Book Reviews

Waking Lions

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The Author

If you have not heard of Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, it’s time that you do. Born in Israel, she has worked for the Israeli civil rights movement. She brings to light in her writing issues many people may not be familiar with. Additionally, Gundar-Goshen is an award-winning screenwriter. Waking Lions is her very first novel published in the U.S. Translated into 14 languages, it has won the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Literary Prize.

The Novel ~ Waking Lions

Waking Lions has been described as dark, thrilling, clever, disturbing, and morally ambiguous. It is not a PG read. The Guardian said, “Begins with such velocity that you can’t put it down.” I would say that this is true. The ease that Gundar-Goshen weaves a complex story is impressive. She draws you in until you are wondering what you would have done if you were each of the main characters. When you read the first sentence, “He’s thinking that the moon is the most beautiful he has ever seen when he hits the man,” you might think that you know how you would react in that circumstance. The more you read, however, the more Gundar-Goshen will create questions in your mind of the ease of your possible choices.

As you focus on the story plot, you could almost miss the serious current of race relations in Israel. One of the main characters, Sirkit, is constantly referred to as “the Eritrean woman,” “the black-eyed Che Guevara,” and the “Eritrean bitch.” And even when you think you have Sirkit figured out, you don’t. She tells Eitan, “During the day, you can do whatever you want, but you will keep your nights free” (Gundar-Goshen 43). Trust me, it’s not what you are thinking.

Israel – The Unpromised Land in Waking Lions?

Bar Peleg, with the online Haaretz Newspaper in Israel, reports, “Since June 2019, Israel has rejected 98.5 percent of Eritrean asylum requests, with a 1.5-percent approval rate. Among EU countries the average approval rate is 63 percent.” Writing for PBS Newshour, P.J. Tobia reports “Today, there are roughly 35,895 Eritreans living in Israel” and “Eritrean migrants travel hundreds of miles over land, some on foot.

The threat of kidnap and torture at the hands of Bedouins who control the Sinai — which most refugees cross to get to Israel from Africa — is ever present.” The UN reports that many Eritreans do not survive the journey. One Eritrean refugee, Winnie Beyene, was kidnapped from a refugee camp in Sudan. The men threatened to harvest her children’s organs if she didn’t give them $30,000 (Tobia). Tobia says that once reaching Israel, refugees can be imprisoned for a minimum of three years for crossing the border. Many report that if they are allowed to work, they are not paid and are beaten for asking to be paid.

Waking Lions ~ Discrimination & Imprisonment

Members of Israel’s parliament call the immigrants “a cancer” and a “plague.” Protestors yell “Blacks out!” Molotov cocktails have been thrown at apartments where immigrants live, even one with a daycare inside. Attacks have also happened in Jerusalem. Many of the immigrants are kidnapped from camps after leaving Eritrea, and taken to Israel against their will. Kidnappings and rape happen every day in the camps in Sudan.

An interview with a Catholic nun, Sister Azezet, is heartbreaking. Azezet tells of victims who have been shown body parts as threats, rapes, tortures with cattle prods, starvation, and plastic bags set on fire and thrown on them. If Eritrean immigrants want to make it from Sudan to Israel, they must cross Egypt where guards have a “shoot on sight” policy (Tobia). Many Eritreans do not plan at all to go to Israel. Kidnapped and taken there, they then face discrimination and imprisonment.

Why leave Eritrea?

In Eritrea, over 66% of people live below the poverty line, facing a dictator and recurrent wars. Those who speak out end up in jail. The president, Isaias Afwerki, was once a young guerrilla fighter. He is brutal, charismatic, and has a split personality as reported by the BBC News. Some accuse him of encouraging bloodshed.

Gundar-Goshen’s Drama

If you decide to read this book, you will now have much more knowledge and understanding than I did when I began to read. I had never heard of Gundar-Goshen. I had no idea about the Eritrean kidnappings, migrations, racism, and politics. The novel illuminates real issues that people face now in Israel, like not being able to receive medical care because few clinics in Tel Aviv will accept migrants. The lack of doctors willing to donate their time, the lack of medicine, the crime and the violence is all real. Gundar-Goshen brings it to life in a much more personal way than news headlines ever could.

Sitting with Sirkit

Waking Lions will draw you in. You will wish you could sit down with Sirkit and maybe have some of her courage. You will wish you could give Dr. Eitan’s wife some advice. Perhaps you will wish you could change Dr. Eitan himself. Or maybe you won’t wish anything after you read. Maybe you will judge each character and think you would never do what any of them did. We make lots of choices each day that potentially can change the trajectory of our entire lives and the lives of those around us. No one can make those choices for us and we lie responsible for what we have done.

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