The enemy within

<strong>The Attack</strong>

Yasmina Khadra <em>William Heinemann, 272pp, £10.99</em>

ISBN 043401

When the identities of the 7 July bombers were revealed, the news that one of them worked in a fish-and-chip shop seemed more startling than that another worked at a primary school, or that a third had a heavily pregnant wife. Fish and chips are, after all, so English: a British-Asian man working in such a shop should be the very picture of assimilation.

Ideas of assimilation and terrorism are powerfully taken up in Yasmina Khadra's The Attack. Dr Amin Jaafari is a highly successful Israeli-Arab surgeon; he is hardly free of discrimination and suspicion, but he is able to wear these inconveniences lightly, recognising the honours, prestige and material wealth - and their corollary, social acceptability - that is a more significant part of his life in Tel Aviv. He turns his back on the politics of Israel and Palestine, and dedicates himself to the only thing worth fighting for: human life, regardless of whom that life belongs to. Yet all the certainties of his existence are shattered the day his best friend, Navid Ronnen, a senior police official, tells him that his beloved wife, Sihem, has been killed in a suicide attack, and that all the evidence suggests she was the suicide bomber.

Newspapers respond with headlines such as "THE FILTHY BEAST IS AMONG US". However, the nation's extreme reaction to finding that one of its own citizens is "the enemy within" is nothing compared to the reaction of the husband, who must start to consider that everything he believed about his wife - and, by extension, about his marriage and perhaps even his life - has been a lie. Khadra moves us deftly and poignantly through the different stages of Jaafari's response: denial, shock, anger, to a point that is almost indistinguishable from madness. Jaafari retraces his wife's footsteps, interrogates those he believes to have brainwashed or collaborated with her, and puts himself in personal danger time and again without ever having a clear idea of what it is he hopes to achieve.

Jaafari's quest takes him from Tel Aviv to Bethlehem to Jerusalem and, finally, to the other side of "the Wall" - Jenin. Some of Khadra's most evocative writing is reserved for the cities through which Jaafari travels. "By turn Olympus and ghetto, muse and concubine, temple and arena, Jerusalem suffers from an inability to inspire poets without inflaming passions. It's crumbling, heavy-hearted, breaking up like its prayers amid the blasphemy of guns." Later, "in Jenin, Reason has a mouth full of broken teeth, and it rejects any prosthesis capable of giving it back its smile". At times Khadra's writing strains against the boundary separating the lush from the purple, but in many ways the style is entirely apt - what is the language to describe such a world?

As Jaafari travels through landscapes that seem to reflect back the growing incoherence and desperation of his thoughts, there is one idea to which he continues to cling: "The only battle I believe in, the only one that really deserves bleeding for, is the battle the surgeon fights, which consists in recreating life in the place where death has chosen to conduct its manoeuvres." But Khadra is not interested in writing a novel in which political positions remain uninterrogated. On his travels, Jaafari meets a number of Palestinians who view his wife as a hero and a martyr, and Jaafari as weak and without conscience. These Palestinians do not speak with a single voice. There is, for instance, a world of difference between Imam Marwan, who informs his followers that they have only their lives to give, and the Palestinian commander who explains: "There are only two extreme moments in human madness: the instant when you become aware of your own impotence and the instant when you become aware of the vulnerability of others. It's a question of accepting one's madness, Doctor, or suffering it."

But the characters are not mere mouthpieces - above all else, this is a novel about a man who feels himself betrayed. Amin Jaafari's very human drama is the heart of this thoughtful and affecting work.

Kamila Shamsie's most recent novel is "Broken Verses" (Bloomsbury)