Mapping the Word

“The reality has become too complex and overwhelming. I identify with both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian con!ict and have become incapable of dealing with it in my work”, says young Israeli novelist Sami Berdugo.  “The stories of our spiritual fathers like Amoz Oz and A B Yeshoshua are wonderful but I feel that I no longer fit  into the clear picture of that narrative.”

At this third International Writers Festival in Jerusalem writers have come from all over the world to share ideas about books and writing, reminding the outsider, parachuting in for a brief snapshot, that there was a time when Jerusalem was perceived according to the Medieval map to be the centre of the world. Some forty-five events link the myriad preoccupations of Dutch, Italian, Palestinian, Argentinean, Algerian, Swiss, Icelandic, Russian, Bosnian, Hungarian, Norwegian and even English writers. For a new generation of Israelis, like Sami Berdugo confused by the conflict and disturbed by perceived hostility towards Israel, the international band of visiting colleagues is an affirmation of their place in the wider literary world, particularly bearing in mind that some writers came in the face of opposition in their own countries, whilst the identity of one Palestinian writer could never be published before during or after the event, for fear of retribution back home.

Perched on a hilltop ridge, Mishkenot Sha’ananim, literally “dwellings of tranquillity”, provide an extraordinary setting, looking out over the green and lovely Valley of Hinnom (whose image has improved since it was described by early Jewish sages as the gates of hell). The backdrop is so familiar it’s become a visual cliché, yet it remains disarmingly beautiful: the ancient walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, echoed in the distance by “that wall”, built in different centuries with a similar motive, attempting to exclude unwelcome realities and induce a feeling of safety.

Inside these apparently tranquil environs the several auditoria of Mishkenot, with an added festival tent, are mostly “filled to bursting point for this hugely popular week-long event; audiences are regaled with both wit and profundity by their local heroes who are themselves encountering their heroes from elsewhere. Israeli authors are paired with their overseas contemporaries. The Russian American Gary Shteyngart (he recently turned a savage wit on American culture in Super Sad True Love Story) meets Israeli master of the quirkily surreal, Etgar Keret, by now internationally successful, in a wonderfully hilarious session, located somewhere in the territory between Woody Allen and Philip Roth.  Popular Israeli novelist Orly Castel-Bloom meets with the Argentinian Claudia Pineiro, whose recent novel Elena Sabe has just been published in Hebrew. Solveig Eggerz, the Icelandic/ American, meets the much translated Israeli novelist Zeruya Shalev. David Grossman is there, of course, as is Amoz Oz, both of them interviewed, in separate sessions, with musical accompaniment. And A B Yehoshua, another of the “spiritual fathers”, meets Boualem Sansal, the much feted Algerian, whose books are banned in his own country, and who defied censure at home and across the Arab world for visiting Israel. Sporting a grey pony-tail, Sansal, (talking in French with simultaneous translation) told a panel of writers: “When I accepted this invitation I became the target of condemnation but I thought it was important to come to Israel and to prove my autonomy from the government.”

The Arab Israeli writer Sayed Kashua is paired with Bosnian American Aleksandar Hemon, both of them huge admirers of each other’s work, and both writing in a language not their own. They talk here of the refugee experience, Kashua referring to himself as a refugee in his own country, despite the fact that he is something of a luminary in the cultural life of Israel: he created and writes the successful television sitcom, Avoda Aravit (Arab Labour) which is a phrase used to mean second-rate work; he is also a regular columnist for HaAretz, and his latest novel Second Personal Singular, just published in English, has as its main protagonist a prominent Arab Israeli lawyer who, like Kashua, sends his child to an integrated school, and is motivated, the fictional character claims, by the desire to get a good education rather than any notion of creating a better society. The expressed wish for coexistence, he says, is nothing but a cover for what they are really doing, sending their children “like spies into the heart of a foreign culture”.  There is ambivalence towards the surrounding Jewish culture, resenting its dominance while at the same time envying its higher educational and western-influenced cultural aspirations.  Kashua is preoccupied with the notion of identity, perhaps not surprising for someone who grew up in a small Arab village, from where he was sent by his parents aged fifteen to a Jewish Israeli boarding school, where he began writing in Hebrew.

“I remember how scared I was when I first dared to write in Hebrew. It needed a lot of chutzpah. There was a story I wanted to tell: I was reading Israeli writers on what happened in ’48 and I realised that what happened according to my grandmother’s stories was different….In the first month at that school I was totally a stranger.  I wanted to master the language, even though for me it was also ‘the language of the enemy’…I no longer write in Arabic and it has cost me a lot to disconnect from my culture.”

Aleksandar Hemon also carved a new reality though language: he found himself stranded in Chicago in 1992, just as the war in Sarajevo was starting, and has been there ever since. He still uses Bosnian for his journalism but his career as a literary novelist has been entirely in English, achieving a level which has brought comparison with Joseph Conrad. “When my American ex-wife told me a certain phrase was ‘not how we speak’ I replied ‘well now we do’ … Maybe because I’m a little arrogant but also because I think you have to appropriate a language and make it your own. I took it and now it’s mine: no one can take it away from me.”

And indeed, despite or perhaps because of occasional linguistic quirkiness he succeeds in luring the reader into his singular reality.  The Lazarus Project brings the hardships of immigrant life unforgettably to life: Hemon combines a story resembling his own with the quest to unravel the real-life murder of a Jewish immigrant in turn of the twentieth century Chicago.

“Storytelling becomes a mode of survival.  For me, I lost a language, a life. And I was young enough to reorganize my life so that the loss became converted to something else. My life was split between before and after the trauma and I found that a story can make it into one again.” Like many Israeli writers, though perhaps for different reasons, Kashua seems to view the life of writers elsewhere with a certain amount of envy. There is also, of course, ambivalence.  Israeli novelist Amir Gutfreund is paired with Dutch writer Arnon Grunberg (now living in New York) and tells of how he longed as a teenager growing up in Israel to go and live in Amsterdam, where he felt sure that life would be better and less complicated. He also, though, has come to realise that there are advantages to a writer living in Israel:

“I know it sounds idiotic, but I’m a patriot.  In Israel the reality bites you. It’s easier to be meaningful as a writer because there is constant crisis. You must make decisions, make a point; all the time there’s crisis, so you have to constantly be up against something”.

Gutfreund and Grunberg have each won a number of literary prizes and are much translated from the Hebrew and Dutch of the originals.  They are both sons of holocaust survivors (perhaps why they were paired?) and in some way, as Gutfreund believes, always connected to that trauma. Grunberg prefers to reject that identity, with its implication of victimhood, even though his writing, as he admits, is constantly involved with the insecurities of his identity as a Diaspora Jew. Gutfreund suggests he come to Israel if he wants to feel secure. “You might die but it’s very beautiful”, he quips, and goes on to mention an idea from Herzl “What is more Jewish than the longing not to be Jewish?” The audience is predominantly Israeli and enjoys the irony of his words.

None of these writers are under any illusion about the role of literature as a force for change.

As Aleksandar Hemon puts it:

“Literature is the least efficient way of changing the world but it does change the human mind: it allows for a space in which two people from distant realms of experience can find common ground and communicate.”

Sayed Kashua is less optimistic:

“I used to think I could change things by addressing Israeli readers. I thought I just need to open their eyes and tell them the truth. I no longer believe that.”

Sami Berdugo sums up the challenge facing his contemporaries in Israel:

“We live in everyday fear. Our leaders tell us to be ready. We no longer deal with the big moral questions. Since the occupation we only deal with ourselves (like in the 2011 summer protests) So we live here in this ‘villa in the jungle’, as the politician Ehud Barak called it, and there’s knocking on your doors and windows but yet you sit sipping your tea and tell yourself stories about other things.”

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