Friday, December 31, 2010

Resolutions Kept and Ignored

As I mentioned almost exactly a year ago in a similar post, 88% of New Year’s resolutions go unfulfilled. This means that almost all of us didn’t meet our goals for 2010, assuming we made any. We can all explain, justify, render irrelevant the gap, but the reality is that no matter how good our intentions, chances are this year’s resolutions will go similarly unresolved. One thing we can do to improve our chances, or at least according to Good Morning America, is to share our resolutions with the world. In fact, you are 10% more likely to follow through. Granted this stat comes from an unverified source and, if your goal is to slim down from a size 12 to a size 6, sharing that unrealistic target with the general public probably won’t increase the odds. But it does make sense to me. Other people’s opinions matter. Moreover, and perhaps as importantly, perhaps making one’s goals publicly traded forces one to set the bar at an achievable level.

So what about 2010? It was a really good year for me—I moved into a condo in New York, my book was published, I spent a month at the fabulous Vermont Studio Center, I am making good progress on a next manuscript. But none of these were explicit goals for the year. What DID I resolve last year? I vowed to read a couple of books I hated. First, at least one or two by German writers, a category of fiction that I tend to avoid (a long story but influenced by two years living in Munich). I also wanted to read Robert Fagles’ translation of The Aenied. So, I give myself a B. I read Herta Muller’s The Land of Green Plums and half of Gunter Grass’s Tin Drum. I skimmed The Aeneid, yes, searching for the juicy parts. It wasn’t lack of interest but I just had too many other books I really really wanted to read.

Yet, here’s something that surprised me—I wrote last year that I similarly disliked reading nonfiction memoir, historical accounts, biography, autobiography, the story of other people’s lives, true stories. I prefer fiction. Why? Generally I find that fictional stories tend to be better written and more engaging stories than their true to life counterparts. For some reason, when something extraordinary is recounted in a work of nonfiction (meaning it supposedly really happened), I find myself saying, “Really?” or “Well, that’s not so interesting.” What that says about my level of skepticism, I don’t know. Or perhaps what that says about my own perception of my level of skepticism, I don’t know.

Because…. in 2010, in addition to books of poetry, fiction, and nonfictional essays, I read at least 8 books of nonfictional history and biography. Included in the list: The Young Romantics, The Lemon Tree, American Priestess, The American Colony, Our Jerusalem: An American Family in the Holy City, The Courtier and the Heretic, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate, My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness.

Surprising myself, I really enjoyed all of them. Granted, three of these were important to research I’m doing on Israel, but I enjoyed all of them, necessary or not. This is not to say that I’m going to start voraciously consuming the latest celebrity or political autobiography/biography on the Barnes and Noble shelves. But it won’t be because I might not find Sarah Palin’s ghost written narrative entertaining but that given the world of books to read, I’d prefer to spend my few dollars of consciousness reading something more edifying or at least books about better people. I suppose that admission marks me a bit of snob. Oh well.

So what about 2011? I am going to finish Fagles’ The Aeneid. Beyond that, I’m not going to commit. Not yet anyway.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Granta's New Issue--Nihilism in Spanish

This from The Daily Beast about Granta's newest literary magazine release which highlights Spanish-speaking authors from around the globe, though Argentina and Spain log in with 14 of 22 spots.

It sounds amazing:

The new volume of Granta highlights bright new literary stars from across the Spanish-speaking world, says critic Oscar Villalon—and they wrestle with dark themes in a way few American writers dare to.


...It would seem, according to a new generation of Spanish-language novelists, we are living in an age where Big Ideas are dead, and this is far from a good thing, considering the Big Empty that's filled the vacuum.


...In one way or the other, these authors seem to be wrestling with an understanding of the post-Big Idea world that is perhaps best distilled in Urguayan author Andres Ressia Colino's piece, "Scenes From a Comfortable Life." Jimmy Tanaka, a working-class young man who happens to be Japanese, gets an education from his girlfriend's rich, Germanic father, who supplies him with this piece of sour wisdom:

"This system is a fucking circle of doom. Produce more and more cheaply, and make the consumer swallow faster and faster. […] None of the food or the clothes or the music or the books or the drugs that you kids consume are real. It seems like food, like clothes, like music, but it's all just something like those things, made to be devoured immediately. It's a perfect system. A magnificent, gigantic, super-efficient piece of machinery that produces nothing, totally and absolutely nothing."

I have to read the issue if only to find out if there's any sign of redemption, somewhere, anywhere in these stories.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Nick Flynn's Seven Testimonies and all the backup stuff

I returned to Israel two days ago to rain and 120 kph winds. It was the first real rain of what is supposed to be Israel’s rainy season. After the wildfires that consumed much of the country’s Carmel Mountains a week ago, the rain is welcome. As the power flickered on and off with the flares of lightning, I opened the November/December issue of American Poetry Review to find a series of poems by a poet and author I much admire, Nick Flynn. The series titled “seven testimonies (redacted)” is, to quote the footnote at the bottom of the page, composed of redacted versions of the testimonies of seven Abu Ghraib detainees as transcribed by the artist Danile Heyman, in Amman and in Istanbul, from 2006 to 2008. Nick Flynn was present for those testimonies gathered in 2007 in Istanbul.

Each of Flynn’s seven poetic testimonies is short ranging from eight to thirteen lines. Each line is also short, two to eight words. The poems are in first person, but a first person that feels drugged, drained, yes, tortured. Flynn creates a nightmarish quality with the use of fragmentation, repetition, illogical combinations. Erratic use of punctuation and capitalization between the individual poems suggests that the seven testimonies are one, that one runs into another, that each punishment was done to one, to all, without relation to the individual suspect, to what he or perhaps she did or might have done, or didn’t do at all. Here is the last of the seven poems of the series in its entirety:

My eyesight in years
I see up yes did this

Yes you this I saw
A sister you see

In the showers you this
In this with yes I

I was naked you this
Yes to me & wanted

Moreover, the “I” in these poems shifts so that at points the tortured and torturer become one and same. The series is the crime of Abu Ghraib rendered lyric.

The entire series fits on less than one APR page, page 8. The rest of page 8 and all of page 9 are taken up by the actual seven testimonies or at least significant samplings from them. The testimonies make for hard reading. But then so do the poems.

Which raises a question—why do we need the actual testimonies? In my mind, it as though Flynn feels his poems aren’t enough to convey the urgency, the terror, the pain of what these men underwent. As though his poems aren’t authentic enough without the backup of the prose.

Flynn goes far to convince the reader of authenticity. The title contains the word “testimony,” implying the source. If he had added “Abu Ghraib," there would have been no doubt. He also adds “redacted,” in parentheses to the title. Redaction is a form of editing in which multiple source texts are combined. Often the author/editor may make minor alteration to the texts (i.e., transform them into a single poetic work) so that they cohere. With all of this, Flynn leaves the reader little doubt that his poems emanate from actual testimony of Abu Ghraib detainees. This is of course reiterated in the footnote I quoted earlier.

All of this to make the point that I don’t think Flynn’s poems require the support of the actual testimonies. In fact, I think the prose testimonies undercut the emotional impact of the poems by their wordiness, their specificity, their almost clinical description. I wish Flynn had left them out.

As an American living in Israel and writing about my experiences in Israel, authenticity is an idea I spend time thinking about. Moreover, as an American poet reading other the work of other American poets, who often, in my mind, have difficulty writing about conflict, about war, even about the state of the world, I find the issue of authenticity a part of the puzzle. I’m going to write more about this, but not today. Right now, there is an authentic storm raging outside my house, a river pours from every gutter drowning the grass, the twelve pine trees that line the perimeter bending back and forth forty five degrees. I’m curious what will be left standing.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Budrus: A Small Israeli Film with an Enormous Message

Last night I went to a Manhattan screening of an Israeli/Palestinian film called Budrus. I dragged my husband along with me even though he usually finds such ‘smoleneem’ films one-sided. But he is open-minded and, in the interest of placating his more left-wing wife, came with me. Budrus, produced and released by JustVision in 2010, has been celebrated internationally (Panorama Audience Award, Second Prize, at the Berlin International Film Festival, 2010, Special Jury Mention, Tribeca Film Festival, 2010, and others), but is only now reaching a few US screens. Go see it.



The film itself was remarkable for reasons I’ll talk about below, but the screening itself was also well done. Before and after, there were small receptions of wine and cheese, and two of the three producers, Ronit Avni and Julia Bacha, discussed the making of the film and took questions from the 100 or so spectators. In between, a three-person ensemble including a vocalist (Palestinian), keyboard player (Israeli), and trumpet player (American) serenaded the audience.

Budrus, to be brief, is a documentary film about a Palestinian community organizer, Ayed Morrar, who unites local Fatah and Hamas members along with Israeli supporters in an unarmed movement to save his village of Budrus from destruction by Israel’s Separation Barrier. Budrus, for those of you not familiar with Israeli geography, lies in the northern West Bank just east of the green line. Budrus’s 1500 villagers support themselves through agriculture, largely the cultivation of olive trees.

Israel’s separation fence has long been a point of controversy. I’ll go on record as saying I find its existence largely positive. Since its erection, suicide bombs in Israel have largely stopped (though there are dozens of attempts caught at the border every year). As a stepmother of four with lots of friends and family in Israel, I relish the protection. With that said, Israel has no business putting the fence one millimeter beyond the 1967 green line. Unfortunately, the fence often veers into what is by all international and moral reckoning Palestinian territory.

In the case of Budrus, the planned separation fence was going to uproot acres of Palestinian olive groves, divide the village cemetery, and would have passed meters from their only school. You understand the villagers’ anger and anxiety.

To protest the fence, Budrus’ residents, led by Morrar, unite in nonviolent protest. Over months of protest, residents together with international witnesses and participants put themselves between bulldozers, Israeli border police, and what they consider their blood, their olive trees. While the two sides exchanged tear gas, rubber bullets, a rain of rocks, remarkably no one was killed though apparently tens were seriously injured. In the end, and I am skipping past all that is interesting about the film, Israel relocated the fence closer to the green line and away from Budrus.

What was significant was the Budrus protests marked an embrace of nonviolence as a means to change facts on the ground. Of course, Palesinians consider the First Intifada nonviolent (highlighting the difficulty defining nonviolence), but why digress? Since Budrus, similar strategies are being employed in other West Bank villages.

Also significant was the importance of women to the Budrus campaign. The film spends a lot of time with Morrar’s daughter, who is now studying medicine in Bosnia, and she talks of how village women forced the men to allow them at the front of the protest marches. Not only did this hinder Israel’s ability to respond, but also, I hope, underscored the importance of female voices in the Arab world (a world that largely oppresses women). In addition, the Budrus protests required cooperation between Fatah and Hamas, the two ideologically opposed factions of Palestinian Arabs. Morrar, who is a member of Fatah and who spent intermittent years in Israeli jails (though the reason for his incarceration is never explained), stated that he disagreed philosophically with Hamas but pragmatism required cooperation. For this, the two sides came together. Moreover, both camps welcomed and embraced the Israeli activists who also joined their fight.

Which brings me to a third remarkable aspect of the film--the importance of the Israeli activist movement. Tens of Israeli activists spent months supporting and protesting alongside the Budrus residents, even when arrested and in the face of real violence by the Israeli border police. Many of the Budrus residents went on record stating their surprise and gratification that there were Israelis who not only rhetorically opposed the occupation but who were wiling to demonstrate their commitment with their presence. I can’t imagine a better means of building trust and belief between the two sides.

While the film downplayed the injuries some of the residents received and didn’t explore the background and mindset of the Palestinian leaders, it was an evenhanded, even uplifting film. Budrus demonstrated that nonviolence as a consistent means of protest can have effect.

I applaud JustVision for producing the film.

But there is more work to be done and the film raises another question. My husband, who is a native Israeli and who found the film overall positive put it best. His question at the end, “Yes, it’s hopeful to demonstrate that cooperation is possible and that not all Israelis are bad. But for peace, we also need Arab Israelis and Palestinians protesting and standing alongside Jews when Hamas, Fatah, when people representing them shoot rockets, suicide bomb Israeli civilians. When that happens, there might be a chance for real peace.”

Saturday, November 27, 2010

I don't know why this short piece hit me, perhaps because I'm struggling with a poem, struggling to learn Hebrew, tried and failed to learn piano, perhaps because I've tried to draw owls, but it seems apropos to my state of mind this morning. This from Ben Casnocha's interesting blog on current affairs and intellectual life:

I believe a key reason so many people on the road to mastery call it quits is not because drawing a beautiful owl in pencil is superhumanly hard. It's because they thought it would be easy

Thursday, November 25, 2010

BookList Review for Bathsheba Transatlantic--Why it Matters (at least to me)

My book, Bathsheba Transatlantic, was reviewed in Booklist this month. Alizah Salario, the reviewer, was very generous. First, here is the review:

In language evocative and vivid, Wetzel, selected winner of the Levine Prize in Poetry by judge Garrett Hongo, transports her readers to Israel in her first collection. As the title suggests, she dwells between continents and identities. Her snapshots of time and place coalesce into complex portraits, capturing the growth and discovery that occur in spaces between. Wetzel is in conversation with the past as she navigates present-day Israel, invoking Plato, Moses, and David to decipher modern-day dilemmas. Her keen insights are defined by her wide-eyed otherness, and she holds a microscope to the minutiae of everyday life in the way only an outsider can, whether in a close-up of a polygamist gardener or mulling her love-hate relationship with Tel Aviv. Wetzel’s work reveals itself slowly, even gracefully, and she effortlessly spins the particular into the universal. Some of her poems read like exhales—the release of tension through text—and give breath to a poet pondering her identity on the page.

— Alizah Salario, Booklist

Now I have a question: What good is a review anyway?

Perhaps a better way of pondering the same question is via its flip side—how much does a bad review matter?

For those of you who think there is another answer, let me tell you that on the personal level, it matters a lot. A reviewer approaches a book, obviously, from a much different perspective than a pure reader. A pure reader may or may not enjoy a book, but rarely makes the effort to articulate why she responded in a particular way. So a writer has little insight into why his or her book connected or failed to connect with the reader. This provides enormous psychological benefits for the writer. A writer can put a reader’s enjoyment or lack thereof down to subjectivity, to mood, can blame it on the weather or, even better, blame the reader. The reader just wasn’t educated enough or worldly enough or harbored hidden gender/racial/sexual biases. "It wasn’t my fault that the reader didn’t get me or my work."

On the other hand, a book reviewer has authority. The authority comes via three channels. First, the reviewer agrees to spend enough time with a particular work so that he or she can speak informatively about content, style, form, etc. Second, the reviewer presumably approaches the work with enough background in that particular genre to respond intelligently to the aforementioned criteria. Third, the forum publishing or presenting the review sanctions the opinion of the reviewer by propagating his or her words. This typically means a forum that is fairly well known or respected in its domain. Blogs and personal websites are also (increasingly so) becoming regarded forums for book and art reviews, but the market here is so fragmented, most haven’t obtained wide enough readership to move them significantly from the pure reader response category to the reviewer.

All of that to say, that a writer has a more difficult time blaming the reader for a lackluster opinion of her work. Gasp. It might be the work and not the reader.

So reviews matter. Of course they can help or damage sales, writer reputation, especially if the review comes via one of the major venues (e.g., NYTimes Book Review, New Yorker, etc.). But chances are if a book is being reviewed in these forums, the writer already has a large and loyal following. For less well known writers, it is the literary magazines, the online resources that come first.

Which is why I felt such release when my first review from someone who doesn’t know me was positive. This of course excludes the wonderful words penned by Garrett Hongo (who doesn’t know me personally) and who chose my book for publication. I know, I know. Much of what I’m saying here doesn’t need putting down and may in fact be obvious, but it helped me articulate for myself why I experienced the relief.

Anyway, as mentioned, the review was from Booklist, which for those of you don’t know (and why would you) is a book review from The American Library Association. I’m not sure it will generate sales but I do know, that if they had had nothing positive to say, I’d have been enormously down. And today is Thanksgiving! I’m hoping for other reviews and will steel myself for any and all critiques. But for those of you reviewing books, it matters, not just for readers, for those of us attempting to write.

Back to Booklist. Booklist is a subscription service and if you purchase books, a must-have resource. But they apparently don’t mind if I cite my small review (as long as I reference who wrote it.) P.S. I have a warm place in my heart for Alizah Salario, who reviewed my book.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Opposite of Home

I have lived in Israel now for over six years. Six years. I’ve never lived in one place for six years. I’ve never lived in any other place more than two. Granted, I spent one year of the six in New York. I spent another two years moving back and forth between Vermont and Israel, studying. When my mother was ill, I spent nine months back and forth between Atlanta and Israel. We moved twice within Israel. Last year, I bought the condo in New York and have been spending 50% of my time in the US. Still, I have called Israel home for six years. Home?

I am always dreaming of new places to live. I don’t mean JUST daydreaming about more square footage, a more extensive view, a different neighborhood, though like many people I often find myself imagining how it would be to live in a different house, a different city. I mean literally dreaming, at night, about the next place. Sometimes the dreams wake me up they are so dramatic and thrilling. They are often the ones I remember in the morning or when I wake up in the middle of the night. Of course this doesn’t mean they are my only dreams, but they are often the most vivid and I suppose the last ones I have before waking. Last night, there was a long rambling house on a hillside. From the window and through the trees, I could see the ocean throwing itself against a rocky shore. I knew, in the dream, I’d lived in the building before, in a smaller apartment, with a man I used to love. This time though I was looking at it for myself, only myself. The building was old and rooms had been added over time. Rooms opened to larger rooms, to balconies, to terraces. Some rooms had regular shapes, rectangular. Other rooms were round or had oddly shaped corners. There were places to hide. I knew there would always be a surprise in this house.

Like most dream houses, I never move into this house, even in the dream.

But I recognize the impulse that Kay Ryan describes in the short poem below to be free of encumbrances, to never settle, to test what it is that is most necessary. I don’t think I’m alone.

That Will to Divest

Action creates
a taste
for itself.
Meaning: once
you've swept
the shelves
of spoons
and plates
you kept
for guests,
it gets harder
not to also
simplify the larder,
not to dismiss
rooms, not to
divest yourself
of all the chairs
but one, not
to test what
singleness can bear,
once you've begun.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Six Days Left in Vermont

Outside my studio window, one of the painters is working. I too sat on one of the benches beside the river and tried to write. But the sound of the water, the warmth of the sun were too large of distractions.

It is a gorgeous day—spring-like and almost warm enough to walk without a sweater. I’ve been told that November in this part of Vermont is typically grey and cold. It’s hard to believe given the 5-day expanses of blue skies we’ve experienced. I suppose the more seasonal weather will return. Ten days ago, it snowed! But those memories seem far away, those recognitions even more distant.

I’m going for a hike!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Three Weeks in Vermont

Three weeks at Vermont Studio Center. I have loved being here. I have written. I have spent many hours in my studio staring at the river outside my window. I have hiked a bit. I have not slept enough.

I have dreamed.

Why do I keep writing about my dreams? My dreams are of use to nobody else.

Why do poets keep writing about their dreams? Their dreams are of use to nobody else.

Why do singers keep singing about their dreams? Their dreams are of use to nobody else.

Why do painters keep painting their dreams? Their dreams are of use to nobody else.

Freud said the universe of people possessed by one set of illusions or fantasies will be different than the universe of those possessed by another. He also said that every dream is either a wish or a counterwish.

Exactly.

It helps me sleep to know that other people dream. That their dreams are as strange, as grotesque, as burlesque, as mine.

It’s the same reason we can’t stop looking in each other's windows.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Genuineness of Artifacts in Vermont

I am a poet of place. The place I reside--the room, the color of the walls, the shape of the window, the smears of bug and human oil on the window pane, and what's outside the window--inflitrate my writing. How can it be otherwise unless you write with a blindfold?

The outside world can work its ways into the writing in insidious magical ways. I am working on a manuscript in which Israel figures prominently. Israel is the place I call home. I'm not sure all the poems I've begun here will survive but I've managed to begin many. What has been most surprising? The increased presence of water. There is a river outside my window and I find myself gazing at its watery progress many minutes of many hours. In some cases, the river becomes part of Israel, the Mediterranean, the Jordan River. In other cases, poems have emerged which seem completely disconnected from Israel.

I suppose none of this is revelatory but I wanted to put it down, so that I remember it. Here's a poem I wrote today in which Vermont, the river, one of the artists who I met here, and even an otter appear:

When I woke the world was the thin layer
between the chocolate cake and iced white
frosting. It was about to snow for the first time

that season and the earth was bunched up
into the cold. I knew it was going to be a good day
because I’d had a nightmare

about mushroom clouds and that the small otter
which I’m told lives in the river outside my door
had been found drowned. It’s true that the morning

after a bad dream, the structure of trees seems
more genuine. I know the first flakes don’t mean anything
but what I give to them. I know that even though

my mind conjures up a nuclear winter, still
the crocus will come, and that my knowing it
means nothing to you. I have a friend

who etches images of lost stone artifacts,
cornices, plaster friezes, columns and pilasters
into graphite pounded into a roughened white canvas.

They are ghosts, he says, of buildings vanished.
Though when they’re not quite right,
I’ve seen him take a hammer.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Vag Club

I'm still deep in the wilds of northern Vermont. If not wilds, definitely deep. The sun finally broke out this afternoon after what have seemed endless days of grey. I was a big chagrined to discover how tightly wound my psyche is with the weather.

Two nights ago, we did an informal reading here at the Studio Center. About 20 participated--either reading or just sitting back and listening. There was a lot of wine and chips consumed so the mood was pretty good. We read pieces of varying lengths. There were essays about torrid affairs with college professors, encounters between strippers and returning war veterans, stories of alzheimers and dying, and lots of poetry. I read two of mine, both of which I wrote here at VSC.

I've actually been extremely productive here--perhaps 20 poems so far, several much longer than I normally write. Not surprisingly quite a few are inhabited by a river and one by an otter. Outside my studio window are both.

Back to the reading. All of the readers were women. There are men here, but for some reason they are more reclusive. One of the gang called us a 'vag club.' Perhaps all the estrogen scared them away. Anyway, it was lovely and reminded me why I love my women friends.

Friday, October 29, 2010

In Country at VSC

I’m spending this month at Vermont Studio Center, which is a retreat for artists and writers. It is in Johnson, Vermont, which is the smallest town I’ve ever spend time in with the exception of my mother’s hometown in south Georgia. There is a coffee shop here and a small college.

There are about thirty residents here and another ten or so who staff the facility. In the Burlington airport waiting for the van to pick me up, I met one of the residents. His name was Potchara and he was from Thailand. He spoke no English and communicated by looking up words in his English/Thai dictionary. It was his first time in a plane, the first time out of Thailand. I so wanted to know he found his way to VSC. This much I know. He missed his first connecting flight from Newark to Burlington and slept on the floor of the airport. He mimed that much to me.

As a gesture of friendship, he gave me a small vial of Thai herbs that smelled like menthol and oranges. It cleared my sinuses. In his backpack, he had tens of these vials. I still don’t know how he managed to get from Newark to Burlington. He is a sculpture. I don’t know how he’ll get his sculptures back to Thailand.

As I was writing this, I typed his name into Google. Images of some of his art is online and it is beautiful. Potchara may not speak English but his sculptures don’t need the language. Too many people speak English anyway.

I am going to learn at least a few words in Thai.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Bathsheba Transatlantic Enters the World!

My book, Bathsheba Transatlantic, launched yesterday! It's hard to describe the thrill I felt when I opened the box containing the books and held one in my hand. I know, I know, a bit of narcissism. Of course the amount of time and stress and anxiety that the book represents, the amount of joy and thought it contains are enormous.

I am proud but also, of course, worried about how it will be received. This is a common feeling according to friends who write. Like watching your six year old enter the doors of school for the first time, someone said. You want him/her to be the most popular, the brightest, the teacher's pet but only in a way that doesn't cause others to shun her.

Anyway, it's out. It's in the world.

Back to work.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Barbarians and Writers

Today, a ten-person boat attempted to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza. On board, were Jews from Germany, the US, the UK, Israel who wanted to say, Israel’s policies are not ours. They carried books and school supplies for the Gazan children. Even though the Gazan leader would, if he could, murder every one of Israel’s fathers, every one of its mothers. Because of course the blockade does nothing but reinforce that hatred. Israel towed the small boat into Ashdod, one of its ports, without violence.

The barbarians are all of us.

I am reading Adina Hoffman’s biography of the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali called “My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness.” Hoffman is a Jew living in Jerusalem. Taha Muhammad Ali still lives in Israel. The book is successful in that it recounts one particular man's experiences, his tragedies, and his victories. It speaks of the restorative power of words and of poetry. While I think Hoffman's retelling of the poet's life is seen through a particular lens, the book is beautifully and compassionately written and speaks also, I think, to the possibility of healing. Both of them wish each other well.

If the barbarians are us, so perhaps are the saviors.

Here is a lovely poem by Taha Muhammad Ali.

       NEITHER MUSIC,
fame, nor wealth,
not even poetry itself,
could provide consolation
for life’s brevity,
or the fact that King Lear
is a mere eighty pages long and comes to an end,
and for the thought that one might suffer greatly
on account of a rebellious child.
My love for you
is what’s magnificent,
but I, you, and the others,
most likely,
are ordinary people.

My poem
goes beyond poetry
because you
exist
beyond the realm of women.

And so
it has taken me
all of sixty years
to understand
that water is the finest drink,
and bread the most delicious food,
and that art is worthless
unless it plants
a measure of splendor in people’s hearts.

After we die,
and the weary heart
has lowered its final eyelid
on all that we’ve done,
and on all that we’ve longed for,
on all that we’ve dreamt of,
all we’ve desired
or felt,
hate will be
the first thing
to putrefy
within us.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

One Year of Sin

Just a little meditation on Yom Kippur with line breaks...

At dusk, the streets go silent of cars and buses, television
programming blinks out, lawnmowers and leaf blowers
are stowed as the highways empty out, only to slowly fill
with children on bicycles, skaters and skateboarders, their dogs
running alongside, while the parents sit on benches
and chat about the last vacation to Puket or Berlin.
No one is supposed to die on Yom Kippur.

A day earlier, walking our small brown and white dog
through Park Se-adya Shoshani, my husband and I watched
a religious Jew dressed in his black coat and hat wave
what looked from a distance a feathered boa
over the head of a small boy who could not have been more

than three. Closer, I realized the scarf was in fact
a live white chicken. The chicken absorbs the past year’s
bad deeds, my husband said, looking a bit embarrassed. Even
that of a three year old child. The white chickens
are then slaughtered, so that the year’s evil dies with them.

This morning, I sent photos of Ayalon Highway empty
except for pedestrians and bicyclists to a friend, who
can’t believe that no one, I mean no one, drives
the whole day of Yom Kippur. For one day, in Israel,
there is nowhere to drive. In a few hours, the Israelis will
get back in their cars, but right now, I think I hear
the Mediterranean, the sins of the past year cast off.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

More on Telling Ourselves Stories

Speaking of history and how our stories change over time, I don't know why but this from Stephen Elliott's almost daily email resounded after yesterday's bout with Israeli confirmation bias...(FYI, unless you subscribe to his email via therumpus.net, you can't see Elliott's email; it's worth the time to subscribe; it's worth the time to hang out on the site (of which Elliott is the editor)):

In our round table yesterday I tried not to say things I've said before, but I failed. It's so easy to fall back on stories you've already told. I remember seeing Lawrence Wechsler and someone asked him about Ryzsard Kapuscinski and whether you were allowed to lie when writing history. Lawrence began to tell this story about Kapuscinski, how when he was writing about Iran he was actually writing about Poland, and Josh whispered to me that it was the same story Lawrence told years ago when Josh took his class at Columbia. And I thought, just answer the fucking question. And now I think you build up the stories, little connections. Occasionally you add a new one, like "I feel like I'm married to someone else's pornographic fantasy" or "honesty is bordered by self-knowledge." The new one goes on top of the pile and when you're asked a question you go to the bin and retrieve the best story you told last time. You tell yourself these stories too and occasionally something big happens, like you fall out of love, or a friend dies, and a whole bunch of these stories, which are really fragile as twigs, snap in half, and you have a lot more room, and you fill the space with more stories, more connections, start again.

I don't want to stretch this metaphor, this bin and these sticks, but I do think the point at which you can just reach into your past and give an answer you've already given no matter what the question is the point at which you've truly grown old.

I.e., no more 'something big,' no more new stories, perhaps just another way of going senile. The same story over and over.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Fiction vs Confirmation Bias

Oh, how we humans cling to our narratives, refusing to acknowledge that our stories about ourselves, the stories we tell ourselves, might be biased, even untrue. Psychologists call it confirmation bias. We ignore, deliberately and subconsciously, information that contradicts our hypotheses or preconceptions of the world.

Last night this was once again brought home to me in regards to the place I call home, Israel.

Where was I? An English language book club I belong too here in Tel Aviv comprised of women from the US, Canada, Australia, as well as native born Israelis and women from other countries who meet to read and discuss books in English. Last night we met to discuss Alon Hilu’s The House of Rajani. In attendance were about 25 people, primarily women, all of them Jewish with the exception of myself, as well as the author himself.

Translated into English from Hebrew, The House of Rajani tells a late nineteenth century tale of the relationship between a Russian-Jewish immigrant to Israel and a mentally disturbed Arab boy. Hilu uses fictitious diary entries written by both as a means to describe their relationship and provide insight into the two characters. The book has been wildly controversial in Israel because the Jewish man (married) begins an affair with the boy’s lonely mother (also married), and, as irreverent as the affair in that day and age and between a Jew and an Arab, more so is his single minded obsession to purchase/steal the Arab family’s land through fair means or foul. Thus ensues the suspicious death of the boy’s father, the decline into madness of the mother, the assumption of the land by the Jew, his eviction of the land’s long-time Arab tenant farmers. Coloring the goings on are the boy’s prophetic visions, which describe a future war between Jews and Arabs, fiery modern warfare, death to thousands, and the loss of the land including his own to the colonizing Jews.

Interestingly, Hilu attempts to mimic the early Hebrew and Arabic of the time (he reportedly spent a year reading newspapers from the late 1800s), and the translation attempts to replicate the slightly archaic feel of the language. Conversational and contemporary the book is not. But Hilu does capture, at least in my opinion, the smell and color of that turbulent time, and his primary characters are fully fleshed even if there is little to admire in any of them.

The House of Rajani is essentially telling one story of pre-Israel Palestine through the eyes of the ‘other.’ Hilu was vilified in one of Israel’s newspapers and stripped of a prize he had won (The Sapir Prize, which is one of Israel’s largest). Hilu believes the stripping of its prize, and its eventual return, was completely political. Hilu was called anti-Zionist, a self hating Jew, in the press and in the blogosphere. Several journalists, politicians, even academics criticized him publicly.

What is remarkable is not only the public drubbing an author received (in a democracy for God’s sake!) for writing a book of fiction, but the selective memory it represents on the part of Israel. There are innumerable books written, even by Israelis, documenting the thousands displaced by Israel’s War of Independence (the Palestinians call it Naqba, which means catastrophe in Arabic), that the displacement was at times voluntary, at others not, Israel’s destruction of Arab homes and confiscation of lands. There were atrocities, large and small, on both sides and Israel can certainly claim that they did not instigate the war. Moreover, as in all wars, to the victors go the spoils, but that Israel continues to deny its own participation seems, at least to me, at times ludicrous, at times immoral. Instead, the story of Israel, at least for the Jews, is that the Jews arrived to a land virtually empty and, in their hands, it flowered. Like many colonizers, the ‘natives’ were invisible, or rather they became invisible in history’s retelling.

I will say that the book club was civil if at times rancorous. Before Hilu arrived quite a few of the attendees admitted they were not political and in fact had little historical knowledge of what actually transpired. But even these women exhibited a willingness to listen to Hilu, even if they allowed it only as an imaginative work of fiction.

I suppose I draw more comfort that the book has sold 50K copies in Israel (amazing for a country of 7mm, not all of them reading Hebrew) and been translated into seven languages. People are reading it. In my opinion, acknowledging reality is the only way Israel can address the present. Perhaps literature will prove one way that the blindness associated with the country’s confirmation bias can be healed.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Reality in Fiction

At this week's Edinburgh international book festival, author (most recently of The Children's BookAS Byatt gave a fascinating interview. Byatt, an atheist, in talking about social realism in fiction said, “Most people who are talking about reality don’t understand how difficult it is to say what reality is.” She goes on to say that part of the issue is that “religion has gone away.” “A kind of map of the world that was provided by Christian belief or by other forms of religious belief, has for most ordinary people in the society I live in, disappeared. This means how you say who you are has become very difficult. There are novels to be written in the future about the very careful tactics with which we choose how to describe our sense of ourselves.”

I found Byatt’s thoughts evocative as I also believe that many people, especially secular people and including me, grapple with how to understand their own nature in the absence of God’s salvation. To some degree I think it is a debate between determinism and free will. How much do we believe that our life, our fate, hinges on our own choices and how much is determined by an environment beyond our control? There are various versions of this from Freud’s role of the unconscious, Jung’s archetypes, Skinner’s conditioning, evolutionary psychology, to Sartre’s atheistic existentialism. The truth lies perhaps in the synthesis of some of these opposing views.

I do think contemporary literature even now is at the forefront in regards to the dilemma of how we describe ourselves. Authors as diverse as Orhan Pamuk, Amos Oz, Don DeLillo, Arundhati Roy come to mind where it is often the confrontation between religion/culture and materialism that serves as backdrop for the definition of the individual self in their stories.

I do wholeheartedly agree that media, the Internet, social networks are adding new layers of complexity (and interest) to the debate. Moreover, new web technologies (and the ever-increasing availability of information) have made possible a new kind of writing. This prose uses fact and randomness rather than story and structure. David Shields and Anders Monson and Maggie Nelson are examples of authors integrating these factors into their literature. Though in the end, as AS Byatt says, in the absence of religion, all we are left with is ourselves. I’m hopeful though that this will be enough. Anyway, check out the interview. Byatt is not afraid to speak her mind and hers is definitely an interesting one.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Too Ignorant to Ignore!

I rarely post regarding political issues, but this is just too crazy not to comment on. Poetically crazy perhaps.

Apparently nearly one in five people in the US, or 18 percent, believe Obama is Muslim. That was up from 11 percent who said so in March 2009. The survey also showed that just 34 percent said Obama is Christian, down from 48 percent who said so last year. The largest share of people, 43 percent, said they don't know his religion.

I will try to believe those figures illustrate American gullibility to right wing propaganda, tendency toward confirmation bias (i.e., they always suspected it!), rather than complete and utter ignorance.

Of course, many Israelis I speak with (and most of them well educated) also believe Obama is Muslim. No stats here, but I actually believe the percentage might be higher. So ignorance extends beyond America's shores.

Many of these people dislike Obama for other reasons (political party, race, and even a few for his policies). On the Israeli side, the dislike is rooted in his refusal to provide blanket support for all Israeli policies. That they equate this dislike with being Muslim, I suspect, also reflects innate bigotry on their part regarding the Islamic faith. I.e., UnAmerican = Muslim or AntiIsraeli = Muslim.

Anyway, just for the record, Barack Obama is a Christian, and announced in June 2009 that his primary place of worship would be the Evergreen Chapel at Camp David. Merely attending school that is nominally Muslim in Indonesia does not make one Muslim. FYI, in Indonesia, Obama attended a Catholic school for two years (ages 6-8) and then a public school for two years (ages 8-10); in an interview, the head of the Indonesian public school said they are secular and have Christian, Buddhist, and Muslim students. To be considered a Muslim by the community, there must be an adult profession of faith, the recitation of the shahadah (declaration of faith) and that must be done with adult Muslims present. Barack Obama has not met these conditions, thus he is not a Muslim. Furthermore, he’s been baptized and regularly attended church his entire life, was married in a Christian ceremony, raises his kids as Christians, and he continues to confess his faith in Jesus Christ as his savior, which no Muslim will ever profess. And I certainly think the intensive news coverage would have picked up if Obama had performed any Muslim practices.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Ronny Someck and the Pleasure of Hebrew

One of the pleasures of learning another language is being able to gather another layer of meaning to the poetry written in that language. A poet I am currently struggling with, both in translation and metaphorically, is Ronny Someck. Someck has published nine (or perhaps ten) books of poetry in Hebrew and hosted a popular radio program in Israel for years. Decades earlier, he was part of a circle called the “Tel Aviv Poets," which included Mier Wieseltier, Yona Wallach, and others, who often wrote about contemporary Israeli street life, incorporating slang, images from television and popular culture into their poems. Their poetry was often fleshy and sexy. Someck's poetry still often is.

Anyway, the reason I bring him up today is that I’m reading some of his work in Hebrew and struggling with the translation. BUT one interesting aspect of Hebrew is that much of the language is built around what they call “binyamin” or buildings so that word groups arise from the same root. For example, “dahm” means blood. From that, we get “Ah-dom” or red, and “Ah-damn” which means man, and from that we get “Ah-dah-ma” meaning earth. Red begets Blood begets Man begets Earth and vice versa.

Here is a poem by Someck titled “Red Catalogue of the Word Sunset:”

A French poet sees a red sunset
and squeezes burgundy from the cloud grapes.
An English poet likens the sunset to a rose
and a Hebrew, to blood.
Oh my country, a land fastening cannibal lips
to the setting sun’s virginal throat,
my arms are oars of fear
and I, in the ark of my life, row
like Noah to Ararat.

It is a unsettling poem comparing Israel to a cannibal that ‘eats its own,' different from more civilized lands where sunsets lead to wine and roses. But what is lost in the translation is the play of the language through the poem. The red of the sunset becomes blood becomes land becomes man. Underlining Someck’s unsaid importance of this resonance to the poem is that these relationships are "seen" by a “Hebrew” poet not an Israeli poet whose language might be Arabic, or given the waves of immigration, English, German, Russian, etc. The Hebrew language becomes part of what makes this land the cannibal that it is (in Someck’s poem). Or as Mier Wieseltier, another Jewish Israeli poet wrote in the poem “A March for Long Distance Poets,” “The believer in what words can do / believes in what they did to him.”

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Her Circle Ezine - Kind Enough to Include Me!

Her Circle Ezine is, in their words, an online portal of women's creative arts and activism from around the globe. By celebrating artists and writers whose work addresses the social issues of our time, we strive to bring these issues to the fore, whilst reaffirming connections between art, politics, and life. I've become an enormous fan for the poetry and prose, interviews, and essays, all created by an amazing array of talented writers.

They were lovely enough to ask me to submit a posting to their Writer's Life blog as a Guest Blogger! Take a look. Beyond my brief thoughts, there is a lot to draw you into their site.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Listening to Hebrew on the Anniversary of Gertrude Stein's Death

"I am very busy finding out what people mean by what they say.”

                                        —Gertrude Stein, who died on this day in 1946

Me too. Very busy.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A New Kafka Story Coming Soon!

I know Franz Kafka, writer of "The Trial" and "The Metamorphosis," wanted his papers destroyed after he died. He directed Max Brod (to whom Kafka left his papers) in his last will to do so, leave nothing intact. Brod, of course, ignored this plea. We can argue what was right or wrong, but if Kafka's will had been executed according to his instructions, his major novels - "The Trial", "The Castle" and "Amerika" - and most of his short stories would have been lost to the world. Brod, who died in 1968, left the remaining papers to Esther Hoffe, his close friend, assistant, and perhaps lover, with the direction to deposit them in an appropriate archive so that they could be saved for posterity and available for study. Well, Esther didn't follow instructions well either, but hid them away. Her daughter similarly kept them hidden although reportedly did sell a few in secret auctions.

Anyway, you can read a bit more on this on a previous blog.

There is, however, some good news. After years of wrangling, courts finally managed to get the boxes opened and contents reviewed. There was a gag order regarding what was inside, but a Tel Aviv judge rejected the order. The Haaretz newspaper reported that a huge amount of documents found in the safe deposit boxes are letters and manuscripts belonging to Kafka and Brod. Also in the box is a HANDWRITTEN SHORT STORY (!) by Kafka that has never before been seen. Perhaps Kafka would still want whatever remains destroyed rather published. I suppose his wishes are important, but at this point, after so much has already been published, I think it would be a greater loss to destroy them.

Of course, the lesson for great writers (or writers who believe they might be great) is to destroy what you want destroyed before you die. If you leave to someone else, a friend, even a close friend, chances are you'll be reading your unpublished letters and documents from the other side (assuming any of us get there!). If Kafka's case isn't enough, just remember Dmitri Nabokov and Elizabeth Bishop.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Truthiness in History and Fiction

I’ve been thinking a bit about historical truth lately primarily because a part of my current project involves historical events that took place in Israel during the late 1800s and early 1900s when a group of evangelical settlers moved from Chicago to Jerusalem in anticipation, they believed, of Christ’s reappearance on earth. Of course, some of the events and most notably the motivations and beliefs of the primary actors differ based on whose recounting one reads.

Assuming there is some basis for different accounts, which version do I believe? What is historical ‘Truth’ anyway? I suppose if the state of current affairs is any guide, both in literature and history, it depends on what interpretation I want to make.

I was listening to Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, who gave a lecture last year at The Key West Literary Seminar (by the way, there are some fabulous readings and lectures available for download at the KWLS site). Dr. Foner says in the lecture, “The line between historical scholarship and historical fiction is not as hard and fast as we sometimes might think. ... Every novel is an expression of the sensibility of the novelist; and, as E.H. Carr wrote, 'to study history, study the historian.' The reason historical interpretations change is that historians change, as does the world around them.” In other words, history depends on who is telling it.

Historical truth is always contested and ever changing. All history is to some degree contemporary history as it depends on who writes the history books. In Turkey, the Armenian massacre was written out of textbooks. In Japan, their pre-WWII rule over parts of Asia as considered ‘humane.’ In Russia, Stalin is being rehabilitated, while in the US, the abomination of slavery continues to be watered down (see how they’re handling it in Texas). Here in Israel, different versions of Israel’s War of Independence (called The Naqba or The Catastrophe by Palestinians) exist side by side.

So what does that mean for my poetry and for fiction in general? On therumpus.net, Travis Kuowski relatedly asks, “Are there rules that govern the representation of the “real world” in fiction? How much should fiction writers be allowed to misrepresent history before being called out for it?”

He writes later in the same essay, “History and fiction have long been a team. The fictional transformation of historical fact has been going on since literature’s beginnings—I am thinking particularly of Gilgamesh and The Iliad, both about historical kings their authors never met, battles they never witnessed. And historical accuracy has always been a bit, well, uneven—short story pioneer Washington Irving never visited the Catskill mountains until after he wrote about them in “Rip Van Winkle”; and Homer didn’t fact-check the Trojan War before composing a 16,000-line poem about it. Luke Slattery argues in The Australian, “To the extent that Homer’s Troy exists at all, it exists in the imagination.”

When asked if his stories were true, David Sedaris once answered that they were “true enough.” Much like character, setting, and symbolism, history is simply an element of the writing, and the only verification the writer must make for any element is if it “rings true” within the realm of the story, not that of reality.

At the same time, I’d like to think that when I read historical fiction or poetry, that there is an element of truth to it, at least as far as the writer is able to ascertain. Natasha Trethewey, Rita Dove, Ted Genoways are examples of writers whose work often springs from the past. While I’d bet that much of what these amazing poets created was from imagination, at the core, I also believe, are real, and true, stories.

Ted Kurowski goes on, “Fiction most often—perhaps always—exists in that middle ground between the real and the imaginary.” Perhaps, but at the root, if one is referencing past events and history, I think, there still needs to be the seed of truth, otherwise it is not historical fiction, but pure fiction.

As for me, I’m going to research the events I’m referencing as much as possible, visit the places the immigrants settled in Jerusalem, read as many accounts as I can. I recognize however that in the end, what I believe about the past will be my choice.

Monday, June 21, 2010

David Grossman Awarded German Peace Prize

Today, the Israeli novelist was announced winner of 2010 Book Trade Peace Prize by Germany’s book publishers association for his efforts in ending conflict between Israel, Palestinians. Tragically and some might say ironically, Grossman's youngest son Uri was killed during the Second Lebanon War when a Hezbollah missile his tank. Grossman at first supported that war, but later, and even before his son was killed, protested it.

Anyway, here's a short poem that incorporates elements (or doesn't) from that terrible event as well as Grossman's most-recent novel "To the End of the Land", which was takes on the story of a woman travelling through Israel, and was influenced by the death of his son.

THIS IS NOT ABOUT DAVID GROSSMAN

The famous author writes a story
about a woman whose son fights
at the front. The woman, who’s begun dreaming
of deserts, leaves her husband

and a small cerulean pool
in the garden. She starts walking, believing
if she’s not home to answer
the door, her son remains untouched.

Awakened in the middle of night
by military officers, the famous author
learns his youngest child, a tank
commander, disappeared

during a fierce battle that same
afternoon. A woman sits
at an empty bus stop between
nondescript towns. She’s waiting

but not for a bus; the bus company
quit the unprofitable route
years earlier. There are no cars, no signs
of anyone. When asked how death

affects his writing, the famous author
said, I do not speak of that. In her
dream, the desert is flat and dry. She lights
everything on fire.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Killjoy of Contemporary Poetry

In case you wanted another take on the state of contemporary poetry, its current killjoy, William Logan, reviews the current works of six poets (C.K. Williams, Tony Hoagland, Don Paterson, Keith Douglas, Derek Walcott, and Anne Carson) in June’s New Criterion. Perhaps there is a part of me that takes delight in William Logan’s nonstop bashing and snide contempt for much of contemporary poetry. God knows, I would not want to have his jaded eye trained on my work (Oh Oh Oh, if only my work would warrant such a look!) Mostly though, I find Logan’s tireless criticism wearisome. Perhaps it’s just me, but I prefer to have a critic point out what works in a poem than what falls flat.

In Logan’s world, almost all of contemporary poetry is just not quite right. Williams is too moralizing: “What but poetic deafness could make so many passages read like sociology texts.” On the other hands, Hoagland is too concerned with consumerism: “Hoagland is the Updike of American trash, forgetting nothing—but he hasn’t figured out how to recycle rubbish into art.” Likewise, Patterson is too sentimental: “The book ought to come with linen handkerchiefs from the broken mills of Glasgow or Aberdeen.” The dead war-poet Douglas can’t write a good line: “You need to go a long way to find the good lines in these poems, and when you do they’re surrounded by bad ones.” Meanwhile, Walcott can’t stop writing the same line, “I wish that in almost every book the flash of the sea weren’t compared to coins or the surface to a sheet of tin or the flight of birds to arrows.”

The only poet he saves praise for is Anne Carson, whose latest poetic effort Nox literally weighs in at two pounds and thirty dollars. I very much admire Anne Carson’s work though haven’t read Nox (I’m waiting for the ‘paperback’ edition). I found Plainwater and Eros, The Bittersweet, excruciatingly beautiful and over the top smart. Nox, which was written in large part as elegy to Carson’s disappeared brother, is also a meditation on Catullus 101, likewise a lament for a lost brother though written by the 1st Century BC poet Catullus. Does it seem surprising that Logan saves his praise for the one poet whose work hearkens back two thousand years? But I’ll reserve my take on Carson’s work until I’ve read it, which I admit, I’m looking forward to,

Granted, Logan has an unerring ability to hone in on a poet’s weakest lines and faults. Moreover, Logan’s critical prose is beautifully written if not uplifting. Finally, I suppose poetry needs at least one curmudgeon if only to balance the praise most poet/critics tend to heap on one another’s work. But his criticism won’t stop my reading of any of the poets whose work he derides, and, of course, I won’t stop reading his criticism. Sigh.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Vanity of Buying a Book

In Israel, book sales are up, though not all book sellers see it as a reflection of increased reading:

The CEO of Sifri bookstores, Aryeh Almog, said rising literacy led to increased reading, but stressed that "buying books today is a symptom of the newly rich, who buy books so they will not be suspected of a lack of comprehension." Or as Ziva Alfasi, one of the owners of the Lyric bookstores, said: "Books are a kind of fad. A few years ago, people would bring a vase or a useful kitchen accessory as a gift; today, when you go to a birthday party, dinner or even a wedding, people bring a book."

Ah, vanity. But if more books are in people's houses, for whatever reason, perhaps a few more will be read.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Amos Oz Says, "Against Ideas, Israel's Force is Impotent"

Since Monday when Israel boarded the Gaza-bound aid flotilla and the resulting terrible tragedy of nine lost lives, I’ve been ill. Yes, the mission was not without venal objectives. As The Gaza Freedom March stated efore Monday’s confrontation: “A violent response form Israel will breathe new Life into the Palestine solidarity movement, drawing attention to the blockade.” But Israel couldn’t have handed them a more desired response. Throughout the Arab world, the nine killed are called “martyrs.”

Here is an op-ed written by Amos Oz, one of Israel’s most revered writers and a peace activist, which appeared The New York Times and UK’s Guardian, among other places I've reprinted it in full below. I haven't been able to write about it yet, and Oz's words are clear enough.

Against ideas, Israel's force is impotent

Since the six-day war Israel has been fixated on military force. But Hamas is an idea, and no idea has been defeated by force

For 2,000 years the Jews knew the force of force only in the form of lashes to their own backs. For several decades now we have been able to wield force ourselves. Yet this power has, again and again, intoxicated us. Again and again we imagine that we can solve every problem we encounter with force. To a man with a big hammer, says the proverb, every problem looks like a nail.

In the period before the state was founded a large portion of the Jewish population in Palestine did not understand the limits of force and thought that it could be used achieve any goal. Luckily, during Israel's early years leaders such as David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol knew very well that force has its limits and were careful not to go beyond those boundaries. But since the six-day war in 1967 Israel has been fixated on military force. The mantra is: what can't be done by force can be done with even greater force.

Israel's siege of the Gaza Strip is one of the rank products of this view. It originates in the mistaken assumption that Hamas can be defeated by force of arms; or, in more general terms, that the Palestinian problem can be crushed instead of solved.

But Hamas is not just a terror organisation. Hamas is an idea. A desperate and fanatical idea that grew out of the desolation and frustration of many Palestinians. No idea has ever been defeated by force – not by siege, not by bombardment, not by being flattened with tank treads, and not by marine commandos. To defeat an idea you have to offer a better idea, a more attractive and acceptable one. The only way for Israel to edge out Hamas is for it to quickly reach an agreement with the Palestinians on the establishment of an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as defined by the 1967 borders, with its capital in East Jerusalem.

Israel has to sign a peace agreement with Mahmoud Abbas and his government and thus reduce the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a conflict between Israel and the Gaza Strip. That latter conflict can be resolved, in the end, only by negotiating with Hamas or, more reasonably, by the integration of Abbas's Fatah movement with Hamas. Even if Israel seizes a hundred more ships on their way to Gaza, even if Israel sends in troops to occupy the Gaza Strip a hundred more times, no matter how many times Israel deploys its military, police, and covert forces, it cannot solve the problem.

The problem is that we are not alone in this land, and the Palestinians are not alone in this land. We are not alone in Jerusalem and the Palestinians are not alone in Jerusalem. Until we, Israelis and Palestinians, recognise the logical consequences of this simple fact, we will all live in a permanent state of siege – Gaza under an Israeli siege, Israel under an international and Arab siege.

I do not discount the importance of force. Military force is vital to Israel. Without it we would not be able to survive a single day. Woe to the country that discounts the efficacy of force. But we cannot allow ourselves to forget for even a moment that force is effective only as a preventative – to prevent the destruction and conquest of Israel, to protect our lives and freedom. Every attempt to use force not as a preventative, not in self-defence, but instead as a means of smashing problems and squashing ideas, will lead to more disasters – just like the one we brought on ourselves in international waters, on the high seas, opposite Gaza's shores.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Book for the Beach: American Priestess

I know I haven't posted anything for a few weeks. Blame it on travel. Blame it on Spring. Blame it on ennui.

I've been hanging out in Manhattan these past three weeks and, a brief respite from Israel, loving it. Of course, what do I read in this downtime? American Priestess, the fabulous nonfiction account of a messianic Christian group that landed in Jerusalem in the late 1800s and, in due course, founded one of the city's most famous hotels, The American Colony. It is a highly recommended read for the beach. Here's a brief synopsis of why I couldn't put it down.

Jerusalem is a city of extremes—extreme religion, history, and emotion. Jerusalem can drive people insane, literally. There is a rare psychosis associated with the city known as Jerusalem Syndrome involving the presence of religiously themed obsessive ideas or delusions that are triggered by Jerusalem or compel its victims to go to the city. Every year tens of visitors are affected. The afflicted have been found wandering in the Judean desert wrapped in hotel bed sheets or crouched at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, waiting to birth the infant Jesus. The syndrome can affect seemingly normal people as well as those already suffering from mental illness. In extreme cases, the affected Pilgrims who, in some cases, belong to bizarre fringe groups rather than regular churches, believe they must do specific things to bring about major events like the coming of the Messiah, the war of Armageddon, or the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Which brings me to the fabulous book I just mentioned—American Priestess by Jane Fletcher Geniesse. American Priestess follows the remarkable true story of Anna Spafford from her arrival in Chicago from Norway at the age of four in 1846 to her early years and marriage at age eighteen to Horatio Spafford, the loss of four of her children at sea, to her and her husband’s eventual emigration to Jerusalem in 1881. It also follows her transformation from a seemingly ordinary housewife into the leader of a messianic Christian quasi-cult known as the American Colony. In the course of her story, Anna not only lost four of her daughters to shipwreck and a son to fever, but also she and her followers endured plagues, war, and starvation, living through some of Jerusalem’s most turbulent periods as it changed hands from Ottoman to British to Jewish.

Anna Spafford (born Anne Tobine ALarsdatter Oglende in Norway), interestingly, was not always religious. Like all her peers of that period, she regularly attended church and was nominally Presbyterian. It was at bible study when she was just fifteen that she first met Horatio, who was leading the study and would later become her husband when she reached eighteen. Their life together seemed charmed. They had four girls in rapid succession, Horatio’s law practice gave him good income and prestige in the community. But after a tragic fire destroyed much of Chicago in 1871 and nationwide financial collapse several land deals in which Horatio invested, the Spaffords were left destitute. Horatio had long been evangelical and, like many of his time, believed the Second Coming eminent. It was during this period that he and Anna began their own sect called the Saints (or the Overcomers) and founded a church beside their home.

At the same time, Horatio was stealing money he was entrusted with investing and was one step ahead of bill collectors. It was in front of this additional calamity that he sent his wife and four children to France via ship. He was to join them later. Tragedy struck again when another ship ran into theirs on the way, and all four of the Spafford daughters were lost.

After all these traumas, Horatio ‘received’ communication from God that he and his followers must emigrate to Jerusalem to await the Second Coming. A band of eighteen, including two Spafford daughters born in the interim, arrived in Jerusalem in 1881 where they rented and later purchased a large house, later hotel, on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem. Others from Chicago and from Sweden and Norway followed. Horatio initially was the leader, however, when he died in 1888, Anna took the reins. By definition, the American Colony of Geniesse’s book was a cult. Members received unconditional love, acceptance, and attention from a charismatic leader, in this case, from Anna Spafford, assuming they obeyed her commands; members received new names and often new professions; members were isolated from friends, relatives, and mainstream culture; and access to information was severely controlled. American Colony members ceded not only all financial resources to the group, but also their husbands and wives, children, autonomy. Marriages were dissolved, celibacy instituted, parents and children separated. Later, marriage was re-instituted though Anna (aka the Priestess) decided who married whom. Only Anna’s two surviving daughters, Bertha and Grace, received full education.

Certainly the beliefs or practices of the American Colony members were considered strange by outsiders and several American consuls complained to their American counterparts in the US about the group. While they considered themselves Christian, they considered most mainstream Christian churches tepid and disowned them. The group arrived in Jerusalem anticipating the eminent second arrival of the Messiah. Anna, aka The Priestess, was apparently in direct communication with God about this and her band, according to her messages, had been chosen to receive him. Like some other messianic Christian groups, the American Colony believed the Jews return to the Holy Land presaged the Second Coming and, unlike Arab residents of the city, welcomed the Jewish immigrations of the early 1900s. At the same time, the Overcomers fed the city’s poor, treated the sick even when exposure risked their own health, and, during the many periods of war, maintained hospitals and treated soldiers from all sides of the fighting.

Peppering the book with quotes from the descendents of the American Colony as well as from letters, books, documents from the period, Genniese recreates in real time the period between 1880 when the American Colony was founded and 1950 when the Colony disbanded. There is an immediacy to American Priestess which is due not only to Geniesse’s extensive research (the book apparently took seven years to research and write) but also because the Jerusalem of the late 19th century feels current. The political and religious frictions about which Geniesse writes and through which the American Colony lived continue, between Arab and Jew, between easterner and westerner. Jerusalem exists, as it has for millenniums, at a contentious crossroad and its sites are symbols of the religious and cultural aspirations of many peoples.

Beyond the historical context, American Priestess reads like a good novel. The characters in the story—Anna, Horatio, their daughters Bertha and Grace, are fleshed-out, three-dimensional. Though I admit I found little attractive about the main characters, their flaws made them real and intriguing. I also found the periods through which the American Colony lived fascinating. They survived two World Wars, multiple skirmishes, battling against and sometimes aligning with the various powers controlling Jerusalem’s gates. I admit also some personal connection with the story given that I live in Israel and am an immigrant from the US. While I feel little in the way of alignment with Anna Spafford’s motivations, I sometimes felt I understood her and her family. Whether one calls it Jerusalem Syndrome or spiritual conviction, the power of Jerusalem as symbol and destination remains. The American Colony still exists, literally as a five-star hotel just outside the Old City borders and symbolically in the mind of those searching for their particular brand of salvation.

By the way, if you want to see how the current management of The American Colony Hotel spins this story, check out their website.

Friday, April 30, 2010

One War Ended

The Vietnam War ended on this day thirty-five years ago, the date marked by the fall of Saigon. Below, the first stanza of “April 30, 1975,” by the American poet and English professor John Balaban, who served in Vietnam as a conscientious objector doing alternative duties:


The evening Nixon called his last troops off,
the church bells tolled across our states.
We leaned on farmhouse porch pilings, our eyes
wandering the lightning bug meadow thick with mist,
and counted tinny peals clanking out
through oaks around the church belltower.
You asked, “Is it peace, or only a bell ringing?”

Perhaps only a bell ringing, the signal for a temporary hiatus in war’s blind march through history. Below a lush poem called "Curfew" written by Brian Turner, which also speaks to that small space of quiet. Brian served seven years in the US Army, most recently in Iraq. He has two books of poems—Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise. Both are must-reads.

                                   The wrong is not in the religion;
                                   The wrong is in us.
                                              --Saier T.

At dusk, bats fly out by the hundreds.
Water snakes glide in the ponding basins
behind the rubbled palaces. The mosques
call their faithful in, welcoming
the moonlight as prayer.

Today, policemen sunbathed on traffic islands
and children helped their mothers
string clothes to the line, a slight breeze
filling them with heat.

There were no bombs, no panic in the streets.
Sgt. Gutierrez didn't comfort an injured man
who cupped pieces of his friend's brain
in his hands; instead, today,
white birds rose from the Tigris.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Another Independence Day

Today marks Israel's 62nd year as an independent country. There has never been peace. There will likely never be peace. At least not in any timeframe that feels worth talking about.

Of course, last night Israel celebrated the anniversary with ceremony, speeches, fireworks. In Israel, there are more festivities the night between Memorial Day and Independence Day than on both New Year's Eves combined (the Jewish and the calendar). Our neighborhood erected a stage in its center surrounded by rides for the children, acrobats, booths selling every kind of cake, cookie, drink, candy imaginable. For two hours, officials including Tel Aviv's mayor (who lives in our neighborhood) delivered speeches extolling their as much as Israel's accomplishments, followed by dance and singing performances put on by local children's groups includng the Scouts (Tsofeem), dance groups, school groups. Behind them all, video and pictures of army personnel, local heroes, interspersed with images from the dancing and crowds played on two giant screens. Fifteen minutes of fireworks followed. And all this just for our neighborhood! Afterward, my husband and I went to a nearby party for drinks, more food, dancing that went on well into the early hours of morning.

I love the entire two days for its earnestness. There is no irony in all this exhibition. I also am sad, because nothing changes. After sixty two years, nothing has changed, it seems to me. Israel exists but always on a precipice.

I included a brief poem written by poet Aryeh Sivan. Sivan has written 14 (14!) books of poetry and a novel. Today he was awarded Israel's highest literary honor, The Israel Prize. Very few of his poems have been translated into English. Sivan wrote the poem below more than 25 years ago. It could have been written today.

TO LIVE IN THE LAND OF ISRAEL
                To the memory of Zvi Hurvitz:
                 Pioneer, commander, and bereaved father.

To be cocked like a rifle, the hand
clutching a pistol, to walk
in a closed, harsh line, even after
the cheeks are filled with dust,
and the seared flesh is fallen away, and the eyes can no longer
focus on a target.

There is a saying: a loaded gun is bound to fire.
Not true.
In the Land of Israel, anything can happen:
a broken pin, a spring rusted through,

or, the sudden cancellation of your orders, without explanation,
as it once happened to Abraham on Mount Moriah.

Translation by M. Salomon

Friday, April 16, 2010

Slouching Toward Bedlam

This week, Israel passed out new gas masks to all citizens, urged them to restock their bomb shelters, albeit through humorous commercials and flyers printed on ice cream shades of paper (wouldn't want to scare the kids!) Yesterday, at the height of rush hour, their was a nationwide terror alert that simulated emergency scenarios, including simultaneous terror attacks at multiple locations. All arms of the security establishment took part including the Israel Police, the Israel Defense Forces, firefighters and Magen David Adom emergency service. I was stuck in traffic at 5PM and, given the road rage I encountered, I'm sure Magen David had to evacuate a few irate car drivers to local emergency rooms.

The rumors are rife of course, especially after Israel told all its citizens to evacuate Egypt's Sinai peninsula because of information that suggested terrorists would (or might already have) kidnapped Israeli citizens. Today the rumor is that Israel will bomb Iran's nuclear sites and expects retaliation, or was it that Hezbollah plans to test its newly received Scud missiles (probably also a gift from Iran) in Israeli territory?

What came to mind? Besides disbelief mixed with a bit of fear, and after I'd checked all the expiration dates on the food and water in our shelter, I couldn't help thinking of W.B. Yeats poem "The Second Coming:"

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

That it was also Poetry Daily's Poet's Pick today seemed a strange omen.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Another Reason for Translation

A interesting review of Edith Grossman's new book "Why Translation Matters" in The New York Times.

Here's the summation: In the end, Grossman warmly (after all) and gratefully rehearses the twofold answer to the question of her title: translation matters because it is an expression and an extension of our humanity, the secret metaphor of all literary communication; and because the creation of any literary translation is (or at least must be) an original writing, not a pathetic shadow or tracing of the inaccessible “original” but the creation, indeed, of a second — and as we have seen, a third and a ninth — but always a new work, in another language.

Grossman is a fabulous translator and I'm looking forward to reading her take on why her work matters.