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Fighting Words

Can literature help bring peace to the Middle East?

Daniella Cheslow
November 03, 2008

Norwegian novelist and journalist Runo Isaksen first encountered Palestinian literature in 2000, when he reviewed a book by Izzat Ghazzawi—about Ghazzawi’s experiences in an Israeli prison—for the left-wing daily newspaper Klassekampen. The two authors became friends, and when Ghazzawi introduced Isaksen to the work of David Grossman, it sparked Isaksen’s intense interest in Israeli writing.

Isaksen had traveled to Egypt in the late 1990s, and to Syria in 2000 (both times on artistic scholarships), but he’d never been to Israel or the West Bank. Newly intrigued, he decided to go there and interview Israelis and Palestinians and gather some impressions of the conflict. Isaksen visited the region during the Second Intifada, meeting with some 20 leading Israeli and Palestinian writers—among them Yoram Kaniuk, Meir Shalev, Mahmoud Darwish, and Liana Badr—in their homes, and in the cafes of Tel Aviv and Ramallah. Literature and War, a book chronicling 14 of these conversations, has just been published.

Isaksen, who is 40, lives in Bergen, Norway. He has a Master’s degree in comparative literature from the University of Norway, and has published four novels about modern Norwegian life.

The writers you spoke to were divided about the role that reading one another’s literature could play in fostering peace. Some said peace had to come before societies could share their writing, and some said that sharing literature could help bring about peace.

Literature is about reading and having an experience through others. In the beginning [of the book], I refer to André Brink, a South African writer. In South Africa, while the apartheid regime was still there, he and some other white South Africans started to read work by some black South Africans. He said that he really began to understand the life of black South Africans just by reading their literature. And then some black South Africans started reading some of André Brink’s work, and they started meeting.

It started with writers, and moved to other arts. And this whole movement with black and white writers reading each other was crucial in tearing down the old regime.

Jews are often touchy about comparisons between Israel and apartheid South Africa.

It is really the best example of the power of literature that I came across, and also a well-known problem. I am not at all trying to compare Israel to South Africa. And I totally agree with Amos Oz that the South African conflict was a simple conflict. You always knew who the good guys and bad guys were, just like a western movie or a melodrama. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is much more complex.

The Israeli writer Etgar Keret says that taboos in Israel are the Holocaust, terror victims, and fallen soldiers. Palestinians like Yahia Yakhlif had their own taboos—religion, sex, and politics. What do you think these unwritten rules say about the two societies?

All the other Israeli writers I spoke to said, There are no taboos here, we are totally free to write about anything.” But Keret is right, from his own experiences. Teachers refuse to teach some of his short stories.

But on the Palestinian side, the taboos are felt much more. It’s not like Syria, where there is state power suppressing the writers. In Palestinian society, they are afraid. These writers have received letters from people who don’t like their writing, threats from ordinary people if they are being critical—especially about Islam—or if they are being too open about sex…So the well-known writers, such as [the late poet Mahmoud] Darwish and Ghassan Zaqtan, don’t publish their books in Palestine. They publish in Lebanon.

David Grossman is one of the few Jewish writers you interviewed who speaks Arabic. Do you think that affects his work?

He said to me that when you learn someone’s language, you get more of the nuances in the culture. On the Palestinian side, the general feeling is that Israel is just looking to Europe and America, and turning her back on her neighbors and on the Arab world. If you look on a map, Israel is part of the Arab world.

In Norway, people have said—of the chapter with [Israeli] Dorit Rabinyan about the Mizrahim [Jews of Arab descent]—that they didn’t know anything about this population. Half the population in Israel is Mizrahim, and their language was Arabic and the culture was Arabic. What happened? Why did they get no voice?

It’s interesting the way Dorit describes what happened to Mizrahim in Israel. They were mistrusted because they looked like Arabs, so they tried to suppress their own identities. They had to abandon their past and take upon themselves the European Jewish history, like the Holocaust. And now to show how Jewish they are, they tend to be the ones who speak out against Arabs.

One of my favorite interviews was with Orly Castel-Bloom, who wrote Dolly City, about a city suffering from Arabophobia—the fear of Arabs.

There are many ways of dealing with how Jews feel about the Arabs. She doesn’t try to understand them. She isn’t trying to paint the whole picture of the Arab human being. She’s just showing, in a humorous way, how Israelis tend to talk about them and look at them. And it’s effective, because it makes you think, Wow, is this the way people would think about an Arab?”

In his interview, the Palestinian writer Ghassan Zaqtan also discusses the story of Mizrahi Jews dropping their Arab identities. Were you surprised at the extent to which Palestinians know Israeli society?

In Palestinian schools you won’t find much information about Israel at all, or about Jews. But Palestinian writers read about Israelis, and they know about Jews. Israeli writers don’t know that much about Palestinian life or culture.

David Grossman says that the occupied always tend to seek information about their occupiers, in order to understand what is going on and also maybe to survive, whereas the occupier—Israelis—won’t try to understand Palestinian culture. It’s partly because Israelis know in some way that they have to take a lot of responsibility for the misery of the Palestinians, and they are not ready to do that.

A lot of the Palestinian writers you spoke to, like Liana Badr, emphasized that prior to the founding of the State of Israel, Jews and Arabs lived in harmony in Israel.

Palestinians say that before 1948, the area was a place for everyone: Christians, Muslims, and Jews. But when Israel was established there was this new conception that Israel should be a state just for Jewish people. This pre-1948 harmony, we know in some sense, is an ideal, because of course there were conflicts before 1948, too.

Israelis in general—at least the writers and left-wingers—say the end of the conflict is a two-state solution, Israel alongside Palestine. Many Palestinian writers say that the best way is one state for two people—both Israelis and Palestinians live in one state, and both have access to Haifa and Yafo. European Jews, with their experiences from the Holocaust, tend to think about the conflict in very fatal terms. It’s not just a question about living together in harmony or not, but of will the Jewish people survive?”

One point you raise with several Palestinians is that they are employed by the Palestinian Authority even as they write. Do you think this affects their work?

In the West we say if there’s one thing a writer should be it’s free, especially from the government. But Palestinian writers don’t see a problem in working for the government. There is no powerful state and no powerful government. And not many Palestinian writers can make a living from their writing.

After these interviews, do you have greater sympathy for one side or another?

A problem in Norway, as in most European countries, is that we don’t really discuss this. We say if you are on the left, you tend to support the Palestinians. And if you try to understand the Israelis, you come across as conservative. It’s frustrating to experience this year after year. What I was really trying to do when interviewing these artists was just to forget all my knowledge. I wanted to start fresh.

What role do you see Israeli and Palestinian writers playing in their own countries?

The young writers don’t want to be prophets anymore. They want to explore. It’s part of a common modernist movement, not seeing literature as a way of giving answers and simple messages, but as a place where you try to approach problems from different angles. I guess many readers still look at writers as someone special, like a prophet, but most writers seem uncomfortable with that position.

Ghassan Zaqtan was part of the PLO movement, and he used to look at himself as a political writer. But now he says he doesn’t want to be at the front of a demonstration. If there is a demonstration he doesn’t want to lead it but walk behind it, record what’s going on, and reflect.

Daniella Cheslow is a freelance writer and photographer based in Israel.

Daniella Cheslow is an American journalist covering the Middle East.

Daniella Cheslow is an American journalist covering the Middle East.