Spring flowers and blossom bloomed all over Jerusalem, flourishing in earthenware pots on the speakers’ podium at the third bi-ennial International Writers’ Festival. This was held near the landmark King David Hotel and equally famous YMCA in the cultural centre, Miskenot Sha’ananim. Events stretched over five days, involving a line up of Israeli and international writers. Main events were held in a huge white tent where the canvas was rolled back to reveal a stunning vista of the Old City; sessions were punctuated by church bells. In the evenings the wind whistled and howled through the tent – if the adjacent Montefiore Windmill had been up and running it would have resembled a Whirling Dervish.
Despite murmurs of boycotts, cancellations and censored talks – Haaretz ran an article saying that the content of sessions had to be known in advance – the atmosphere was remarkably uninhibited, lively and convivial. Talks were on all manner of subjects: ‘literature, food and everything in between’, to employ one session’s title. Hebrew speakers could take literary walks through Jerusalem, following the trail of Batya Gur’s thrillers; view the city old and new through the alternative vision of Sayed Kashua; or sample culinary delights amongst Nachlaot’s alleyways.
Back in the tent, Amos Oz mused about love, death and loneliness. Many sat with tears running down their faces listening to recitations of David Grossman’s poems in response to the death of his son, Uri. Interspersing both sessions, famous Israeli musicians, Hemi Rudner and Yehuda Ravitz sang about passion and yearning to enraptured audiences. It was like a Shiva – sadness and occasional laughter intermingled.
Dutch writer Arnon Grunberg spoke of his anger at being labelled the child of Holocaust survivors, abhorring the Second Generation concept. Sayed Kashua reflected wryly on his conflicted identity as an Arab-Israeli writer – to please one ethnicity is, almost invariably, to offend another. Through a series of word-pictures meted out over several sessions, Etgar Keret painted a portrait of his remarkable father, who had died just six weeks previously.
Novelist Zeruya Shalev was paired with Icelandic novelist, Solveig Eggerz, the granddaughter of the Prime Minster who liberated Iceland from the Danes. Shalev had feared the overt eroticism of her novels might shock her scholarly father, but not a bit of it. ‘Are you as nasty as your characters?’ Eshkol Nevo asked Dutch writer, Herman Koch. ‘Why are your characters so disgusting?’ Amir Gutfreund demanded of Arnon Grunberg. Is there something about those canals…
What could Mishkenot Sha’ananim teach JBW? Well, if our festival hadn’t moved to Kings Place, quite frankly, it would have made a depressing comparison. The setting was so incomparably beautiful. A high number of sessions and a restricted number of players meant you had the privilege of getting to know writers really well. To have well-known Israeli authors interview foreign writers was inspired, each having an insider’s understanding of the other’s dilemmas and dedication, art transcending national borders.
An experience to be recommended? Most definitely. To be repeated? I hope so.