The Haj by Leon Uris

Saturday, January 15, 2011

My dad has been trying to get me to read this book for a couple of years now so that I could better understand the Arab situation. I have resisted in part because I only started really reading books for fun again last year, and in part because I am pretty apolitical. I don't like to generalize about groups of people so I was worried about this book.

The Haj is about a leader of a village in Palestine, Haj Ibrahim, and the formation of the Israeli state. It deals with the political forces combining both for and against Israel, the Palestinians' relationships with the Jews that come to their land, and the family of Haj Ibrahim, told from the perspective of Ishmael, Ibrahim's youngest son.

There were a few things I struggled with in this book. It was an offender in one of my main literary pet peeves - the offense of too-much-historical-detail. To be fair, this is an epic about the history of Palestine and Israel, and I knew that going into it. It was hard to keep track of some of the rulers, and the intentions of the different countries, but part of that was definitely because several of the countries kept changing their intentions. I knew absolutely nothing about Palestine or Israel going into this read, so part of my problem was probably my complete lack of context.

I also didn't like the one-sidedness. On my guard as I was for prejudice, at the beginning it seemed that Uris was pretty much an Arab hater. He describes in detail the inferior conditions of the village of Tabah. Haj Ibrahim's family is the only family to live in a house. Haj Ibrahim has two chairs, and one is only for revered visitors. The men are weak and run from battle. On the other hand, the Jews come up with new systems to make the desert inhabitable. They have high quality schools and courageous squads of specially trained soldiers. I don't know how much of this is true, and how much is not, but I would imagine at least the conditions are accurate.

As we get to know the characters, especially the members of the Haj's family, however, we do get a sympathetic side to the Palestinians. Other Middle Eastern nations are trying to crowd them out of their villages, with no intention to protect them or fulfill the promises they make. Ishmael wants to protect the women in his family and goes to great lengths to protect them. However, in the end, even the most likable characters fall into self destruction because, as spoken by Dr. Mudhil, one of Ishmael's mentors, "Hate is our overpowering legacy and we have regenerated ourselves by hatred from decade to decade, generation to generation, century to century. [...] We cannot stop ourselves." (522-23)

I don't think that all Muslims or all Middle Easterners are full of hatred as an overpowering legacy, although it seems there are definitely some out there (such as... those who attacked America on 9/11). Like I said, I am not very politically aware and the TV in my house gets turned on less than once a week, so I don't always know what is going on in the world. Note to self: become more aware of current events. However, I do know from my lovely Civ 1 class that while Christianity was still in the Dark Ages, the Muslims were translating the Greek philosophers and building palaces. So when did this transition take place? And why? Did something change? Anyway, kind of going off on a tangent, but I found myself wondering about this quite a bit.

This book was one of the most graphic and disturbing books I have ever read. The forms of torture employed by various governments was absolutely horrifying. There was also one ruler in particular who was so corrupt and disgusting, living in a world of drugs and orgies (please no spam... haha). I haven't figured out if he was a real character or not. I didn't enjoy the negative events, but it was interesting read about the corruption in these so-called leaders, making life-altering decisions for millions of people.

The character that I found most interesting was Nada, Ishmael's sister. She was essentially the embodiment of that ever-popular theme in Middle Eastern fiction - a marginalized woman desperate to make her own decisions and live her own life. She was a very likable character - smart, beautiful, braver than many of the men in her family, and full of life. She goes on a rant toward the end of the book that finally makes Ishmael, the bowed to man of the family, realize her position:

I remember once in Tabah I saw a little Jewish girl waiting for the bus on the highway with her parents. She carried a doll and she showed it to me. It was very pretty, but it could do nothing but open and shut its eyes and cry when it was hit on the back. I am that doll. [...] I have been molded into a lump that is not supposed to have feelings. My emotions have been controlled and enslaved from the time I was a little girl - shame... slap.. forbidden... slap... shame, shame, shame. Even my body is not my own. (479-480)
"I think I am going to be ashamed," Ishmael responds, finally understanding his sister for the first time. The characters are the redeeming point of the book. They are often strong and noble, although they are doomed to evil because they are Arabs (I hope you are catching my sarcasm).

This book was an interesting read, but it was hard to take completely seriously because the author seemed so biased. I do not doubt that many of the things he is saying are true, but because he seemed to be so one-sided it was difficult to take seriously. The book was very dark and negative, which is why it took me so long to read - I couldn't read straight up death and war during the Christmas season, so I interspersed the book with some seasonal books. I don't know that I'd recommend this book, although I didn't hate it. I'll probably try reading Leon Uris at least one more time, but this book was not for me.

Accessibility/readability: A bit confusing at times due to the many rulers and historical figures.
Aesthetics/literary merit: 2. I didn't think this book was very well-written. Nada's quote is a good example of what much of the rest of the book was like.
Plot: 3.5 It was interesting and told an important story. Although it did get bogged down with historical detail, they were necessary to the story.
Characters: 3. They were interesting and likable, but often one-sided.
Personal response: 2.5 It had its good qualities, but many things bothered me about this book.
Overall: 2.75

PS: Read this for the Middle East Challenge. Find more reviews here.


  1. I'm sad you felt this way about the book, although I totally understand why. He is a very biased author (you hear his bias in other books as well), but he's Jewish so it is an understandable bias. The history wasn't bad for me, but it is a history I'm very familiar with. And you're right, his writing isn't the best. If you want to try again I'd go with Exodus or Mila 18. Or if you want to move away from the Jewish bias, Topaz is set during the Cuban missile crisis.

  2. I usually like Leon Uris' books though I haven't read this one. I agree: too much historical detail is overwhelming and makes me glaze over (and this from a past history teacher!). I liked Trinity by Uris a lot, though all his books are definitely chunksters!

    Thank you for participating in the Middle East challenge!

  3. Hmmm... this sounds really interesting. And there aren't a whole lot of fiction books that describe how the whole conflict with Palenstine started (and I admit, I know very little about it). Hopefully you find something along the same lines but better written!

  4. I studied the Isreali/Palestine conflict at university so this sounds very interesting to me. It's a shame the writer was biased but this issue is so important to so many people that it's hard to find anything written about it that isn't biased.

  5. So I know I already commented but Lorren, if you are actually interested in learning about the conflict (origins of it, how it stands today, etc.) I have several very good nonfiction books I could suggest. I have an entire shelf of my bookcase devoted to Israel/Palestine, it's probably my favorite historic/current event to read. I'm not entirely sure what that says about me :)

  6. Allison - I would LOVE to read a nonfiction book about the conflict. I think the thing I found most interesting was the British role and the way they kept flip-flopping. I also am interested in learning more about Jordan's and Egypt's roles in the conflict. Do you recommend any books that address either of those? And I'm going to be reading Mitla Pass for this birth year challenge. I think I'll also end up reading Exodus because a lot of people have recommended it to me, and maybe Mila 18. I am more interested in the subject now even though I didn't love The Haj.

    @Helen's Book Blog - Thank you for hosting the challenge! I just got some galleys for my Kindle that qualify for the challenge, so I may be reading more books than I originally planned!

    @Sarah - It was definitely an interesting book. If you are interested in the issue it is probably still a good book to read. I was just a little put off by all the goriness and the writing. My friend Allison is going to recommend some more books, so if you want to know what they are I'll let you know!

    @Sam - That is definitely true, probably everyone has some bias. Especially when the issue has religion involved. While I didn't love this book, it did leave me wanting to learn more about the issue.


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