52 pages 1 hour read

Valérie Zenatti

A Bottle in the Gaza Sea

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2005

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Summary and Study Guide


A Bottle in the Gaza Sea (2005) is a young adult novel by French author and translator Valérie Zenatti. It was first published in French as Une bouteille dans la mer de Gaza. The novel begins when 17-year-old Israeli Tal Levine learns about a bombing at a neighborhood café. She is moved to send a letter in a bottle, which reaches 20-year-old Palestinian Naïm Al-Farjouk. Tal included her email address, and they begin corresponding. Initially cagey, their conversation soon address the wider history of the Israel-Palestine conflict and what it means for them individually. As a work of young adult fiction, the novel employs an engaging narrative style to address serious content and themes, including The Impact of Geopolitical Conflict on Individual Lives, The Power of Storytelling and Communication, The Complexities of Identity and Belonging in a Divided Society, and Hope Versus Despair. The novel was well-received, with Kirkus Reviews praising its portrayal of “a haunting relationship that will help teens understand both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” (“A Bottle in the Gaza Sea.” Kirkus Reviews). In 2013, A Bottle in the Gaza Sea was adapted into a movie of the same name, directed by Thierry Binisti.

This study guide uses the 2008 edition published by Bloomsbury Books for Young Readers.

Content Warning: The novel addresses themes of violence, conflict, trauma, and political tension. It includes references to suicide bombings, terrorism, death, and mental health conditions.

Plot Summary

The story begins with Tal learning about a devastating suicide bombing at the Hillel Café a block away from her home, where she used to go often with her older brother, Eytan. Eytan is currently serving his compulsory military service, and Tal 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, which she puts into a bottle and asks Eytan to throw it into the Gaza Sea the next time he is on duty. She hopes that a young Palestinian woman will find the letter and begin corresponding with her, finding similarities in their lives. Eytan, wary of being seen to have peaceable connections with anyone in Gaza, half-buries the bottle on the beach.

While seeking solitude by the sea, 20-year-old Naïm finds the bottle and reads the letter. 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, as he can only access the internet intermittently through an internet café, where he risks his interactions with an Israeli being observed.

Surprised to receive an email from “Gazaman,” Naïm’s online handle, Tal is shocked by his anger. He accuses her of being idealistic, pampered, and ignorant about the lives of Palestinian people. Tal writes back. A would-be filmmaker who wants to interview people and tell big stories, she attempts to draw Naïm out. She is so persistent that, after a period of sarcasm and secrecy, he begins to open up about life in Gaza.

Naïm writes that life in Gaza is suffocating, a mix of Israeli settlements, refugee camps, and small neighborhoods. He also chafes under the strictures of Islamic law. He is not allowed to drink, flirt with girls, or listen to Western music, because those are activities for “the unclean, [...] for American devils, and anyone Americanized” (32). The feeling of being suffocated, limited, banned from his dreams has made him angry and confused—feelings he slowly reveals to Tal in response to her incessant, heartfelt, and probing emails.

Tal and Naïm compare the Israeli and Palestinian versions of the conflict; Tal’s narrative shares the region’s history through talks with her tour-guide father, who expounds on the historic significance of Jerusalem and its sites to Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Tal describes her family’s hopes for peace following the 1993 Oslo Accords signed by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat and their devastation when Rabin was assassinated. Naïm shares the Palestinian view of the assassination and the violence against an Israeli prime minister by a fellow Israeli resulting in punishment for Palestinians when their borders were sealed.

The pair also discuss everyday aspects of their lives. When Tal asks what Naïm does when he is bored, he paints an unexpected picture of life for young men in Gaza. He writes that he is surrounded by the boredom of people with nothing to do and nowhere to go. They used to be able to move more freely and work in Israel, but that ended with the Intifada, which often turns to violence and reinforces stereotypes about “the Palestinians” as a collective whole. Everything in Gaza must be imported through blockades that can take hours. The electricity comes and goes at random. Naïm begins reshaping Tal’s perspective.

Tal and Naïm warm to each other. When Tal hears about civilians in Gaza being killed and expresses concern that Naïm might be among them, he is shocked and touched. Both begin falling in love and are disturbed by these feelings, by the impossible boundary between them, and their tenuous online connection; Tal feels that email communication is “so easy, so deceptive. [...] You can invent different identities and lie, and have discussions with other people who may be lying too” (61). Tal’s feelings are also complicated by the fact that she has a loving and dedicated boyfriend, Ori, and that she has kept her emails with Gazaman a secret.

When Naïm hears that there has been a bombing where Tal said she was heading, he frantically emails to check if she is alright. Tal, who was working on a film project at the site of the bombing, is physically unhurt but suffering from the shock and trauma of what she witnessed. It takes several days for her to respond to Naïm, and their conversations deepen as they both share more about their feelings and the impacts of the conflict on their lives.

Eventually, Tal and Naïm admit their deep connection to themselves and each other. Naïm sends a final email explaining that he has an opportunity to leave Gaza and study medicine in Canada, sharing his hopes for his own future and for the chance to return someday to a peaceful homeland. 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.

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By Valérie Zenatti