Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Blank Page

As I was surfing the Internet (or rather trying to distract myself from the blank page in front of me), I came across this piece of video art by Israeli artist Ariel Schlesinger. It captured my inability to put a single word on the page, the enervation, the attention/inattention I was paying to the page, the feeling of being on the cusp of inspiration only to have the flash snuffed out.

As one reviewer of her work wrote way way back in 2008 (doesn’t that seem a long time ago): Schlesinger’s works are weird science for the sake of the beautifully uncanny. In Forever Young (2005), a single ash burns perpetually in a cracked ashtray at the gallery entrance. A soggy cardboard box, Zu Erinnern und Zu Vergessen (To Remember and To Forget, 2008), holds a shallow puddle of water that somehow never seeps out onto the gallery floor. Rolls of masking tape, joined – like Siamese twins – at their cardboard cores, stand on a pedestal in Untitled (Masking Tape) (2008). Doesn’t that make you want to see more? Lots of her conceptual video is online on YouTube or other sources. Check it out.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Another Whiff of Ozymandias

As if I didn’t already believe in synchronicity, the Poetry Daily Newsletter dated October 26, 2009 (today!) that I subscribe to from, included a link to the web-based presentation of “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Petra and its 2000 plus year old relics and carvings echo Shelley's poem. I include here a photo I took of a Petran carving only two days ago (see my previous blog for more info on Petra). All that remains of the man, perhaps he was a king, perhaps just an ordinary traveller, is his bottom half. Still, the stone caftan of the man seems to wave in the breeze and up close one can make out the outline of toes. Here’s the Shelley poem from the link and some reflective text as written by poet Jon Pineda:

by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Jon Pineda Comments:

Given the current state of the economy, I felt Shelley’s “Ozymandias” would be a poignant poem to revisit, especially with the way in which the reader becomes the final witness to the “colossal Wreck, boundless and bare.” At the start, the poem quickly moves from the announced first person to the detailed account of the “traveller” (who goes on to reveal the various details of the “shattered” ruler’s monument). This subtle shift is, in some ways, a relinquishing of responsibility for the unfolding narrative.

By the end of the poem, it is the reader who is left to not only sift through the “decay,” but to be equally consumed by it as well. In rejoining the remnants of the mocking sculpture with the sterile bravado of the “King of Kings,/ Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” the reader is (to further the irony) put to work by the ruler, rebuilding again the affecting presence of the ego, all while the insipid structure of the void beckons in those “lone and level sands stretch[ing] far away.”

About Jon Pineda:

Jon Pineda is the author of Birthmark (Southern Illinois University Press, 2004), winner of the Crab Orchard Award Series in Poetry Open Competition, and The Translator's Diary (New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2008), winner of the 2007 Green Rose Prize. His memoir, Sleep in Me, is forthcoming in 2010 from the University of Nebraska Press. He currently teaches in the MFA program in Creative Writing at Queens University of Charlotte, and this June, he will be on faculty at the Tinker Mountain Writers' Workshop held on campus at Hollins University.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Whiff of Ozymandias

I just finished the first of two days in Jordan. Most of it was spent exploring Petra, which is an ancient city constructed around 100 BC by the Nabateans (no, I'd never heard of them either!). Petra is located in southwestern Jordan about 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of the Dead Sea and the border crossing with Israel. The excavated city (and there is apparently more underneath the sand and rock) extends along the eastern flank of a great rift valley that runs from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba called Wadi Araba for a good 10 kilometers. It remained unknown to westerners until it was ‘discovered’ by a Swiss explorer in 1812.

I had read many resources on Petra and seen countless pictures, but it is impossible to be prepared for the staggering beauty and scale of the actual site. The ‘buildings’ are not actually built, but carved into the sheer rock faces of mountains of rust-colored sandstone. According to our guide, a Jordanian, the artisans would first construct enormous piles of sand alongside the mountain they wished to chisel. As they completed work, they would cart the sand to a new location, working top down versus bottom up.

At the height of its power, the city reportedly held around 10,000 inhabitants. Our guide told us that he believed there were over 100,000 known tombs in the valley, which would include generations of deaths. According to what I’ve read, the Nabateans believed that the soul departed from the body and continued to live after death, so it should therefore continue to be fed and clothed by its living descendants. In fact, one’s house became one’s tomb, which is why there are so many available tombs at Petra. It gave me an eerie feeling to be surrounded by so many buried bodies.

Petra remained a trading hub until around 300 AD or so even after the Romans conquered the city early in the millenium. But after trading routes migrated and after an earthquake destroyed much of the water infrastructure, Petra gradually disappeared from records.

A somewhat well-known poem about Petra, written in 1845 by John William Burgon, an English Anglican divine was awarded the British Newdigate Prize that same year. Proving that it is indeed possible to imaginatively travel without leaving the comfort of one's armchair (although not as much fun!), Burgon had only heard Petra described and never set foot in Jordan or the city. The poem is 350 lines long in rhymed couplets, and to my ear, fairly bland. It doesn’t approach the unburied majesty of the city, but here is an excerpt nonetheless:

It seems no work of Man's creative hand,
by labour wrought as wavering fancy planned;
But from the rock as if by magic grown,
eternal, silent, beautiful, alone!
Not virgin-white like that old Doric shrine,
where erst Athena held her rites divine;
Not saintly-grey, like many a minster fane,
that crowns the hill and consecrates the plain;
But rose-red as if the blush of dawn,
that first beheld them were not yet withdrawn;
The hues of youth upon a brow of woe,
which Man deemed old two thousand years ago,
match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,
a rose-red city half as old as time.

But, I will say that I do like that last line!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Meir Shalev in Queens, NY

On November 15, Meir Shalev, one of Israel’s leading writers of nonfiction and fiction, will be the featured speaker at the 14th Annual Author’s Café of the Central Queens YM & YWHA in Forest Hills. The event kicks off at 2PM. Blue Mountain was the first of Shalev’s books I read, not long after I came to Israel. I adored the book’s three generations of Israeli-Ukranians, but did find some of the characters flat. I think it was the translation, because his most recent book, A Pigeon and a Boy is fabulous (here's a review, also). The book weaves past and present together, telling two stories—one of a slightly bizarre pigeon handler from Israel’s early years, and the second of his son, an Israeli tour guide going through a bit of a mid life crisis. There is a bit of history, Jewish culture, and some really fabulous characters. But that summation sells the book short, and I’d recommend the book and, if you’re in the area, a listen to the author.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

"Real" Religion

Religion can be beautiful—the ritual, biblical poetry, and certainly it has inspired some of the most breath-taking works of art known to us. BUT, religion can also be brutal and its history reflects many of humankind’s basest impulses. As for the Christian Bible, whether one believes the text is received truth or largely human embellishment (as I do), even fabrication, to ignore the vile and violent means that half of the story, the human story, is lost.

So it is with some relish, I note two recent attempts at underscoring the ‘real’ of religion, or at least of Christianity. The first is an exhibit at London’s National Gallery called The Sacred Made Real and largely revolves around Spanish paintings (e.g., Velasquez and Zurbaron) of the 17th century. As you can see by the illustration I’ve included, the art looks almost contemporary, at least from the distance of my 17 inch computer screen. I hope to make it to London to see it up close.

The second effort I want to note is an illustrated Book of Genesis just released by controversial artist Robert Crumb. Not surprisingly (Crumb is the creator of Fritz the Cat, a sexually graphic "underground" comic strip) and according to reviews I’ve seen, the book is shock-your-grandmother explicit. The book depicts, as recorded in the Bible, people actually having sex (e.g., Lot does indeed have incestuous sex with his two daughters) and there is a lot of violence. Of course, these pictures have been greeted by hostility by most church leaders, but that they accurately depict the goings-on in Genesis cannot be denied.

I'm keeping my eye out for a cheap flight to London this Fall, and I am definitely ordering Robert Crumb's book, if just to support the author.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Other Stories

I often worry that I am so inculcated into the secular Israeli world, into the westernized version of the Middle East, that I fail to see details of what surrounds me. I’m not sure I will ever get to a ‘truth,’ I mean there are tens, hundreds of versions of not only what happened, but what is happening day to day in the Israel that I encounter. My Jewish husband and his children have a story, I have another, the Arab Israelis, the Palestinians, Syrians, the Bedouins, the Druze, the various tribal and family groups that pass undetected under my insensitive radar have still others.

Chimamanda Adichie, the award-winning Nigerian novelist and short story writer, captures my concern more eloquently that I could ever voice it in a talk she gave a few months ago at TED. TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a small nonprofit group that holds conferences and provides a forum for lectures and talks by thinkers, politicians, artists, you name it. There is a web site where many of the talks are available for free. And they are great! Adichie’s was just released this week.

Anyway, back to Adichi, she talked about how her early readings of books by western authors led her to believe at a young age that there was only ‘one story’ as reflected by literature. That one story, at least early on, revolved around white foreigners doing and saying things that didn’t encompass aspects of her life. Her life, and indeed Nigeria's or even Africa's, was not one that found its way into literature. It was only later after reading books by African writers that she grew convinced that she had a story to tell, that she had African stories to tell. But, what was more interesting, was that she revealed her story often was built on its own stereotypes—stereotypes about those of other classes and countries, stereotypes of others that resided outside her relatively small world. Stereotypes, she says, are often not wrong, just incomplete. It is only by recognizing our own stereotypes and attempting to step around them, we gain some fuller version of the world. My prose here fails to capture the fluency of her talk and I hope you give the video a listen. As she said at the end of her talk, when we reject the idea that there is a single story about any place or people, we regain a kind of paradise.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Acts That Go Unnoticed

I read this on Paul Lisicky’s blog (a great poet and teacher). I don’t know him but read his blog often for its beautiful photographs, poems, and prose. It is from a few days ago:

The Women of Lockerbie

Listening to the radio one day, I heard about a play written by Deborah Baley Brevoort, called The Women of Lockerbie. One day in December the sky exploded and the remains of Pan Am Flight 103 fell upon Lockerbie, Scotland. Among the many horrors one stood out for its seeming insignificance: what to do about the 11,000 articles of clothing belonging to the victims? The clothing, of course, was filthy and stained with jet fuel, clothing that carried the stench of death; the authorities called the clothes "contaminated" and decided that it must be incinerated. But the women of Lockerbie prevailed upon the U.S. government to release the clothing to them. Over one year’s time, 11,000 items of clothing were washed in streams before being packed and shipped back to the families.

When asked why they had done this, one Lockerbie woman explained that every act of evil must be turned into an act of love.

Until recently I didn’t know anything about this clothing or the women of Lockerbie who washed it, but right now I am wondering what their thoughts are this week, and, more importantly, what they are doing. It seems urgent to me to find out.

I googled the story. Here you can find a brief London Times news item with additional information about the play Paul mentions that was written and produced based on the women of Lockerbie story.

I suppose the story especially touched me after having watched how Libya “heroically” received one of the architects of the Lockerbie bombing a few weeks ago after Britain released him for health reasons. Or perhaps I just find their act beautiful.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Damien Hirst Really Can't Paint

At first reading, I was a bit relieved, even a bit, OK, euphoric that the London Times trashed Damien Hirst’s newest art exhibit at the Wallace. The paintings as the critic states are “dreadful.” From the illustrations I’ve seen online, they resemble the velvet paintings my brother and I crafted during early adolescence. At the same time, I admire Hirst's return to actual painting, versus managing a warehouse of assistants who turned out replicas of his work. As has been much reported, the majority of the thousands of works Hirst ‘created’ over the past few years has been at the hands of some anonymous apprentice. Granted other artists use assistants, especially for large installations, but Hirst turned help to factory hands.

Hirst won’t be surprised at the responses. In an interview 10 days before the show opened, the interviewer asked, “How do you think the new paintings will be received?” Hirst's response? “I’m expecting to get slagged off,” he says under his breath, as if it would tempt fate to say it louder. “But you know what Warhol said, ‘If critics say they don’t like something, just make more.’ ”

Some of my snide euphoria may be because Hirst has made millions from his art. Just last year, Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, Hirst’s sale of 223 works at Sotheby’s, raised £111m. For that sale, Hirst cut out his long-time galleries (and their respective margin) from the sale. The move did seem openly mercenary especially as Hirst didn’t need the money and a few of the galleries supported him when he was a nobody.

But, for Hirst, art might not have a goal more profound than profit. “There are lots of ways of measuring success beyond the financial,” explains Hirst. “It’s not really the money that I like, it’s the language of money. People understand money. There are people who might have dismissed my work who can’t any more.”

Well, maybe, but it sounds like this time around, money or no money, his art is being dissed if not dismissed.

Here's a short poem by Jennifer Harding titled "poem for the alter identity of damien hirst:"

he saw his friend
as a man who could talk openly
about his heart.
until one day,
he told himself that perhaps
he was mistaken
concerning the presumption put into his head.
making believe he knows alot
when in fact
he knows nothing.

Monday, October 12, 2009

My Life on Camera

This week we installed six, yes six, video cameras outside our Tel Aviv home. The cameras aren’t to scare away terrorists, Arab or otherwise, but more to scare away local homegrown thieves. We’ve had a few break-ins in the neighborhood over the past six months, one in which the housekeeper was tied up and gagged for eight hours. This kind of thing had been rare—there is a policeman in the neighborhood and lots of stay-at-home moms and nannies. Perhaps the downturn in the economy is the culprit, perhaps the word got out that it was actually a fairly relaxed spot for thievery. I mean most of the nannies are part time and most of the stay-at-home moms aren’t home.

The local security polled the neighborhood and asked those of us that could to install cameras. The cameras not only record the entire perimeter of our house for our viewing pleasure, but feed into the local police department. Many agreed to participate and, for some reason, so did we. I hate them. Keep in mind we already had a centrally monitored alarm system. So we are now pretty much locked down. Every time I pass in or out of the house, play with the dog in the grass, sit outside in the evening with a glass of wine, I realize that my every movement is being recorded. I am absolutely sure that no one is interested or cares what goes on around my house, but still, the idea is unnerving.

My husband says I’ll get used to them. I’m not so sure. And anyway, a part of me hopes not. The idea that I’d suddenly find 24/7 monitoring the new normal is perhaps even more disconcerting.

In honor of my new life on camera, here’s a newly posted poem by the fabulous Heather McHugh from Narrative Magazine.

Webcam the World

GET ALL OF IT. Set up the shots
at every angle; run them online
24-7. Get beautiful stuff (like
scenery and greenery and style)
and get the ugliness (like cruelty
and quackery and rue).
There’s nothing
unastonishing—but get that, too. We have

to save it all, now that we can, and while.
Do close-ups with electron microscopes
and vaster pans with planetcams.
It may be getting close
to our last chance—
how many

millipedes or elephants are left?
How many minutes for mind-blinded men?
Use every lens you can—get Dubliners
in fisticuffs, the last Beijinger with
an abacus, the boy in Addis Ababa who feeds
the starving dog. And don’t forget the cows

in neck-irons, when barns begin
to burn. The rollickers at clubs,
the frolickers at forage—take it all,
the space you need: it’s curved. Let
mileage be footage, let years be light. Get
goggles for the hermitage, and shades for whorage.
Don’t be boggled by totality: we’re here to save the world

without exception. It will serve

as its own storage.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Herta Muller Twitters

The newest literary Nobel Laureate, Mutter twitters!. I couldn't resist sending this:

Herta Muller: "I believe that literature always goes precisely where the damage to a person has been done." And I salute the ambiguity of this statement as I'm not sure if she means as a balm, or as a knife twisted in the wound. Haven't we all experienced it both ways?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Obama's Down Payment for Peace

OK, Barack Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize doesn’t have a lot to do with literature (of course everything has a little to do with literature), except it is a twist to the story, for sure. It must be the first time the Nobel Peace Prize has gone for good intentions and charisma. I mean, I adore Obama, he is my President, and I feel proud America elected him. But really, he hasn't accomplished much in the peace department just yet. I know here in the Middle East, his award was greeted with a singular, "What are you kidding me?"

Nominations for the Peace Prize closed February 1, which means that Obama was nominated after a scant 10 days in office. Granted, it was a good ten days, and the judges were allowed to consider the 270 or so that followed, but not a lot of Obama’s vision has been realized. My first thought was that it had a bit to do with how much the international community despised George Bush and his policies. So why not give a big fat smooch as well as $1.4 million to his successor to prove it? Another more optimistic follow-up thought was that it's the committee's way of endorsing Obama's vision and their way of placing a hopeful stake in the ground. It would be nice to think the award would help close a few deals, but speaking from the Middle East, I don't think folks here really care.

But why does Obama need this? So far, the award has been greeted with nothing but confused pride by those who admire Obama, and sneers and ridicule by those who don't. Even Obama seems a bit confused.

As the New Republic best puts it, "at best, then, the award is a mixed blessing." That’s why Obama should consider the advice of Alex Massie from The Spectator, and others and, in a gesture of his humility, refuse to accept it. It would be the right thing to do in principle. It might also be smart politics.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Surprise! The Nobel in Lit Goes to a European!

Herta Muller? OK, I guess not a lot of her prose/poetry has been translated into English, but Herta Muller? I guess the good news is that it didn't go to Bob Dylan, who had 25-1 odds. I was really hoping for Amos Oz (who had same 3-1 odds as Herta) or Philip Roth or Joyce Carol Oates or Adonis or at least a non-European.

Oh well, the Nobel is not supposed to honor “the world’s best writer.” The guidelines, as described in Alfred Nobel's will, say that the award must go to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” Perhaps that's why my idealism keeps faltering--no Herta Muller in my kit bag.

Oh, and one more thing, doesn't she look exactly like Madeline Kahn from the movie Young Frankenstein?

Of course, the onus is now on me to track down some of her work. And, I also admit, she and her work sounds pretty damn interesting. Here’s an excerpt and short description of one of her few books translated into English, “Everything I Possess I Carry With Me”:

‘I know you’ll come back’. These are the words the grandmother of seventeen-year-old Leopold Auberg says to him the night he is collected by Russian soldiers for deportation to a labour camp in the Ukraine. From the very first page of this compelling new novel it becomes clear that Müller is an author who wields an extraordinary power over words. Equally astonishing is her convincing handling of such a serious subject: extensive research and collaboration with the late Romanian-German poet Oskar Pastior about his experiences in the Gulag have given this work a life force of its own.

As the reader joins the young narrator his family are helping him pack his few belongings together into an old gramophone case, trying to overcome their fear and helplessness at his departure. He is herded onto a cattle train with other camp internees and undergoes the gruelling and exhausting journey to the Gulag. Once in the camp, the stereotypical issues the reader may expect to be confronted with are barely mentioned, here the focus is on the smaller – and at first glance insignificant – details which threaten the internees’ dignity and emphasise the control they have lost over their lives. Most startling is the way in which the author subverts the reader’s conceptions of what would be imagined to be the worst elements, such as the unrelenting hunger which consumes Leopold: ultimately this is what keeps him alive, acting as his connection with the world. When they are released from the camp the reader expects elation, but instead they are frightened: despite its harsh and bleak conditions the camp has become their world, its walls their safety, its oppressions their routines.

This is truly a remarkable novel. The language is poetic and masterful, but also joyous in its simplicity and imagery: a young woman in the camp – who had been discovered through the footprints outside her hideaway back home – claims that she will never forgive the snow. Every other substance would have swallowed the evidence of her existence – water, sand, dirt – but the freshly fallen snow can never be a silent accomplice. Müller has a highly individual voice, and this novel, which also shines a light on a fascinating but still neglected aspect of German history, deserves to be brought to the attention of an international readership.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Egypt Wants its Stuff Back

Today’s Associated Press reported that Egypt’s antiquities department has severed ties with France's Louvre museum because it has refused to return what are described as stolen artifacts. The objects in question are four or five (the number is in dispute) fragments of a fresco discovered in the ancient tomb of a nobleman called Tetaki, near the famed temple city of Luxor. Egypt described the four fragments as paintings of a nobleman's journey to the afterlife chipped from the walls of the tomb by thieves in the 1980s. The pieces were taken to France in 2002 or 2003, although France says it wasn’t until last year that it found they might have been taken out illegally. Well.

Egypt has been trying for years to get museums to return objects it says were ‘stolen,’ and not just from France. Included in Egypt’s list are the bust of Nefertiti — wife of the famed monotheistic Pharaoh Akhenaten — and the Rosetta Stone, a basalt slab with an inscription that was the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics. The bust of Nerfertiti is in Berlin's Egyptian Museum; the Rosetta Stone is in the British Museum in London. The head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities Zahi Hawass said Egypt also was seeking "unique artifacts" from at least 10 museums around the world, including the Louvre in Paris and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. In one of the more high profile and acrimonious fights, Hawass has repeatedly requested the return of a 3,200-year-old golden mask of a noblewoman from the St. Louis Art Museum. Of course, most of the objects were taken out during the 1800s and early 1900s when European archaeologists made the discoveries and colonialism was rampant throughout the Middle East. This doesn’t excuse what in some circles might be called thievery, and it’s hard to argue for western country’s right to these valuable Egyptian artifacts especially if they were taken out in shady circumstances. It’s even harder to argue France’s right to the fresco fragments. Last time I checked, France no longer stakes a claim to the Middle East.

I will say that, I strongly remember seeing some of the ancient Egyptian papyrus texts housed in Berlin’s Egyptian Museum last year.  I do hope Egypt, if it receives these precious artifacts back, decides to actively share them with the rest of the world. It is in these texts we find evidence of some of the first written autobiography, poetry, stories and song. They are breathtaking and still seem somehow alive. Which is why, I suppose, anyone would want them close to home.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Art of Condoms

Art has been way under-used as a way to sell stuff. Take condoms, for instance. Who wants to buy a condom in a plain vanilla (or purple) wrapper? But encased in Rembrandt, Rodin, or a steamy photograph by Richard Avendon—well, sign me up! Not only do I get to prevent the spread of STDs and pregnancy, but I also receive a ‘free’ slice of culture. I'd go for the Rubens' Adam and Eve.

I guess the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid gets it, and according to The Guardian, where I saw the sales strategy described, the museum believes that while it may not be the first time condoms have been used in art, it may be the first time that art has been used to sell condoms.

The condoms in question are to go on sale at the museum shop, in packets specially decorated with works to be featured in the museum's Tears of Eros exhibition later this month. Potential wrapper art include works by Rodin, Rubens, Maillais and Bernini.

It’s not exactly poetry, but there must be a poem in there somewhere.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Kafka in Israel

In today's Ha-Aretz magazine, another chapter was revealed regarding a potential (and unresearched) treasure trove of documents and letters written by Franz Kafka and others close to him. The stash reached Israel in 1939 after Max Brod, a close friend of Kafka and to whom the documents were left after Kafka’s death from tuberculosis, escaped Prague just ahead of the Nazis, and reached Palestine via Romania.

There are a few important details. First, Kafka directed Brod in his last will to burn all the papers, 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. Second, 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. She did none of this. Instead, she hid the documents, sold them intermittently for high sums (an original version of “The Trial” was sold in 1988 to the German Literary Archives for a reported $1.98 million), and refused all orders to share them with Israeli authorities or institutions. Israel, should have, in my opinion, put here in jail for what in essence is theft, but, for 35 years, she held everyone off. Her daughter now continues her terrible legacy.

Nobody knows for sure what the estate contains. In the 1970s, there were letters, drawings and manuscripts by Kafka himself, but these may have been sold off over the years. Still, among the thousands of documents that remain, there are certainly items that illuminate unknown aspects of the life of the great writer. And who knows what condition they’re in? Israeli animal authorities were called in by neighbors because the stench of the tens of cats fed by Eva Hoffe in her apartment was so overpowering. Hopefully, Ms. Hoffe isn't using shredded Kafka as kitty litter.

Apparently, few people outside knew about what was happening. Authorities on German literature across the world, who have been researching Kafka's writings for years and were asked what they thought about the trial, were surprised to hear about it. Why isn’t Israel doing something about this tragedy? How can one woman continue to defy the Israeli courts and common decency? Kafka would have been appalled (or then again, he might have found the entire situation deliciously funny.)

Check out "The Trial," starring Tim Roth as Joseph K! Fabulous.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

UNESCO Chooses Common Sense

I had pushed it out of my mind, but it was with some relief that I read today former Bulgarian foreign minister Irina Bokova was elected to become the first woman director-general of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). She had been, I believe, considered a long shot. No doubt she benefited from a backlash against her major opponent, Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosny, who has been accused of anti-Semitism for his virulent public denunciation of Israeli culture. "To prove his anti-Zionist credentials at home," wrote Raymond Stock in Foreign Policy, "Hosni told the Egyptian parliament that he would 'burn right in front of you' any Israeli books found in the country's libraries." I think it would have been wonderful to have someone from an Arab country elected, but in Israel and in many places, his nomination was greeted with shock.

UNESCO’s mandate is to promote international co-operation among its 193 Member States and six Associate Members in the fields of education, science, culture and communication. The organization has, I believe, about a $1 billion budget and is responsible for locating and preserving sites of cultural significance around the world. It is an important organization and does some really great work. Hosny’s defeat will leave behind bitterness among the Arab and developing nations who supported him. However as Marty Peretz writes in New Republic, “A book burner was not the preferred symbol of leadership for an institution with a cultural mandate. Many true Arab intellectuals were mortified by Hosni's views.” Officially Israel stayed mum about Hosny's nomination and his eventual defeat, but I do think the latter was greeted with the opposite of disappointment. Let's hope Bukova can heal the wounds and that UNESCO can do its work better with less political baggage.