Originally published by Friends of Al Aqsa: http://foa.org.uk/publications/a-vision-of-angels
A Vision of Angels by Timothy Jay Smith is a light but well balanced story surrounding the Israel/Palestine conflict. It’s general pace is appropriate and being a predominantly dialogue based novel, makes it easy to read. It was therefore not surprising to discover Timothy Jay Smith is also a screenwriter. This novel could easily translate well to screen or stage. There are some interesting and consistent characters presented to us throughout the novel. However, it is their surroundings and the ensuing situations that find the characters lives unknowingly intertwined, that gives this novel its appeal. In spite of the portrayal of characters from both sides of the divide, and all the various strata within those two sides, Smith manages to make each character’s life seem separate, while simultaneously being inextricably linked. This is perhaps a nod to the clarity of the writing style, and could be said to represent a true mirror of the broken society. The selection of characters are somehow thrown together in the story, despite having high walls surrounding keeping them worlds apart, literally and figuratively, as represented in Smith’s prose.
The main characters, according to the author’s acknowledgements, are based on his lifetime of experience with Jewish families and his work with Palestinians during the peace process. He also acknowledges his time spent travelling around the Middle East and the vast range of people he met along the way as inspiration for the characters in the novel. The key characters are from each side of the Israel-Palestine divide and include: David Kessler, an American journalist whose work becomes a focal point of the story, Major Levy and his family; his wife Leah, daughter Rachel and most notably his son Mishe; a young Israeli soldier, quickly recognised as a hero, an angel, and later a peace activist. Amin Mousa, from a powerful Gazan land-owning family and an ally of Hamas. Issa and his wife Nadia; a Christian/Muslim Palestinian couple. I warmed a great deal to these characters in particular. The name of this character becomes an important but subtle undercurrent, that runs through the novel about the similarities between the 3 monotheistic religions. Other important characters are Captain Sa’ab Al-Rayes, Senior Security Officer in Gaza, Major Levy’s close friend IDF Chief of Staff Ben-Ami, Noam, a Brooklyn-born Jew, immigrated to Israel, and Katya, a single-mother, native of England.
Overall the story uses the characters well to describe and demonstrate the differences in culture and way of life. The routine inter-mingling of faiths is made clear in symbols. Smith uses the title of Chapters as one way in which to demonstrate the importance of the three faiths and the role they play in everyday life in Palestine and Israel, and most notably of course in Jerusalem. On the other hand, I do feel that the most has not been made of an opportunity to develop one of the main families as Muslim Palestinians. This would hence give a more balanced insight into life in the Occupied territories for them. Conversely, the use of a Christian Palestinian family as protagonists, could go some way in extending the popular generalization of all Palestinians being Muslims. Issa’s character plainly states this, ‘For the day he could forget about being part of a Christian minority in an Arab world and a Palestinian minority in an Israeli one.’
The writer makes good use of timescales and pace to connect the past and present and throughout the novel there is a great fluidity of transition from the past to present and vice versa. The historical context is key in this novel, not only because of the nature of the subject matter. The fluidity of movement over time, gives a great sense of singularity and consistency to the conflict. A well-constructed example of this is Amin Mousa looking through his father’s diary. The flow of prose from Amin’s thoughts to the diary entry feels contiguous, and as such serves to join the past and the present as one. There are also many references to history and historical sites, which are of course a part of the fabric of the land. Nevertheless, Smith uses these to great effect perhaps to remind us of the importance of the cycle of history that is attached to the past, present, and future of the conflict.
Expanding the theme of time and history, another theme is the generational gap. The older generation seem to represent an older more binary way of thinking, where themes of tradition and heritage appear to confuse the younger generation. Noam, an American immigrant, often expresses his minor crises of identity in various ways. David Kessler, a character who always seems to be somewhat detached from Jewish life, as an American of Jewish heritage. ‘Pausing outside a synagogue to listen to boys chant their nasal prayers, he pondered how, through their shared blood, it could have been him inside.’ ‘Could he deny his blood heritage that made him want to touch his forehead to Isaac’s altar or link arms with the men dancing in the synagogue?’ In spite of David’s secular, modernist/liberal stance, Smith shows him, and other characters, repeatedly struggling with denial of faith and issues of guilt that revolve predominantly around heritage and bloodlines. In this sense, Smith represents the spectrum of Jewish people that have immigrated from all over the world, while at the same time examining some of their individual and collective insecurities about tradition and culture, particularly through language and religious practices. Comparatively, the Jewish characters seem to have more of a disconnection with their elders. The relationship between Mishe and his father is an example of such. His girlfriend Nina also complains of the poor relations between her and her mother. The Arab characters on the contrary seem to have much stronger ties to the older generation. This is perhaps because the fathers of the two main Arab characters, Issa and Amin, died in the conflict. This seems to serve to venerate and almost idolise memories of them.
Another common thread that links the characters is political involvement. All the main characters are involved in some kind of movement, public speaking or action group that assists with pushing forward their solution to the conflict. The power and perceptions created by the media is another running theme of this novel.
Demonstrates the power and perception of images in the media. Chief of staff Ben-Ami mistakes a scene from Iraq for a scene from Israel; ‘He knew those battlefields too well and had almost mistaken the broadcast for one of his own wars when the reporter identified it as Iraq.’ Timothy Jay Smith emphasizes the futility of war many times in this novel and this is one clear example. The repetition of images by the media is also remarked upon here, ‘Then suddenly the same picture popped up on the screens like cherries on a slot machine. A good Samaritan extending his hand to a mother whose injured son lay stretched across her knees.’ The interpretation of the image and representation of the soldier as a hero are strong, and Smith uses the pace well to represent a real-time understanding of the speed at which the photo moves from being just a photo, to an iconic image within hours. This image becomes the central focus of the story, interlinking all characters together in one image.
By and large this work succeeds at showing a balanced view of the conflict and the lives of those characters involved. It illustrates life across every demographic, however the vision could be a little better balanced. The ending felt a little rushed as if all the action had been saved until the end, this added to the pace at the end however but made for slower reading in the first third of the novel. Although there were some interesting twists and surprises, the unsurprising fate of the Arab characters, as well as the occasional incorrect transliteration of Arabic, felt a little disappointing. Nonetheless, Timothy Jay Smith does balance out the predictable terrorist rhetoric with a revealing comment from Avi, an Israeli soldier with a colourful history, that David befriends. He astutely notes that in he eyes of the media, “One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.” This point not only ironically indicates a part of the plot that follows later in the story, but also emphasises the importance of language used by the media in creating and upholding images and perceptions, that serve to perpetuate and exacerbate conflict.