I read Ronit & Jamil by Pamela L. Laskin for the Book Riot Reader Harder Challenge’s “Read an audiobook of poetry” category. It is a contemporary, poetic retelling of Romeo and Juliet about an Israeli girl and a Palestinian boy living in modern Palestine. With the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestine conflict, the trope of star-crossed lovers becomes more understandable and heartbreaking.
I am a defender of Romeo & Juliet, both the characters and the play. Yes, they were kids. Yes, they were rash. But suicide is always in some element tragic, especially when it is young people who feel driven to commit the act in the face of overwhelming despair. It is easy for adults (or cynical teens) to scoff and look at all of the life left for these two but I wonder how many of them remember what it feels like to be a teen and to have these feelings for the first time. You don’t exist in a timeline when you’re young, you’re far more focused in the moment and if the ones you trust and have been told to follow are forcing you into a future you can’t stand, it’s normal to feel trapped. The big miscommunications are hard for modern audiences to understand when we can reach out and talk to someone in an instant instead of sending letters that can be mixed up or delayed. And when you break down the primary catalysts for catastrophe it is more about the meddling and influence of adults trying to guide and push Romeo & Juliet, regardless of theri intent, rather than just spontaneity or stupidity on the protagonists’ part. All of that being said, I was open to a modern take on a much lampooned story and I was not disappointed in the slightest.
The language of Ronit & Jamil is beautiful and I felt it was fairly easy to navigate. I did feel, much like when I read The Presence of Absence by Mahmoud Darwish, that I would have gained more by being more educated about the conflict as well as the culture of both Israel and Palestine. I am very glad I had read Darwish’s work before so I had some level of familiarity with the topic overall. That being said, I don’t feel that anything I didn’t understand impeded my enjoyment of the work. As I said the language is beautiful and the stakes are much clearer and higher, which may help people who don’t like Romeo & Juliet to still enjoy this work. The author also provides a space for fathers of Ronit & Jamil to monologue about their inner thoughts and fears for their children which helps humanize the parents and validate their concerns.
The author makes an interesting choice to give Ronit & Jamil an open-ended but decidedly happier ending than the original play. It does not end in their mutual suicides but instead with them going over their plans to run away to America with the help of distant family members, mourning the losses they must bear and trying to give each other hope with thoughts of the future they may have together. It is possible to view the ending as just as tragic as the original with the couple doomed to the same fate as the original pair they represent. But I think that Laskin was making a choice to give these two some peace. In the play Romeo & Juliet’s lives, while fraught with interfamily conflict, is still a fairly privileged one. They’re both financially and socially well off and while their lives are not without challenges they have a much better prospect than most. Ronit & Jamil grow up in an area fraught with conflict far beyond anything Romeo & Juliet faced and their prospects are much more dire. I liked Laskin providing this chance at happiness for Ronit & Jamil, while leaving the ending open enough for the reader to consider and decide what they thought may happen on their own. And the reader knows that the life they try to have in America will be rife with new challenges and obstacles such as xenophobia, racism, and a struggle to survive. But they will have a chance and I think that a chance is the best anyone can hope for in the end.