A Bottle in the Gaza Sea Summary

Valérie Zenatti

A Bottle in the Gaza Sea

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A Bottle in the Gaza Sea Summary

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A Bottle in the Gaza Sea is a 2005 young adult novel by French author and translator Valérie Zenatti, first published in French as Une bouteille dans la mer de Gaza. The novel begins when seventeen-year-old Israeli Tal Levine learns about a bombing at a neighborhood café. She is moved to send a letter in a bottle, which comes into the hands of twenty-year-old Palestinian Naim al-Farjouk. Tal has included her email address and the two begin a correspondence: initially cagey, their conversation unfolds to address the whole history of the Israel-Palestine conflict and the two young people fall in love, although they never meet.

The story begins with Tal, as she learns about a devastating suicide bombing at the Hillel café, only a block away from her home, where she used to go often with her older brother, Eyton. Because Eyton is currently serving his compulsory military service, she is shaken by this reminder of the violence of the conflict. Even more upsettingly, six people died in the explosion, including a woman who was due to be married the next day. Tal, who is an optimistic, life-loving young woman, cannot understand the motives of the suicide bomber.

She decides to take the problem of cross-cultural understanding into her own hands by writing a letter. She puts the letter into a bottle and asks Eyton to throw it into the Gaza Sea. She hopes that a young Palestinian woman will find the letter and begin a correspondence with her. Eyton, a military nurse, half-buries the bottle on the beach.

A gang of young Palestinian men finds the bottle. They read the letter and they assume it is a joke, at best, or if serious, then too stupid and infuriating to respond to. Hanging over them is the knowledge that there might be serious repercussions within their community if any of them were to be caught emailing an Israeli.

The exception is twenty-year-old Naim. He is so infuriated by Tal’s message, which he sees as naïve, patronizing, and ignorant, that he determines to write back, despite the risk and the difficulty (he can only access the internet intermittently through an internet café).

Surprised to receive an email from “Gazaman” (Naim’s online handle), Tal is shocked by his anger. He accuses her of being idealistic, unrealistic, pampered, and knowing nothing about Palestine.

Tal writes back. A would-be filmmaker who wants to be able to interview people, she attempts to draw Naim out. She is so persistent that after a period of sarcasm and secrecy, he begins to open up about life in Gaza.

He tells her that Gaza is the “garbage dump” of the region: a refugee camp with no trees, shops, proper streets, or paving. He is surrounded by abject poverty and the boredom of people with nothing to do and nowhere to go. Naim also chafes under the strictures of Islamic law. He is not allowed to drink, flirt with girls, or listen to Western music (he likes rap), because those are activities for “unclean American devils.” Everything in Gaza must be imported: it waits for hours at blockades. The electricity comes and goes at random. Through Tal’s diary, we learn her shocked response to this information.

Tal and Naim begin to compare the Israeli and Palestinian versions of the conflict; we also learn more about the region’s history as Tal talks to her tour-guide father, who fills her in on the importance of Jerusalem and its sites to Jews and Muslims (and Christians). Tal describes the 1993 peace treaty signed by Yitzhak Rabin and Bill Clinton (whom she says looked like a soap opera actor). Naim gives her the Palestinian view of the “Nakba” (meaning “disaster”: the expulsion of the Palestinians from much of present-day Israel).

As they discuss these issues, Tal and Naim warm to each other. Naim learns that Tal has come to Israel from France, and he begins to compose his emails in rudimentary French. Tal feels that she is falling in love with Naim, but it troubles her that she only knows him through emails: online communication is “so easy, so deceptive. One could have a thousand pseudonyms, invent different identities, and lie, and have discussions with other people who may be lying too.”

Eventually, Tal and Naim recognize each other as kindred spirits: they want an end to the conflict, and they want to be with each other. Naim decides to take a golden opportunity to leave Palestine to study in Canada. In his final email, he asks Tal to meet him in three years’ time at the Trevi fountain in Rome. She will know him because he will be holding the bottle.

The novel was generally well-received, with Kirkus Reviews praising its portrayal of “a haunting relationship that will help teens understand both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” In 2013, A Bottle in the Gaza Sea was adapted into a movie of the same name, directed by Thierry Binisti.