- West Bank Story
In Ronit & Jamil, Pamela Laskin delivers a beguiling young adult novel in verse. As Ronit, an Israeli girl, and Jamil, a Palestinian boy, fall in love and deploy their ingenuity to outwit those who would thwart their romantic relationship, the reader is likely to fall in love with both of these spirited characters. Ronit and Jamil share a passion for one another, as well as a resolve to escape the usual fate of star-crossed lovers.
The characters's names intentionally recall those of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (1597) and Laskin makes the most of this allusion by liberally quoting the bard. While Jamil cites the Muslim poets Rumi and Darwish, Ronit is acutely aware of the similarities between her plight and Juliet's. She cites Romeo and Juliet numerous times, as when she compares the bronze color of Jamil's skin to her own: "'I am whiter than new snow / upon a raven's back'" and later, when she realizes the speed with which the relationship is growing in intensity. "'It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden / too like lightning.'"
The poems that comprise Ronit and Jamil are distributed among five acts as in Shakespeare's play and written in the alternating voices of the love-struck teens—voices that are more alike than distinct from one another. This resemblance reflects a conscious decision on Laskin's part, ostensibly to highlight the similarities between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. Such likenesses are further emphasized by the parallels between corresponding Hebrew and Arabic words and customs, as when Jamil describes his mother's good food. "We talk / around the dinner table: / Ommi's good food: / Hummus, falafel, baba ghanoush." On the next page, the scene portrayed at Ronit's house is identical, except for a slight difference in the word for mother. "We talk / around the dinner table: / Imah's good food: / Hummus, falafel, baba ghanoush."
Similarly, Ronit speaks of accompanying her "Abba" to work and Jamil mentions going to the clinic with his "Abi." The teens' fathers work together at a medical facility, Jamil's as a doctor and Ronit's as a pharmacist. Their collegial relationship at the clinic paves the way for Ronit and Jamil to become acquainted. One wonders whether the casualness of the two fathers in allowing their children to meet might not reflect a strong, though unconscious, wish for unity and peace.
Indeed, both Ronit and Jamil notice the irony in the fact that they physically resemble one another (except for Ronit's paler skin). When Ronit first sees Jamil, she says, "Who are you? / You could be my brother / (though I have no brother) / but not the way I feel / when I look / into those dreamy hazel eyes of yours." Later in the book, when the two take a walk together, Jamil is confident that no one will notice anything amiss. "[W]e are together / and we look like siblings. / No one knows / how burnt I am around her."
Despite the similarities in the voices of Ronit and Jamil, the two are sometimes disarmingly distinct as when Ronit thinks, "Arab boy, / with your gaze / my skin / slips off of/my heart." Jamil, however, momentarily preoccupied with his own buff body assumes that Ronit is equally enthralled: "Israeli girl, / I know you are looking / at the muscles in my arms. / (I work with weights / most days)." When these differences appear, they lend a charming slant to the parallelism of the voices. The fact that Ronit's and Jamil's sentiments do not always precisely coincide provides the characters with a credibility that they might not otherwise enjoy.
The poems incorporate a variety of forms, including sonnets, pantoums, and ghazals in addition to free verse. The repetition that occurs in the pantoums and ghazals recalls both the "tale as old as time" quality of the couple's forbidden love and the enduring nature of the conflict that has made it forbidden. Both occur generation after generation.
In the pantoum, "He Touched My Hand," Ronit gives...