Ayelet Tsabari’s The Art of Leaving is a sensual and moving memoir in three acts, an odyssey of wanderlust and homecoming that’s complete with sirens, lotus-eaters and even a kind of one-eyed monster (in the form of ruthless teens with a vendetta.)
It’s hard to resist Tsabari’s voice in this book, her follow-up to the much-lauded short story collection The Best Place on Earth. This hero’s journey is that of a young Yemeni-Israeli woman navigating personal loss and fractured identity with disarming candour and humour through stories propelled by an adventurer’s joie-de-leave.
The first chapters establish the narrator’s psychological jet fuel; an early tragedy and her fascination with the popular singer, Ofra Haza, awakens her to Israeli society’s double standards. Tsabari shares Yemeni heritage with her idol, Haza. But in Israel this makes them both Mizrahi, a name for largely Middle-Eastern Jews (though this definition is hotly debated), stereotyped as providing the country with good singers and turmeric-bright cuisine, while taking low-paying jobs and living in marginal neighbourhoods.
In one of her early breakout pop tunes, Haza uses the Arabic-derived word “freha” through which the writer explores the double-edge of being Mizrahi and female:
“I had seen frehas in my neighborhood, older girls from the technical high school down the street who sat on the barricades holding cigarettes with thin manicured fingers, laughing loudly, their bodies bursting from their tight revealing outfits and their gaits assured and all-sex.”
Later, Tsabari’s “freha” impression ( it would win her the role of a “vulgar, angry wife for a Turkish coffee commercial”) functions as an alter ego, one that she relies on to be entertaining, but also to feel free, as long as no one mistakes it for the real her.
She brings this ambivalent identity and nascent feminism into compulsory service with the Israeli Defense Force. It does not go well. Tsabari’s time in the army, where “… the smell of desert dust and gunpowder [is] sweetened by girls’ moisturizers and lotions” is both lushly painted and funny. As a 19-year-old, she pushes back against the Ashkenazi men who dominate the military’s upper ranks. “I’m busy. I’m eating a carrot,” she tells a newly minted second lieutenant eager to throw his weight around. Insubordination lands her in front of military justice 10 times until this: “We had a cold parting the army and I, a limp handshake with no eye contact.”
And then like Odysseus with his military work finished, the author begins an epic meander: criss-crossing from New York, to India, Thailand, South China, L.A. and Vancouver, with short stays back home. Lovers and some psychoactive substances ensue – one gorgeously sensual stay in the Goa could be titled “Eat, Toke, Love” — punctuated by an expected chug on a kerosene bottle and uncomfortably peeling feet (you’ll have to read to understand).
The final section of the book, “Return,” begins with a riveting chapter called “Tough Chick” in which Tsabari, now in Vancouver, braids the story of a burgeoning romantic relationship with her future husband and the account of an assault during a Commercial Drive bus ride on Hallowe’en.
“Trauma is a bit like falling in love: as sneaky, astounding and unstoppable,” she writes. “And I should know, because in my case, these two are sliding in parallel streams under my door.”
If loss is the drawstring that tugs at her throughout her rambles, love is what tightens it and closes the circle. The book’s final chapters see her return to her old neighborhood to watch the demolition of her childhood home and discover the true story of a reviled great grandmother, “the bad mother,” in order to reconcile herself with becoming a parent. And the author starts to cook – chopped salads; bisbas; Yemeni soup and ugat shmarim, a braided yeast cake that makes you “dizzy with desire” — the way her mother and grandmothers did.
By leaving and leaving and leaving, the writer comes to understand what it is to belong, and the result is a wise and generous account of a young woman’s search for a way of being at home in the world.
Krista Foss' short fiction appears in a forthcoming issue of Granta and has twice been a finalist for the Journey Prize. Krista’s essay writing, which won the PRISM international creative non-fiction contest (2016), has been nominated for a National Magazine Award, and featured in Best Canadian Essays. Her first novel Smoke River, published by McClelland & Stewart (2014), won the Hamilton Literary Award.
Follow Krista on Twitter @kristafoss.