There’s so much about this book that’s fascinating and really unique, so I have to give it four stars even if the wheels came off towards the end and the book got weird and disturbing and there was no dramatic climax of any kind. By that point I was already reading it more as a short story collection than as a novel, so I just shrugged that off as the last few chapters not really hitting the mark.
The People of Forever are not Afraid is a book that follows three teenage girls from the same desolate northern Israeli town as they’re thrust from their mundane, boring schoolkid lives into the military machine, and then their struggle to readjust to civilian life afterwards.
Shani Boianjiu’s depictions of young adult life in Israel are unflinching and unsympathetic. Before I started, I’d been concerned that this book might offer a highly romanticised glimpse of what it’s like to serve in the IDF, and I was relieved that it doesn’t at all. Boianjiu’s concern is not justifying anything the IDF does (and nor is it to condemn them, either); what she sets out to do is just depict what it’s like to be an 18 or 19-year-old girl engulfed by this massive institution, and that’s what makes this such an interesting book.
The book’s trio of protagonists – Yael, Avishag and Lea – begin the book in the final year of high school. Yael narrates this first chapter, and introduces the other two girls. Avishag, her best friend, had a brother who killed himself shortly after completing his military service. Lea used to be another friend of theirs, but then ditched them to become “popular”. It’s a curious mix of familiar teen drama tropes and the Israeli reality of militarism and death.
Naturally, the girls are assigned to different sections of the IDF. Avishag joins the IDF’s only all-female combat division, which is stationed at the long-peaceful Egyptian border. Yael becomes a weapons instructor at a military base near Hebron. Lea is – much to her disgust – made to join the military police and sent to man a checkpoint in the West Bank, before a traumatic incident there prompts her to sign up for officer school instead.
The book takes the form of a series of vignettes, some of which are told from the perspectives of one-off characters outside the main trio. In general, the earlier ones are more focused and powerful while the coherency drops off dramatically towards the end. They explore many aspects of military life as well as the multitude of social issues Israel faces. Some examples that stick out in my memory would include:
- Yael describing with amusement how the Palestinian boys from the local village keep stealing small things from her base – a helmet here, a tin of moisturiser there, or some signs – in acts of harmless, petty resistance and then how Boris, who couldn’t even shoot until she taught him, kills one of these Palestinian boys in what Yael feels is an act of cold blood
- Avishag’s job, for a while, being to sit for hours at a time staring at a computer monitor showing a small stretch of the border fence with Egypt, in case anyone approaches
- Israel’s hostility to asylum seekers – to the point that while the IDF is too morally pure to shoot them dead before they can cross the border into Israel, they will happily alert the Egyptians to make sure it’s done
- how thoroughly the IDF scrutinises the Palestinians who wish to cross into Israeli-controlled territory for work, searching for any minor excuse in their paperwork to deny entry… but at the same time, how little they care to stop the smuggling of trafficked women into Israel over the Egyptian border
- the intense ethnic stratification of Israel, even within the Jewish population: for example, Avishag’s parents met when they arrived in Israel, and were forced to stand around naked while Israeli authorities hosed them down with DDT, convinced that these “dirty” immigrants from the Arab world had bodies crawling with diseases; or there's Lea, who acts like she's better than the other girls in their small town because unlike them, she looks European; or there’s the fact that the “cushier” positions in the IDF tend to be reserved for Ashkenazim, with Mizrahim given the grunt work of combat roles and checkpoints
- how utterly boring most days in the IDF are – so many days filled with smoking, gossiping and sex – until, occasionally, a war comes and people die. More than once in this book, a onetime lover of one of the girls is killed in combat, and they just have to shrug that off and keep moving. There’s a point where one of the girls is contemptuous of people who allow themselves the indulgence of mourning someone’s death for years and years, because as far as she’s concerned that's a luxury she’s never had.
The protagonists aren’t exactly the most likeable people, either as schoolgirls (where they amuse themselves playing mean-spirited games) or after their service, which they emerge from damaged in various ways (resulting in some highly disturbing late chapters). A refrain of the book is don’t judge us, which really applies to Israel and the IDF as much as it does to the girls at the narrative’s centre. The thing is, they can plea to not be judged… but it’s you as the reader who has to decide whether that’s reasonable or not.
As I said at the beginning, the book does kind of fall apart in the last few chapters, which covers the girls in their (mostly) post-military lives. There are still some interesting tidbits there, mostly about how the girls had no solid sense of identity before serving and have ended up almost stunted, unable to form real senses of self, afterwards. But there are also long boring passages that seem pointless and other passages that are extremely messed up, but also confusing and they don’t even seem to go anywhere. There's a late chapter where the girls are called up as reservists in the next war, and end up simply being held hostage on base by a group of younger male soldiers, which is particularly baffling in this sense.
But overall, I have to give this book four stars for being such an interesting, insightful description of the military machine in Israel. If you are at all interested in this topic, then despite its messiness and flaws this is a really rewarding read.