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Novelist Messud Visits Middle East

And Marty Peretz—her husband’s old boss—is not amused

Michael Weiss
July 08, 2009

Until recently, British author Claire Messud had only written about Palestine as a vogue political issue that interrupts—but remunerates—the life of quiet contemplation being fitfully led by Murray Thwaite, the liberal newspaper columnist who features prominently in her novel, The Emperor’s Children. Murray blows off a planned speech at a fundraising dinner for a Harlem youth program because it’s on the same night as a dinner given in honor of two Palestinian activists and, to decide between them, “it was as easy as a simple sum.” The Arabs commanded the higher speaking fee.

Now Messud’s attentions have returned to the Middle East, this time with a column in the Boston Globe recounting her recent very unpleasant time in Israel and the West Bank. Messud and a handful of other writers from around the world had traveled to Jerusalem to attend Palestine Festival of Literature, originally scheduled to take place at the Palestine National Theater—that is, until event was relocated, along with its attendees, all bedecked in their evening wear and spilling their cocktails over the rocky terrain, by “machine-gun toting Israeli soldiers in flak jackets.”

Messud offers no reason why IDF soldiers would ask a group of scribblers to take their business elsewhere, except that, as she coyly puts it, “our literary festival had the word ‘Palestine’ in its title.” According to the Palestinians she encountered, many other such cultural events have been shut down or hampered by the Israeli military in a city she notes UNESCO declared the Capital of Arab Culture for 2009. A little investigation might have gone a long way; instead, the rest of her piece is a monument to cant and banality—members of her entourage, she writes, compared the circumstances of a colonial population living under military supervision to “Orwell’s 1984; to Kafka.” It was no doubt Orwellian of Messud to refer to her stifled confab by its popular acronym, “Palfest.” And her background coloration scans like some Fodor’s Guide to Orientalist Cliché:

We scrambled up rocks among terraced olive groves to a stone shepherd’s hut, from which we could see the green and gold hills interlaced to the horizon. We picked our way along a dry riverbed, surprising a patterned tortoise, and on to a small village, where a mangy donkey gazed balefully from its tether and ruddy-faced children demonstrated their tree-climbing prowess.

You know how long it takes for a patterned tortoise to even know you’re there? All that’s missing from this strophe is the call of the muezzin drowned out by machine gun fire, and sand-scorched Western palates thrilling to the wondrous flavors of hummus. But, hey, before you know it, Messud is actually referring to one swarthy denizen of the region as “nut-brown.” And this happens to be Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli who blew the whistle on his country’s nuclear program 25 years ago and served time for almost as long. He is now a nut-brown man without a sky-blue Israeli passport.

Messud’s piece was more than enough to set Marty Peretz, editor-in-chief of The New Republic, off on a thousand-word blog tear:

Messud’s ignorance and incuriousness—her piece is an instant classic in the literature of the writer as political tourist—shows in her portraits of both the Palestinians and the Israelis. Her Palestinians are innocent victims who wish merely to read and write freely. Nowhere in her plangent prose in there a suggestion that they owe a good deal of their present misery to their own refusal of various offers of statehood. Nowhere is there a hint of actual literary and cultural life under Hamas and under Fatah. Messud seems to think that but for the Israelis and their occupation Palestine is an oasis of freedom and cultivation.

The real question, though, is how Peretz’s former star book critic James Wood, who graduated from TNR to The New Yorker a few years back and is—not incidentally—Messud’s husband, is handling all of this. A high priest at the Temple of Saul Bellow, Wood would no doubt be fielding angry calls from his now-dead hero and the author of To Jerusalem and Back for his wife’s freshman foray into leftist travelogue writing.