she’s clearly very interested in the idea of reconciliation ceremonies; she attends a traditional Arab one, called a sulha, designed to put an end to seemingly intractable conflicts. This sulha doesn’t quite work—the plaintiff is dissatisfied with the amount of money she’s awarded and asks her brother to chop off the defendant’s hands instead. But this book, from what I can tell, was reported around 1997 or 1998, when many unofficial reconciliation ceremonies were taking place between Arabs and Israelis. I know—I was there; like Blumenfeld, I spent a year (in my case, 1996-97) interning for pro-peace organizations in the West Bank. At the time, Palestinian-Israeli encounter groups were very much in fashion. The one I worked on brought Israeli and Palestinian school principals to a fancy hotel in Turkey, where the delegations held big, emotional, cathartic discussions with each other by day and danced together in Antalya’s strip clubs by night. Despite the current, worldwide, post-apartheid craze for reconciliation commissions, they haven’t really been suggested much with regard to Israelis and Palestinians. I suppose the two sides have to stop killing each other first. But during the Oslo years, thousands of Israelis and Palestinians experienced their own more formal and less personal versions of Blumenfeld’s rapprochement. When I read the papers these days, I always wonder whether these encounters have been forgotten, or whether they’ll someday bear fruit.

Tomorrow, let’s talk about Revenge’s subplot on marriage and divorce, yes?