Late in the 1980s, the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank erupted in violent reaction to the Israeli occupation. These events, which in various accounts lasted from 1987 to 1991 or 1993, were known as the First Intifada. That term derives from an Arabic word meaning “shake off,” which accounts for the title of this intriguing novel set midway through the unfolding violence in 1989-90.
Michel Khoury is a young Palestinian man whose family was murdered before his eyes in the Israeli-sponsored massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982. Michel was fifteen at the time. He is continually haunted by the horrific images of that tragic experience and has acquired a codeine habit because he is able to sleep only with the help of the drug. Still in his teens, a shadowy Palestinian operative who goes by the name Abu Leila approaches him (“‘Do you want to see justice done, Michel?'”), offering to pay for his education at top-flight schools. He finds the offer irresistible and is soon off to Cyprus to an international preparatory school where he becomes fluent in English. After training in spycraft and multiple other languages in East Berlin and Moscow, Michel goes undercover in London, where he enrolls under an assumed name in the School of Oriental and African Studies.
Shake Off by Mischa Hiller @@@ (3 out of 5)
Michel serves as an agent for Abu Leila, recruiting a Palestinian physician as a courier and serving himself as a courier (or “cut-out,” in espionage argot) as well. In short order, Michel is charged with setting up arrangements for a “meeting that would change the course of history.” During his work to scout out locations and plan security for the meeting, Michel becomes involved with a young woman named Helen who lives in an adjoining “bedsit” in the house where he sleeps. The complications that ensue between his work as an espionage agent and his budding relationship with Helen form the core of this interesting tale.
Shake Off falls short of qualifying as a thriller. The action builds slowly and climaxes in a way that is hardly surprising. As a portrait of Palestinian sensibilities, however, it’s well worth reading.
Mischa Hiller is a writer of English and Palestinian descent who grew up in London, Beirut, and Dar es Salaam. His first novel, Sabra Zoo, won widespread acclaim and a big literary award. Shake Off is his second novel.
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