In debut novel, Ruth Marks Eglash pens an ode to Jerusalem
'Parallel Lines' takes place against the backdrop of heightened tensions in the holy city
Ruth Marks Eglash’s eldest children were teenagers during the wave of violence in late 2015 and early 2016 that saw dozens of Israelis killed by Palestinian terrorists. The longtime journalist, who was used to writing about the attacks for an adult audience, found herself having to explain the violence to her three children, the youngest of whom was 12 at the time.
One of her daughters “was traveling every day from where we live, from the suburbs, into the city center,” Eglash told Jewish Insider. “This whole series of stabbing and shooting and vehicle attacks started happening in Jerusalem almost every day. And they were all near her school, which is right in the center of the western part of Jerusalem… And she was coming home and asking me, ‘What’s happening? Why was there a suspicious package? There was a pigua, a terrorist attack. We heard the ambulances, they wouldn’t let us out of the building. What’s happening?’”
The questions inspired Eglash, whose debut novel, Parallel Lines, hits bookstores tomorrow, to take off her reporting hat and approach a new way of writing, but one that hews closely to her instincts as a journalist used to bringing nuance and context to complex situations. Parallel Lines traces the journeys of three fictional teenage girls — one from a secular Jewish family, one from an observant Jewish family and one Muslim — amid the uptick in violence that kept Jerusalem on edge for six months.
“The idea for this book really came from the children asking me questions,” Eglash explained. “When I thought about it, I thought, ‘Here we are, we explain as journalists, we explain the conflict to our audience, which is mostly adults, but at the same time, there are children involved here.’ It’s an adult conflict that is going on and on and on. It’s an intractable conflict. There is no solution. No one’s working to find the solution. And at the same time, there’s another generation of young people growing up in the middle of it.”
Eglash, who grew up in London before moving to Israel in 1994, has spent her professional career reporting the nuances of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, spending more than a decade at The Jerusalem Post in a variety of roles before joining the Washington Post as deputy bureau chief. She joined Jewish Insider in September 2021 as a senior correspondent.
She had been at the Washington Post for about a year at the start of Operation Protective Edge, which paralyzed the country during the summer of 2014, sending Israelis across the country — including in Eglash’s neighborhood — into bomb shelters as Hamas fired thousands of rockets into the country. It was the first time, she said, she had to explain the conflict to two sets of audiences.
“On the one hand, I had these three young people at home, who were starting to become aware of Israel’s situation, or of the conflict surrounding Israel. And on the other hand, I had this gig writing for the Washington Post and explaining to the world, essentially, what was happening in Israel. So it was happening in my home and it was happening outside, and I found at a certain point, I found it much easier to write a news story and explain what was happening here to millions of people around the world than I did explaining the conflict and what was happening to my kids, because I didn’t want to start telling them things that I wrote in the newspaper because then they would be scared to go out of the house.”
Many of the scenes in Parallel Lines are drawn from Eglash’s time in the field. “There were definitely parts of the book that I took from my experiences or stories that I reported on,” she said. “When I mention some of the attacks that take place in the book, [they] were based on real-life ones that I covered for the Washington Post.”
Eglash pointed in particular to the experiences of Nour, the Palestinian character. Some of the incidents Nour encounters “were based on things that young Palestinian women that I interviewed for the book told me. They shared with me some really shocking and sad stories about what it’s like to be a young Arab woman living in Jerusalem.”
The book covers a broad range of Israeli societal issues. Rivki, the religious teen, expresses interest in the secular world, a taste of which she gets through the stories of her sister-in-law, an office worker with a desk job, as she struggles with the fast-moving engagement of her older sister. The secular Tamar struggles with her classmates’ antagonism towards the Arab community, at one point landing her at a protest that turns violent. And Nour, a Palestinian resident of Jerusalem, holds a desire to learn about her Jewish neighbors that is at odds with her brother’s growing radicalization — tensions that are exacerbated when an American cousin comes to visit.
Though Parallel Lines covers sensitive issues, Eglash hopes that readers will take the nuance she introduces in the book into consideration when forming their own opinions about the conflict.
“I think it’s really important to me that people who read it will read the narrative of the other side,” Eglash said, “because I know this conflict has become so polarizing. Everything’s become polarizing today in this world. Every group has its narrative and no one wants to hear the other narrative. And that’s why it was so important for me to have these three perspectives in the book together.”
While Parallel Lines centers around three main characters, the story’s arc makes it impossible to ignore a fourth looming figure: Jerusalem. “What’s interesting about Jerusalem,” Eglash explained, “is that everyone lives intermingled together.”
The girls’ stories are told in vignettes that don’t intersect — much like how their communities, despite the interconnectedness of Jerusalem, are largely siloed from each other — until deep into the book. The book’s title is a nod to Jerusalem’s divergent communities: living alongside each other, but never quite meeting.
During the writing process, Eglash had become a fan of the Hunger Games series. As she was reading the trilogy, she explained, “I was thinking, ‘Oh my god, this is just like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And then I read an interview with [Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins], and she was talking about the price of conflict on young people. And I thought, ‘Hers is like a dystopian tale of what happens in a world after there’s been a war and it’s divided into four quarters, and then they have this annual Hunger Games, but actually in Jerusalem, that happens now. That’s what’s going on. There’s divisions.”
The divisions play out in obvious ways: when, for example, Nour’s brother is arrested by Israeli forces on charges of inciting violence, or when Tamar faces pressure from her friends over her growing romantic relationship with an Arab classmate.
But in many ways, the three central characters voice the thoughts of many residents of — and visitors to — Jerusalem. In one scene, Nour, traveling on the city’s new light rail, listens to the automated announcements at each stop, given in Hebrew, Arabic and English. “She’s just wondering, is this her city?’ Eglash said. “And how is it that other people refer to it and see it in a totally different way?”
Eglash has lived in Jerusalem for most of the last three decades — longer, she pointed out, than she lived in her native U.K. “The more I think and write about what happens here, the less I understand it,” she said. “The more I go out and talk to people…you know, it’s a mystery. It’s an eternal mystery.”