Posted by: jbwuk | April 29, 2011

Notes from Jerusalem

Why has no one imported the sherut to the UK? It’s such a brilliant system: a minibus on a busy road which leaves as soon as it’s full. Efficient, economical and flexible. 

First stop, a visit to Sayed Kashua before he takes his kids to visit his parents and gives his wife some peace to study. She’s finishing her training as psychotherapist and is expecting their third child in August. Sayed is doing really well at the moment: his third novel was a great success, shortlisted for the Sapir Prize. Three UK publishers wanted it but Chatto won. I hope they publish it in time for JBW 2012. He’s also writing the third series of Working Arabs, the very funny television series about Israeli Arabs. His first novel, Dancing Arabs, is being made into a film by the director of Lemon Tree. But when Sayed and his wife were looking for a new flat, it was obvious not everybody wanted an Arab family in their neighbourhood. There is a new law now that makes it easier for communities to make sure no Arabs move in. The kids go to one of the three Israeli-Arab schools in the whole country but by seventh grade, all the Jewish kids have gone to other schools. There is now a law which forbids any mention of the nakba. Let it Be Morning was written before Lieberman was in the government but it has never seemed more possible. Living in Israel is not easy for Arabs and even if he is the privileged exception, they are second class citizens. If she could his wife would gladly move to New Zealand but his life, his language, his story, all the things that make him a writer, are in Israel.

I’m staying with wonderful people: they are  intelligent, generous, caring, warm. They want to hear about my trip to the  West Bank and listen with great attention. After a while, she tells me her son lives in a settlement. He was offered a house he could never afford in Israel itselfb and it’s great for the kids, so safe. She’s been there. True, the government offers the kind of deals one can’t refuse if only thinking of quality of life. True as well, if you drive there through the settlers route, don’t read Haaretz and privilege suburban quality of life over everything else, it’s great. You are not even aware of what’s going on around you, don’t meet Palestinians or have to go through checkpoints on foot. The system is so efficient that intelligent, caring, generous people don’t question it. Still, she’d  be happy if the family could move to Israel proper. 

I go for a walk in the old city. It’s very quiet. The souk is more or less empty. I guess all the Christian tourists who were here for Easter have now left. It’s the last day of Passover so there are a lot of orthodox Jews visiting. I see a man with his five little boys, all the same size, dressed alike, a cut out paper chain the width of the whole narrow street. These quintuplets are probably the result of some infertility treatment. It must be hard when all your neighbours have families of 6, 7, 8 and more.

I sit on a chair in the square in front of the Wall. It’s very busy but strangely peaceful. Kids are running around. There is very little colour and apart for the modern pushchairs, we could be in a black and white movie. Each small tribe wears its uniform. The older children all look terribly responsible but there is a lot of tenderness and no tantrums. A father comes back from praying and puts his hat in its box stored under the stroller and bends down to tickle his baby. I cannot take photos so just sit there watching, trying to understand this world I cannot fully comprehend.

 Dinner at Matt Rees’, the author of the Omar Yussef detective stories. He’s moved on from his Palestinian detective. His new thriller soon to be published is about Mozart and he’s writing one about Caravaggio. He feels much freer. His wife writes as well and hopes to be published soon. He wouldn’t mind moving to somewhere easier than Israel. Their little boy goes to a religious kindergarten and, aged 3, is beginning to correct his parents’ judaism. But he has yet to learn Hebrew. Matt’s red wine risotto is a masterpiece. 

Breakfast with David Grossman who has kindly found the time to meet up with me. He’s about to give his latest manuscript to his publisher: a text about grief and loss which naturally came out as poetry. He feels the first signs of postpartum blues, is sad to leave that healing space, worries about translation. Five years on, the loss is still searing. I tell him how I remember hearing about the death of his son while at the  Edinburgh festival. I couldn’t stay on, had to take the first train back to London. Of all people, it couldn’t happen to him. He had been to Edinburgh with his son the year before. Uri was a talented actor and they had had a wonderful time going to shows. He cannot think of ever going back there. His daughter is now doing her military service in a radio station. Hopefully she’ll be safe although it could be a target. I wish I could give him a big hug. He looks both so vulnerable and so strong. He still goes to the demonstrations at Sheikh Jarrah even if there are never more than 400 people. It’s so easy not to do anything, not to see, think, to forget what’s going on. He tells me about the very early morning walks he takes out of his home. He sees gazelles. I make him promise that next time he comes to London, he will take an extra day so we can go walking in the countryside. 

Another meeting in the literary world. She came to Israel from the USA but was born in Austria. She was offered a house in a settlement but turned it down. She’d rather not go visit her Palestinian friends in the West Bank than use a settlers’ route. Her daughter lives in the US where she can have friends from all over the world – Iranians, Palestinians- without giving it a second thought. She thinks the boycott does have an impact. All this in a heavenly garden where it’s so easy to forget there’s anything wrong.

Lunch with Stuart Shoffman, AB Yehoshua’s translator. We had only briefly met in London and I’m totally charmed. We talk about translation, about our respective itineraries, and of course about the situation. For him, Israel’s problem is summed up by this joke: “An American says: I’m tired and thirsty, I must have a coke; A German says: I’m tired and thirsty, I must have a beer; An Israeli says: I’m tired and thirsty, I must have diabetes.” How can people talk of one state solution when we saw what happened in Yougoslavia and even now, in Belgium. As to the boycott, we agree that Ian McEwan’s response is much better than Mike Leigh’s. Both his children are doing their military service at the moment: air force and navy. During our lunch, his son calls to say good bye as he will be at sea for a week and there will be no connection. I feel for him.

It seems to me that all the people I meet are hoping for the Messiah. Except it’s a different one now, even worse, they don’t hope for one but two: the Israeli and the Palestinian charismatic politicians who will be capable of taking these two people out of the cul de sac in which they are stuck.

I also feel I’m in a Pirandello play. Every person I talk to give a slightly different version of the story, different interpretation. It’s true of my PalFest experience (read the various blogs, mine and those on the website), it’s true of my Israeli friends. Sicily feels relevant for more than the literary connection or sadly corruption parallels. In Sicilian dialect, there is no future tense: you live in the present because there is no way of knowing what tomorrow will bring, knowing what happened in the past, better not to think too much of what could happen next.



  1. Thanks you for this blog which I very much enjoyed.. I found it interesting perhaps because I agree with most of what you said. How good to meet the writers that you did and to travel a little into Palestinian territory. I do hope that in the 2012 Book Week that there will be the possibility of hearing speakers from both Israeli and Palestinian literary worlds – there has not been enough of this mix in the lat few years and I believe it tis very important to be able to approach matters that may be controversial at such a time. It is also important that there is enough time after someone has spoken to discuss the main idea of the talk – the talks that I heard. this year didn’t allow enough time for this.

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