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February 10, 2020 2:56 pm

Novel Depicting a Jewish-Muslim Romance Sparks Controversy in Saudi Arabia

avatar by Benjamin Kerstein

Cars drive past the King Abdullah Financial District in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Dec. 18, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Faisal Al Nasser.

A bestselling novel about a Jewish-Muslim romance has aroused fascination and controversy in Saudi Arabia, with charges being made that the book was intended to advance Israel’s diplomatic interests.

The Israeli news site Mako reported on Monday that author Raja Bandar’s book, The Foreign Jew, tells the story of a struggling Jewish woman from Yemen who marries a wealthy Arab man. The couple has a child who — because Jewish descent is matrilineal and Muslim descent patrilineal — is considered to be a member of both religions.

The couple divorces and the daughter is raised Jewish, but her mother eventually dies and the girl is sent to live with her father in a very conservative Muslim environment, where she struggles to maintain her Jewish identity.

Response to the book was electric, with some readers charging that it is an attempt to prepare the Saudi public for the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which have grown warmer in recent years in the face of a mutual threat from Iran.

Ultra-conservative religious forces in the kingdom have also criticized the book, saying it should not be read because it exposes readers to an intimate interfaith romance between a Jew and a Muslim.

Many, however, have praised the novel, and even saw it as a “source of pride.”

Bandar herself says that she wrote the book out of a lifelong interest in Jews from Arab countries, and that she was aware the novel would be controversial.

She denied that she was trying to “normalize” Israel among Saudis and charged those who claimed otherwise were doing so based on their own personal interpretations and not her intentions.

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