In 1903, the Sixth Zionist Congress was convened in Basel. The atmosphere was bleak. Theodor Herzl's negotiations with the then Ottoman Sultan about the colonization of Palestine had proved unsuccessful; the plan for obtaining a land in the Sinai Peninsula from Britain in the form of a concession was heading nowhere. But while delivering his presidential address, Herzl surprised the delegates by announcing that the British had proposed the establishment of a Jewish colony in East Africa. For obvious reasons, the proposal was met with anger and disapproval. Who, after all, could in any way be willing to forsake the idea of the Promised Land, choosing to settle instead in another territory? In the end, following Herzl’s attempts to pacify his opponents, the Congress arrived at a decision to send an expedition that would assess the territory in East Africa—its physical conditions, natural resources, commercial possibilities, and the political situation. But Herzl's untimely death and financial difficulties delayed the expedition to the Uasin Gishu plateau (the territory offered for the colony; now part of Kenya). It was organized, eventually, by the journalist and activist Leopold Greenberg in December 1904, and included three men: an Englishman and Boer War veteran, Major A. St. Hills Gibbons; a Swiss professor, Alfred Kaiser; and a Jewish Russian engineer, Nahum Wilbusch.
The expedition was fraught with difficulties: Wilbusch got lost and separated from the others, and as they were nearing the end of the journey, the three men were attacked by a hostile force of Nandi. Upon return, Wilbusch filed a damning report, writing that all he had seen in the territory was dry and desolate land, ending with the words, “Where nothing exists, nothing can be done.” It was inevitable that Wilbusch, who had all along belonged to the “Holy Landers” (a group in the Zionist Congress that was not ready to compromise on the idea of the Jewish homeland in Ottoman Palestine), would have written a negative account.
This episode, recounted by Lavie Tidhar in the introduction to Unholy Land, comprises much of the historical background of the novel, except that following a vision of the Holocaust during the expedition, Wilbusch instead turned in a positive report to the Congress. With the Congress authorizing the plan for a Jewish homeland in East Africa in the first decade of the twentieth century, European Jews began immigrating to the new land. In this version of events, a Final Solution has been prevented, the scale of the Holocaust reduced, and since a Jewish state exists in East Africa, the Balfour Declaration never takes place.
Most works of alternate history have taken a major event—the American Civil War in Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee, the Reformation in Kingsley Amis's The Alteration, World War II in Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle—to imagine how the world would have decidedly been worse had these played out differently (or in Amis's case, never taken place); if it was the “villains” of history who had won. In Unholy Land, tragedies of history have been prevented, those particular villains have never gained power, and yet in fundamental ways this world is our own. In the very beginning of the novel, Lior Tirosh, one of the main characters, looks at a “white towering wall” meant to keep refugees out of Palestina—the country established in East Africa; later, he very narrowly misses a bomb attack on civilians in Ararat City. Moving forward, we read about displaced refugees, military crackdowns on the resistance in disputed territories, followed by raids on the homes of Nandi civilians, another character, Bloom, whipping a child on the cheek with his gun for information, and non-consequential peace talks taking place between the government of Palestina and the leaders of neighbouring countries. But this is not a simple work of alternate history, as it may initially seem. While most of the novel plays out in Palestina, the three characters central to the plot belong to other different versions of our world, where a small divergence of events has shaped a history wholly unrecognizable. Palestina, therefore, does not exist in our world (which is described as one where the violence and the disputes never end); it is instead, a “place where the Jews won” (p. 156). We also read about a world where a “kind of holocaust has taken place” (p. 109) and Jerusalem has ceased to exist, resulting in a shared victimhood that births peace in the Middle East. In another world, a Jewish homeland named Altneuland (incidentally the name of a utopian novel Herzl published in 1902) exists on the shores of the Mediterranean, with Jerusalem as its eternal capital. There are also brief descriptions of places where dinosaurs still roam the earth, Wehrmacht soldiers lurk in the Mau forest, and dead British explorers clutch decaying notebooks with drawings of impossible creatures. Using the Kabbalistic concepts of the olamot (different “worlds”) and the sephirot, the forces through which the infinite creates itself, Tidhar creates richly detailed worlds through which his characters slip.
Of the three major characters, Lior Tirosh, a writer of detective fiction, arrives in Ararat City to visit his ailing father, but is soon caught in the middle of a conspiracy that involves a missing niece, a murdered friend, and an attempt to break the borders that separate different worlds. Tirosh takes on the role of one of the detectives of his own novels, is kidnapped, released, attacked, and later learns about his centrality to the conspiracy. Special Investigator Bloom is an agent of the internal security apparatus who keeps professing his love for Palestina despite his status as an outsider; he also recollects his memories of “Altneuland,” which sits “on the shores of the Mediterranean, with Jerusalem as its eternal capital…” (p. 234). Nur Al-Hussaini is a literary historian who studies Hebrew pulp writers of science fiction and alternate history, and guards against intruders attempting to cross the borders of the sephirot. The three characters are all consciously aware of the long histories of anti-Semitism in their different worlds, but have different attitudes towards it. Bloom, ruthless, maintains throughout the novel the need for maintaining aggression against anyone who threatens the Jewish homeland; Tirosh feels disgusted at the displacement of the Nandi, but expresses an impotent anger towards it. Nur, on the other hand, displays a passive indifference to all but the need to maintain the border between the worlds. It is only Tirosh who originally belongs to the world where Palestina exists; Nur has travelled to this world for a mission to protect the sephirot, while Bloom has left his own world to protect Palestina, the Nachtasyl or “night shelter” of Jews. When the novel opens, it seems as if Tirosh has merely returned to Palestina after living for years in Berlin, but soon his memories of life in Germany (of a different world) begin to fade away and we learn that he is trapped between two realities. The plot follows Tirosh's investigation into the case of his missing niece, in the course of which he is chased by mercenaries attempting to murder him; Bloom’s attempts at uncovering the conspiracy to break the borders of the sephirot; and Nur—the only character in the novel who has a slight hint of what the plot to break the sephirot is about—following leads to save both Tirosh's life and the borders between worlds.
The slippages that take place in Unholy Land are not just limited to those between different worlds. The novel also moves between first-, second-, and third-person narration for its three characters and attempts to use this slippage as a literary device. Tirosh's and Bloom's points of view, presented through the third- and first-person respectively, are well suited for the mannerisms of both these characters and the extent to which they are aware the reasons why events are unfolding as they are. This works best in Bloom's case; his single-minded defense of Palestina at all costs, his declarations of loyalty—“I loved this country; I felt an immigrant's devotion to it that might have shocked or amused a native-born Palestinian” (p. 45)—and his brutal approach towards crushing all obstacles, could not have possibly been presented through the third-person without dulling his character. Tirosh, on the other hand, is for the most part clueless. He wanders through Ararat City, a place that he no longer recognizes, and gets caught up in events he has no control over. Slippages keep taking place between Tirosh's and Bloom's points of view; the third-person narration for Tirosh moves within a single chapter to Bloom's first-person, until it becomes clear that we are reading Bloom's recollections of events.
But this movement between different modes of narration, used effectively to create a sense of difference between how Tirosh and Bloom perceive the world around them, begins to falter when we are introduced to Nur. A long section in the novel retells Nur's past as an agent for the mysterious Border Agency, entirely in the second-person. Here, the voice, because of its marked difference from the rest of the novel, overburdens both the prose and the narrative:
On and on Anwar went and you followed, through would have beens and could have beens, until the rotting skeletons of old armoured cars began to appear on the sides of the road and the air filled with smoke and car exhaust, with drivers leaning out of their windows cursing, and a ruined fort came up on the hill, and you saw a van stop, and Jewish averchim clad in black poured out, placed giant speakers in the middle of the road and began to dance, to the echoing beat of machine music, dancing and clapping and running between the stalled cars, their zealous joy infectious—
Until they, too, were gone abruptly. A small red sun rose momentarily in the east and fell, too quickly, and for a moment you saw Ursalim as a city of white, delicate, towering stone, a city of the future with its minarets and skyscrapers reaching for the sky. (p. 101)
The second-person narration in Nur's case also affects the presentation of her character, which is never developed well enough to integrate with the plot, despite the fact that she often seems to be the only clearheaded character, in contrast to the brash Bloom and the confused and helpless Tirosh.
These three characters, different both in temperament and their worldviews, have but one thing in common: an awareness of the irreconcilability of the opposing claims to the land of Palestina. Who is to blame? Halfway through the novel, an Orkoiyot, a spiritual and military leader of the Nandi—the ethnic group claiming their land back from Palestina—tells Bloom, “It is not that you have made refugees of my people, it is that you would then deny it. It was not enough to do a bad deed: but you would retell history, so that in the telling, it had never happened. You cast yourselves as the wronged party, and thus we can never progress, can only fight” (p.177). A central question that keeps appearing throughout Unholy Land is what would Jewish consciousness have been like, had Jews not been “defined by the great Holocaust that shaped them, the survivors, that formed of them creatures of power and guilt…”(p. 221). Power and guilt, the novel suggests, do not entirely stem from the Holocaust, but are inherent in some form in Zionism itself which, emerging as a political idea in the first decade of the twentieth century, had much in common with the nationalist movements of nineteenth-century Europe. However, as each nation state enshrined its majority communities, based on language, ethnicity or religion, minorities were assigned no place, and pogroms—of which Jewish people were frequent targets—were a common affair. Leo Pinkser's booklet Auto-Emancipation, which Tidhar quotes in the epigraph to Unholy Land, argued that minority persecution was a part of human nature itself, and as such, a minority could control its destiny only through the establishment of its own nation-state, in which it wields majority power (Bloom expresses similar thoughts towards the end of the novel). The events of the alternate world(s) of Unholy Land—in Palestina, Altneuland, and Israel—take place after the expedition to East Africa had returned to Europe, long after anti-Semitic pogroms in Odessa and the Dreyfus affair had strengthened the conviction that European Jews needed a land of their own. In our own world, the formation of Israel was accompanied by the refusal, among the founders of the nation-state, to live with the Palestinians. As the historian Ilan Pappe notes in Ten Myths About Israel, denial of the Palestinians’ claim to the land was quickly coupled with the development of moral grounds and practical means to displace them.
Compare this with a scene in Unholy Land, where Barashi, an alcoholic war veteran and a spy for the state security apparatus, says:
“You want to bring down the wall, for what? The Nandi? They have no claim to this land. It's ours. Granted and paid for in full.”
“Paid in blood,” Nir said.
“Paid in blood!” the old man said. (p.113)
The Palestinian society of this world is also a deeply segregated one, where nannies and servants are mostly Black, the labourers building the wall Nandi, and cheap labour for "dirty work" is brought in from other African countries.
The persecution of an entire population is not limited to the world of Palestina. In one of his recollections of Altneuland, Bloom casually tells Tirosh that in his world, the Palestinians had no place in the Jewish state, and were displaced. It is not just the case that Altneuland witnessed this displacement of the native population. Even within the Jewish state, all political dissent has been quelled and Altneuland seems for all purposes, a military or police state. During one of his investigations, Bloom attacks and grievously injures a student activist, and when subtly rebuked by Barashi, goes on to state: “Where I came from we had no insolence such as this, no criminality of any kind! Ours was a clean, well-ordered place” (p. 125). One can only imagine the free hand that the state has gained in this world and, in the absence of dissent from civilians, the ease with which it has swept through the Middle East, occupying territory from “Beirut to Baghdad.” It is this order that Bloom wishes to impose in Palestina, and in his hardened worldview, only what is best for Jewish people matters. “I was merely doing my job,” is his standard response to any ethical dilemma.
Tidhar's outlook towards the conflicts in these worlds is deeply pessimistic, as he writes at one point that “No matter what we do, human history always attempts to repeat itself” (p. 225). Much of this seems to stem from an anxiety over the futility of his own work, both as a writer and as someone who wishes to see some justice—for the Palestinians, or in the world of the book, the Nandi. Lior Tirosh, we discover, is in many ways Lavie Tidhar; in the beginning Tirosh mentions to his agent the idea of writing a novel with Adolf Hitler as a private detective (the plot of A Man Lies Dreaming) and later, Tidhar ascribes the authorship of his novel Osama, to Tirosh. In the afterword to the novel, he writes, “… like Tirosh, I often think I am merely a pulp writer with delusions of grandeur. Like Tirosh, too, I feel eternally displaced…” (p. 255). Like Tirosh, one might add, Tidhar also feels distraught, adding that peace talks, both in the novel and the real world, can amount to nothing more than a public relations display, that “the bumbling, ineffective Tiroshes of this world can do nothing much more than write their little flights of fantasy and get on with life as best they can.”
It is difficult to disagree with Tidhar, given the events of the last few years. Gaza, the world's largest open-air prison, continues to deteriorate and will soon be uninhabitable; last year, in July, Netanyahu's government passed a law that declared Israel a nation-state of Jewish people, codifying apartheid and consigning non-Jewish citizens to a second class. Meanwhile, the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that informed the Holocaust have returned to the mainstream, to the extent that in the United States we now see a leadership and media that are informed by the same. Following the Pittsburgh shootings that took place last year, the politician Avi Gabbay called upon the US Jewish community to “immigrate more and more to Israel, because this is their home,” essentially implying that anti-Semitism can be countered only by migrating to Israel as a settler, inevitably at the cost of Palestinian rights. Throughout the world, demagogues whip up the fear of minorities and immigrants, of the need for walls, both literal and figurative—a project in which both Israel and the United States occupy a central position.
But if one of the tasks of speculative fiction is to compel us to imagine a world that is entirely different from our own, to think of possibilities that directly contradict its present status quo, what do we take away from Unholy Land, a “what-if” novel that presents to us a world no different from our own, where the same oppression and bloodshed that well-meaning people find themselves compelled to act against, prevails? In the different versions of reality that Tidhar writes of in Unholy Land, the Jewish homelands of Altneuland (Herzl's novel of the same name imagined Arabs as equal citizens) and Palestina, and the Israel of our world differ from one another only in terms of geographical location. The foundation of these states rests on the same logic of majority rule as the only guarantee of security, and of correcting a historical wrong through the assertion of military strength and state-sanctioned discrimination, the result of which has been segregation and mass displacement.
“Like Bloom in this novel,” Tidhar writes in the afterword, “no one sees themselves as the villain” (p. 253). Certainly, Unholy Land offers us no vision of a transformed world; the constant undermining of political possibilities, that would have otherwise underpinned such a project, deprive it of all chances to make any attempt at it. But it is a novel that takes aim squarely at the kind of self-righteousness embodied by Bloom, the inability to see beyond naked self-interest, and the kind of loyalty to one's own suffering that blinds those deeply invested in the idea of a nation-state to the atrocities committed by them.