Americans spend a lot of time talking about Israel, but I don’t think most have the first clue as to what it is like to actually live there. I know I certainly don’t. Modern Israel seems like such a strange world, not at war most of the time and yet forever on the brink. War preparations must seem odd when things don’t happen for so long, yet they can and do happen still. Regardless of all of that, which never seems to end, people must still live their ordinary lives.
The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu gives the reader a glimpse of what it is like to try to live human lives in that bizarre situation. For the most part, the book follows three girls/women (Yael, Avishag, and Lea) from childhood friendship through their years of compulsory military service (something that is frightening yet just an ordinary part of life in Israel) and to the unknown future beyond. Each of the three have different experiences in their military service, Yael being a weapons trainer whereas Avishag guards a border and Lea works as a checkpoint policeperson, but there are certainly similarities.
For example, all three exist in this state where (for the most part) war is not going on, yet could at any time. Taking military rigor seriously seems difficult since “nothing ever happened.” Yet, sometimes something did. If one ever relaxed, one could find one’s “neck . . . cut almost in two.” They seemed pinned constantly between how routine military life generally is and how non-routine it can become in a brief moment.
Frankly, the only word to describe such a world is ‘absurd.’ When we really look at it, life is always absurd. This though, is more absurd than most.
Yet, their lives go on anyway. Within all of this, people interact with people. People flirt, love, try to make livings, and better their lot in life. In the course of the book, Boianjiu shows all of this and more. Sometimes what she shows is dark, sometimes it is touching, and sometimes it is downright hilarious:
“No, but they have a sign. And they keep on arguing with me that I, like, disperse them, even though I explained we don’t have any means of suppressing demonstrations here.”
“That’s not true.”
She was suddenly more excited than she had been since before she had been posted on Route 433. As an officer, she knew that every checkpoint had a supply box to be used for demonstrations. Finally, she thought, her training was good for something. And if the demonstrators insisted, she must aim to please.
Grenade 30, the chock grenade, was designed to stun and scare by creating a loud noise. The instructions said that if exploded within a two-meter radius of people, it could cause problems in the eardrums and light injuries from the plastic, so Lea told the demonstrators to step back a bit. They walked back while still facing the sun umbrella, and after a while, the boy took his fingers from his mouth and gave her a hesitant thumbs-up. She didn’t quite know how to respond to that, so she gave him a thumbs-up as well–he was far enough. Then she quickly put her hand back on her weapon.
The shock grenade war orange and cone shaped. It had a red stripe encircling it. She held it in her hand and then bent to the ground to life a rock. Her fingers were stiff around the rock’s dry surface. She dropped it from the air into Tomer’s hand.
“You are the soldier,” she said. “And besides, it’s been longer since I last learned about this stuff. Let’s practice.”
After a couple of dry runs, it was time for the real thing. The boy had his hand in his mouth again, and one of the men was wiping his brow with his forearm. The heat radiated from the asphalt between them.
“Ok?” she shouted at them. Then she and Tomer put their earplugs in their ears.
She thought that the three of them would stay longer, but after four grenades the demonstration was dispersed.
Really, what else can you expect out of life in such a bizarre setting? You can expect anything, but you will probably still be surprised.
I’ve heard it said that the main point of the novel is to uniquely show how particular people in particular situations can go about living their lives. Boianjiu certainly does that in The People of Forever Are Not Afraid. The glimpse she provides into this world is certainly novel and interesting, and her characters are vividly, vividly human.
I’m not sure that is what I was supposed to get out of the book, but it’s what I got. Truthfully, it’s all I really asked for.