A TRUMPET IN THE WADI, by Sami Michael, translated from Hebrew by Yael Lotan, Simon and Schuster, 244 pages, $24.
Set in the period preceding the Arab-Israeli conflict in Lebanon, in the Arab quarter of the northern Israel city of Haifa, "A Trumpet in the Wadi" is a heart-rending story of love and family. With this book, Sami Michael makes his North American literary debut.
Alex, a Russian Jewish immigrant, lives in a rooftop apartment where he plays his trumpet. The soulful music speaks to Huda, a 30-year-old Arab who resides in the same building.
Michael originally made the instrument an accordion. But in setting the mood and telling a love story in the midst of tragedy, the trumpet works much better.
It is a symbol an accordion could never match.
Huda lives on the first floor with her mother, grandfather and her beautiful, sexy sister, Mary. Although the sisters are opposites in personality and appearance, they grow together in the course of the novel until their love for each other becomes moving. Huda is a serious-minded, hardworking travel agent while Mary cannot keep a job.
Huda is sickly and thin, suffering many health problems. Alex, a dock hand who's studying electrical engineering, moves into the rooftop apartment with his trumpet. In spite of his short, muscular frame and his thick glasses, Huda is quickly attracted to him. In the meantime, Mary is selected to marry the heir to the local Muslim mob, a village laborer. She does not want him, but the culture traps her.
As Huda and Mary struggle with their romantic problems, it becomes evident that Huda's interest in Alex is an explosion waiting to happen. She is Arab and he is Jewish — and although there are many acceptable marriages in which the woman is a Jew and the man is an Arab, never is the opposite true. It becomes clear that this is a story pitting Arab against Jew, Muslim against Christian, man against woman.
Grandpa Elias, an Egyptian, is the wise one who is so necessary to keeping all the relationships on an even keel. Huda, the narrator, implies there is something more than a familial relationship between her mother and Grandpa, but the suggestion remains vague and unfulfilled. Yet it is clear that Grandpa is the role model for the husband-to-be for each daughter. Mary describes the laughter of her intended as "the empty laughter of adolescent boys, which some men never outgrow for the rest of their lives. Grandpa never laughed like that."
As Huda's feelings for Alex grow stronger, Mary notices that "ever since Alex began to play his trumpet all your crazy illnesses have disappeared, and you're really well?" Then she added, "So maybe there's something to be said for the trumpet. They say music makes plants grow faster and cows give more milk."
If the trumpet could only solve the conflicts and hatreds endemic to the Arab-Israeli cultures. In the background of this gentle love story in which many relationships and friendships flourish, there is always pending war waiting to break up families, ignite tragedy and cultivate hopelessness.
One clear truth emerges from the book — the problems in the Middle East will never be settled by boundary realignments, political negotiations or incessant bloodshed.