My Arabic is Mute / Almog Behar
My Arabic is Mute
Strangled in the throat
Without uttering a word
Sleeping in the suffocating air
Of the shelters of my soul
From family members
Behind the shutters of the Hebrew.
And my Hebrew erupts
Running around between rooms
And the neighbors' porches
Sounding her voice in public
Prophesizing the coming of God
and then she settles in the living room
Openly on the edge of her skin
Hidden between the pages of her flesh
one moment naked and the next dressed
She almost makes herself disappear
In the armchair
Asking for her heart’s forgiveness.
My Arabic is scared
quitely impersonates Hebrew
Whispering to friends
With every knock on her gates:
“Ahalan, ahalan, welcome”.
And in front of every passing policeman
And she pulls out her ID card
for every cop on the street
pointing out the protective clause:
"Ana min al-yahud, ana min al-yahud,
I'm a Jew, I’m a Jew".
And my Hebrew is deaf
Sometimes so very deaf.
הערבית שלי אילמת / אלמוג בהר
הערבית שלי אילמת
חנוקה מן הגרון
מקללת את עצמה
בלי להוציא מילה
יֵשֵנָה באוויר המחניק של מקלטֵי נפשִי
מאחורי תריסי העברית.
והעברית שלי גועשת
מתרוצצת בין החדרים ומרפסות השכנים
משמיעה קולה בַרבים
מנבאת בואם של אלוהים
ואז מתכנסת בסלון
חושבת את עצמה
גְלוּיוֹת גלוּיוֹת על שפת עורה
כסוּיוֹת כסויות בין דפי בשרה
רגע עירומה ורגע לבושה
היא מצטמצמת בכורסא
מבקשת את סליחת לבה.
הערבית שלי פוחדת
מתחזה בשקט לעברית
עם כל דפיקה בשעריה:
ומול כל שוטר עובר בַרחוב
שולפת תעודת זהות
מצביעה על הסעיף המגונן:
"אנא מִן אל-יַהוּד, אנא מִן אל-יַהוּד".
והעברית שלי חירשת
לפעמים חירשת מאוד.
A Jerusalem courtyard / Almog Behar
The night-sweetness of her love pinches
In my flesh, in a Jerusalem courtyard,
Between vine and stone, between
The notes of the 'Ud and Ladino,
Between the walls of my body.
at the edge of the courtyard fixed against an old metal fence,
is an old woman with her head covered,
drawn out from the alleyway
On her way home from the prayer house,
Tasting the notes, imagining for a moment
that she is again the daughter of a king, passing
Between the courtyards. And the ‘Ud,
That was a forbidden language to my ears,
was let loose in the courtyard from its bounds,
And I, who taught myself to suckle honey from a stone,
learn now to drink nectar from a girl's mouth.
The old woman's eyes laugh behind the musicians' backs
and the beautiful fat woman-singer,
And to my eyes she looks now just like my grandmother,
Who before she died went back to speaking,
not a word of Hebrew.
חצר ירוּשלמִית / אלמוג בהר
מתִיקוּתן הַלֵילִית שֶל צבִיטוֹת אהבתָה
בִבשרִי, בְחצר ירוּשלמִית, בֵין אבנִים וְגפן,
בֵין צלִילֵי עוּד וְלַאדִינוֹ, בֵין קִירוֹת גוּפִי.
בִקצֶה הַחצר גדר מתכת ישנָה, אצלָה נִדבקָה
זקנָה בְשבִיסָה, נִשאבת מִן הַסִימטָה
בְדרכָה הַביתָה מִבֵית-הַתפִילָה, טוֹעמת מן הַצלִילִים,
מֵדמָה לְעצמָה שֶלְרגַע הִיא שוּב בַת-מלךְ,
עוברת בין החצרות. והַעוּד שהיָה שפָה אסוּרָה
לְאוֹזנַיי, הוּתר בַחצר מִכבלֵי אִיסוּריו, וְאנִי
שֶלִימדתִי עצמִי לִהיות יוֹנק דבש מִסלַע,
לוֹמד לִשתוֹת צוּף מִפִי נערָה. עֵינֵיי הַזקנָה צוֹחקוֹת
מֵאחוֹרֵי גבם שֶל הַנגנִים וְהַזמרת הַשמנָה הַיפָה,
וְהִיא מִידמָה בְעֵינַיי לְסבתִי, שֶלִפנֵי מוֹתָה
חזרָה לְדבר רַק ערבִית, בלי עברית.
Dead poets / Almog Behar
Better than the living poets
Better than those who have not been born yet.
When I become a poet
A dead poet
Maybe I will write better
Better than the living
Better than the poets who have not been born yet.
משוררים מתים / אלמוג בהר
טוב מן המשוררים החיים
טוב מאלו שעוד לא נולדו.
אולי אכתוב טוב
טוב מן החיים
טוב מן המשוררים אשר עדיין לא נולדו.
The Hand Holds A Sword / Almog Behar
The gap between the hand and the gun is
like the distance between the cheek and the kiss,
like the borderline between my life and the present,
like the parting of the shout from my lips.
A man gathers autumns and winters,
silence also has a voice;
A gap that was bigger then
was cut by the squeeze of a shining trigger.
The skill of a bullet in the evening wind
penetrates to the soul;
In my memory the hand holds a sword
the journey of man to the earth begins.
Blood never screams
even if spilled when it is still warm,
and many people have learned
not to give it any thought.
The gap between the finger and the trigger is
like the distance of the dead from the shot,
like the separating of the wall from the crack
like the birth of a corpse.
ליד יש חרב / אלמוג בהר
רווח הַיד מִן הַרוֹבה
כּמרחק הַלחִי מִן הנשִיקָה
כּגבוּל חיי מִן הַהווה
וכהִיפרד שפתיי מִן הַצעקָה.
סתווִים וְחוֹרפִים אדם גוֹבֶה
וְיֵש קוֹל גם בַּשתיקָה,
רווח שֶאז היָה שווה
נִקטע בּלחִיצת הדק מבהִיקָה.
מיוּמנוּת כדוּר ברוּח ערב
חוֹדרת עד אֶל הנשמָה
בּזיכרוֹני לַיד יֵש חרב
וּמתחִיל מסע אדם לאדמָה.
דָם לא צוֹעק אפילוּ
אִם שוֹפכים אוֹתוֹ כשהוּא עוֹד חם,
וְאנשִים רבִים השכִילוּ
לא לַתת עַל כךְ אֶת דעתם.
רווח הַאצבע מִן הַהדק
כּמרחק הַמת מִן הַיריָה
כּהִיפרד הקִיר מִן הַסדק
LINES TO PRIMO LEVI / almog behar
In the place where no prayer can save
all words are prayers, and drinking
soup from a dish also becomes a melody of prayer.
And the blows, and the cold, and the hunger and the number tattooed on your arm
are taken from the prayer book too.
When the heavy gates of Auschwitz opened and the shadows of the people emerged
God sat near the opening and wept and begged forgiveness
and prayed to his people to absolve him. It is inevitable
that men forgive one another,
there is nothing worse than forgiving God
(translated from hebrew by Vivian Eden,
the poem was published at Haaretz English Edition, April 2008)
שורות לפרימו לוי / אלמוג בֶּהַר
בַמקום ממנו אף תפילה לא תציל
כל המילים הן תפילות, וגם שתיית
מרק מפינכה נעשית ניגון של תפילה.
והמכות, והקור, והרעב, והמספר המוטבע ביד,
לקוחים גם הם ממחזור התפילות.
כשנפתחו שעריי אושוויץ הכבדים ויצאו צללי האנשים
ישב אלוהים סמוך לַפתח וּבכה וּביקש מחילה
והתפלל לעמו שיסלח לו. סליחות אדם
לאדם אין מהן מנוס,
אין נורא מסליחה לאלוהים
Midrash for the new Temple / Almog Behar
Prayers replaced sacrifices
when God destroyed the Temple
and scattered Israel among the nations.
And than the Germans gathered
The distant children of Israel
And abolished the prayers
And restored the sacrifices
To the new temples they built in Europe.
מִדרש לְבֵית הַמִקְדש הַחדש / אלמוג בהר
הַתפִילוֹת החלִיפוּ אֶת עבוֹדת הַקוֹרבנוֹת
כְשֶאלוהים החרִיב את בֵית הַמקדש וּפיזר את יִשראל בַעמִים
וְאז קִיבצוּ הַגרמנִים אֶת נִדחֵי יִשראל
וּבִיטלוּ אֶת הַתפִילוֹת וְהשִיבוּ אֶת עבוֹדת הַקוֹרבנוֹת לְבתֵי הַמִקדש
הַחדשִים שֶהם בנוּ עַל אדמת אֵירוֹפָה
A poem for Rachel / Almog Behar
Rachel on the evening of Ya’acov’s wedding to Lea
Was crying shepherds’ songs
And in the morning she lingered on sleeping
So she would not have to think
and all at once a few days
Were in her eyes like long years in her love for him.
שיר לרחל / אלמוג בהר
רחל בְערב חתוּנתוֹ שֶל יעקב לְלאָה
הייתָה בוכָה שִירֵי רועִים
וּבַבוקר הִיא הארִיכָה לִישון כדֵי שֶלא לַחשוב
וּלפתע ימִים אחדִים
היוּ בְעיניה כְשנִים ארוּכוֹת בְאהבתָה אוֹתוֹ
Not to be afraid to say the word nostalgia / Almog Behar
Not to be afraid
To say the word nostalgia
Not to be afraid
To whisper longings
Not to be afraid
To say I have a past
Placed inside a box
Of a locked memory.
Not to be afraid
To buy me keys
To press my eyes
To the keyholes
Until everything will be opened
Until I will be able to steal a look
At my Inside.
Not to be afraid
To say I am a forgetting man
But I have a memory
That is not willing to forget me.
לא לפחד לומר את המילה נוסטלגיה / אלמוג בהר
לא לפחד לומר
את המילה נוסטלגיה
לא לפחד לומר
יש לי עבר
מונח בתוך קופסא
של זיכרון נעול
לקנות לי מפתחות
להצמיד עיניים לחורי המנעולים
עד שהכל יפתח
עד שאוכל להגניב מבט
לא לפחד לומר
אני אדם שוכח
אבל יש לי זיכרון
שלא מוכן לשכוח אותי
Does grace / Almog Behar
The prayers of the fathers
In the buildings of stone
And in the public gardens of graves:
The soil was caressed until mourning
And the skies until tears.
Now the cantor will call
Now it is turn for the skies
To crack naked in open wonder:
If nature does not have a partner in the ceremony
It remains lost in confusion.
Only onto God no one bestows grace
And no one listens to his prayers:
People shout in the public squares
How lonesome they are
But how lonely is God no one can tell.
Again the prayer goes back to the page
Like the dove before becoming a metaphor:
Routine is yet to be invented
The dove still has a chance.
עוֹֹשה חסד / אלמוג בהר
תפילוֹת האבוֹת בבתֵי הַאבן
וּבגינוֹת הַקברִים הצִיבוּריוֹת:
הַאדמָה לוטפָה כבר עד אבל
והַשמיים עד דמעוֹת.
עכשיו הַחזן יִקרא
עכשיו תוֹר הַשמיים להיחצוֹת:
אִם אֵין לַטבע שוּתף בַטקס
הוּא נוֹתר אוֹבד עצוֹת.
רק עם אלוֹהִים אִיש לא עוֹשה חסד
ולוֹ אֵין אל מִי לְהִתפלל:
בנֵי-אדם צוֹעקים בציבוּר על בדידוּתם
אבל כּמָה בּוֹדד הוּא הַאל?
שוּב הַתפילָה חוֹזרת לַדף
כּמוֹ הַיוֹנָה לִפני שֶהייתה לְדימוי:
עוֹד לא הוּמצאָה השִגרָה
עוֹד יש לָה סיכוּי.
* / Almog Behar
In the morning light with the blinds shading us from the intense gleam
we spoke about children and really meant love.
And after you left I wrote in one of my notebooks:
"Someday we'll speak about love
and really mean children."
* / אלמוג בהר
לְאוֹרוֹ שֶל בּוֹקר שֶתרִיסִים סוֹככוּ עלֵינוּ מֵעוֹצם אוֹרוֹ
דִיבּרנוּ עַל ילדִים וְהִתכוונוּ בסך-הַכּל לְאהבָה.
כּשֶהלכת כּתבתִי בּאחת ממחבּרוֹתיי:
"מתישהוּ נדבּר עַל אהבָה
וְנִתכּוון בסך-הַכּל לִילדִים".
Sheikh Jarrah, 2010 / Almog Behar
“There is no sanctity in an occupied city!”
Protest slogan. Sheikh Jarrah.
With drums we ascended Derekh Shekhem road. Yet all the way
I worried that the noise was disturbing the neighbors’ rest,
I was reminded that I’m not happy when drums pass on my own street.
And I worried that the beat was too cheerful to express the sadness
of those who were thrown to the streets, the anger of those from the streets.
I am a Jew of beards, of glasses of tea, of a messiah
who will no longer come, of many commandments that for generations I have been promising
my heart I’ll fulfill but I don’t succeed, of the remembrance of the sanctity of Arabic words
in the Hebrew tongue. And for a moment, from opposite sides of the barbed-wired fence
that has sprung from the doorstep of the Ghawi family who were thrown to the streets, we met,
members of two faiths—different, but sisters.
He has a beard too and memories and his face is cut by the fence into scores of
pieces, and he hurls heavy accusations at me like a brother,
that I have become exilic, he rages, riddled with self-hatred, a lover
of Arabs, a traitor, an informer on his own people in poems, more dangerous
than the anti-Semites, a Capo, and he reminds me with fierce descriptions
of the incinerators of Auschwitz and of the outstretched hand of God who promises
to return his people to his land or his land to his people.
For a moment I thought we might return to being members of the same faith,
two Jews tired of accusations. And I took his hand
and suggested that we go to the grave of Shimon
the Righteous One, and cry greatly over the righteous man and the wounds we have inflicted
on his old heart, until perhaps the righteous man will cry over us and the depth of the fracture
that is threatening to break us and the land of Israel, between Germany and Palestine.
I just got to Sheikh Jarrah and already I’m looking for Jews. As if
I arrived in a faraway country and am looking for nine friends for a quorum,
or a corner with kosher food and Sabbath and holiday meals. I’m the distance of
a ten-minute walk from my house, my synagogue, the time of Sabbath’s entrance
nears and I whisper to my God that it should be right in his eyes, the cry
of our slogans, as if I am fixing the Sabbath before him
repairing her in all her aspects, and as if I am praying the evening prayers
of Shabbat before him with all of the right intentions.
And I sought to pass the police barricade,
to go down and pray at the grave of the righteous man with the rest of the worshippers
who arrived bathed and festive. We will sing before the righteous man
with great joy and greet the Sabbath queen. And I’ll ask him to permit me
to pray among the criminals, and to justify the actions of the protesters
who desecrate the Sabbath in order to sanctify the name of the heavens in Jerusalem.
And one night I dreamt: We’ll come to Sheikh Jarrah for a protest,
regiment by regiment of the expelled, and with us will march the Yemenites expelled
from the Kineret village, the Jewish Hebron refugees of 1929,
the Arabs of Ba’ka, Talbieh, Katamon, Meah Sha’arim, Lifta
and Ein Karem expelled during the Nakba, the Jewish quarter refugees
expelled in '48 by Jordan, and in '67 their homes were nationalized
by the government of Israel to be sold for great profit leaving them refugees,
the Palestinians expelled from the villages surrounding Latrun in '67,
the Mizrahim expelled from the Yemin Moshe neighborhood after years in
the eye of the target, to make room for painters and artists, the residents
of unknown Bedouin villages in the Negev, the mortgage defaulters
expelled from their homes by eviction crews, the Jaffa and Musrara residents
forced to vacate their homes to make way for the rich, and the people of Silwan,
a demolition order threatening their homes.
And one night the Jerusalem mayor dreamt: Sheikh Jarrah
will be concrete, a giant parking lot, and whoever saw a date here,
and whoever saw an olive, and whoever saw a grove will see a massive lot of cars,
till the ends of the horizon, like a shopping center in a peaceful American town.
All the parking problems of Jerusalem will be solved in Sheikh Jarrah, maybe
the world’s parking problems will be solved in Israel, all of Palestine
covered in concrete, because the solution is in concrete that will finally subdue
the fight over the holiness of the land, which will disappear.
And we stand, hundreds of protestors, facing the barricades at the neighborhood’s entrance.
We are advancing and retreating, dodging the police, returning
to their arms, moving in circles, nearly reaching the officers
and turning to run. They strike us like angry fathers
yearning to discipline, like school children craving revenge.
We don’t know whether to ask them to spare the old,
the pregnant women, and the children, or to stand and receive their blows with love,
whether to turn and run again, in order to return.
And we stand, hundreds of protestors, facing the barricades at the neighborhood’s entrance.
The policemen, who have just returned from a course, watch us with eyes
weary of the extra shift we’ve forced on them, of their meager salaries,
of the cries of protestors and commanders. They worry
the protest will run into the Sabbath again this week.
And their commander orders them to clear us off the road, if they don’t clear the road
he’ll cancel their day off, and with every blow we hate them
and forget their commander, the mayor, the courthouse.
In my heart I wanted to cross to their side, take their commander’s
megaphone and achingly ask the protesters to disperse, to cry out:
This week we won’t declare the protest illegal, no,
We’re just asking that you disband in exchange for our salaries
this-or-that amount of shekels for every hour of protest, because we promised our wives
we would be at Shabbat dinner, this week go protest at the mayor’s house, the prime minister’s house, the house of the millionaire who buys them houses, protest
in your parents’, your neighbors’ living rooms, just leave us be, this week, please.
On the way to the protest the muezzin sings from the mosque tower in Maqam Saba.
And I sing quietly to my God in the same note: May our eyes behold
your return to Zion, mercifully, mercifully.
Shimon the Righteous was one of the last survivors of the Great Assembly,
student of Ezra the Scribe, teacher of Antigonus of Socho,
and he used to say: On three things the world stands,
on the Torah, on divine service, and on acts of loving-kindness.
And we are not his students nor his student’s students,
And the fear of the heavens is no longer upon us as it was upon them,
And we do not seek to act with loving-kindness save
toward ourselves, and the world does not stand.
We forget that we were strangers in the land of Egypt, forget
that there is but one law for us and for the stranger
who lives with us, forget that the Hanoun family are not strangers
to this land, that the Al-Kurd family are not strangers
to this land, that the Ghawi family are not strangers
to this land, and we continue to forget.
By the courtyard of the expelled Hanoun and Al-Kurd families a border patrol soldier
calls my name. What are you doing here? He asks me the same question
I would ask him. Only a year ago we were reading Aristotle, Maimonides,
Al-Ghazali, Zhuangzi together, and now he’s guarding
the houses of the evicted from the protestors. This guy was my teacher, he says, embarrassed,
to a soldier who joins the conversation, and complains: they all hate us,
they’re angrier at us than at pilots who drop bombs,
they curse us out, and in the end we have to separate between
fighting children here like babysitters, what do you have to say about that?
And I said nothing, in my mind I was still trying to connect
Maimonides and Al-Ghazali to the Sheikh Jarrah expulsion.
|by Almog Behar|
Translated by Sondra Silverston
At night, she often suggests that I shrink myself so that I can hide inside her. I would hide her inside me if I could, so I make myself relax, and shrink. I try to enter the gate of her body many times, but don't shrink enough, so it hurts and she blinks as if she's about to retract her suggestion so I ask could you please soften yourself to make it easier for me. And she slowly draws me back inside her bustling uterus filled with sounds like the breathing of the sea. And when most of my body is already inside her I ask whether after all of me is inside her I can expand again and return to the world, and she envelops my body with the soft muscles of her flesh making me limp and my question irrelevant, and the parts of my body left outside also find room inside her. And suddenly the navel opens again the mouth closes again my blood flows to the rhythm of her heartbeat again. And I learn how to suck her nipples from inside and my hand moves to stroke the pulsing core of her pleasure, and I am happy to see her begin to spill out of the taut skin of her everyday life, less cautious than she was before I shrank.
But a few weeks pass and I begin to worry that I may have shrunk too much I might not be enough to satisfy her large body. I start to prepare for the following nights when she might offer her body to men who still haven't shrunk. I recite erotic stories into her sleep and see how her body stretches how her blood glistens how her head falls back onto the pillow and all the rivers of her body awaken in a storm of dreams. Many nights I create whirlpools inside her but they gradually grow smaller until even I don't feel them. And one night, I'm happy when her body fills with alcohol that floats me on its fumes between her liver and her lungs. Then I'm sad to discover that another man bigger than I am now is banging at the gates of her body hard enough to bring them down. In a desperate attempt to defend my fortress I attack his huge organ in the darkness but my blows elicit only a growing crescendo of cries of pleasure at the beating of my frail fists. Admitting my failure to drive him away I retreat and stand like a goalkeeper to stop his sperm as they gallop towards her egg and my body is pierced by thousands of seeds till they fall dead and I drift happily into sleep because her uterus has not been filled with new life.
Several nights pass and again I hear her in her sleep suggesting this time to him that he shrink himself so he can hide inside her body and he tries for many hours, hurting himself but unable to do it, his muscles are too solid his arms too thick. And in the morning he passes over the threshold so small soft exhausted that I'm quick to take pity on him and bring him to the uterus bed and the nipple tears. He's slightly surprised by my presence and my naked body, already used to being alone inside her dark body, but he puts himself in my hands. After several nights we are already friends and I teach him all the secrets of her body: the places to keep away from and the places to move close to and what is to his benefit and what to her benefit. And we switch all the time – he sucks her breasts from inside then I do, he rests in her uterus then I do, he rubs her vaginal lips and I listen to the music of her heartbeat, I stick my head out through her pubic curls for a breath of air and he moves closer to her head to hear her dreams. And when a new man arrives we aren't afraid, we strike his huge organ together not in hate but in joy and encourage his pleasure and hers, then we both battle the flood of seeds attacking a new egg and keep our place free of multiplying children, wait for him to shrink and join us.
And when he arrives new and shrunk in her body we welcome him with understanding and undress his weary body together, carry him to the uterus together, rub him with oils and perfumes and let him sleep the sleep of the just. Later, when he wakes up we instruct him in the ways of our life and tell him to be aware of the inside of his body, there are no longer any bones, everything inside it and around it is soft and squishy he has to be less cautious when falling. We tell him about biting the organs of new men and stopping the seeds and we explain that each of us in turn sucks and each of us in turn climbs through her honey vaginal lips and then returns diving deep inside her.
A year has passed and there are almost twenty of us and we're multiplying moving around all the part of her body and each of us makes do with one-twentieth of her milk and one-twentieth of resting time in her uterus and one-twentieth of the pleasures of her lips and the dreams in her mind and the beating of her heart. Some have wandered all the way to her feet and occasionally we don't see them for weeks until it's their turn to stand as goalkeepers defending her uterus against the attacking seeds, and then we welcome the new man undress him and smile reassuringly at him. When we aren't at one of our posts we spend our free time sitting in the chambers of her heart playing backgammon and checkers and think happy thoughts about our little lives inside her to bring her joy and we guess who the next man to join us will be and worry about what will happen when there are one hundred of us. None of us misses the time before we shrank maybe only when we dream at night and picture women the same size as we are, women we don't have to share with others.
Faces and interfaces / Eli Eliahu
A beard, as Behar himself admits, allows a man to have a little fun with his appearance, "like women do with jewelry," – but it is also a cultural statement. "In the army, for instance," he explains, "they make you shave, and then they scrape a phone card on your cheeks to see if you have any whiskers. It's ridiculous. It's all built on some Asheknazi ideals. What's the deal here? Two hours after I shave I already have stubble." Once, Behar recalls, when he joined Arab and Jewish colleagues who were reading poetry at a protest in Sheikh Jarrah, in front of a Palestinian house in which Jews had settled, he suddenly heard someone call his name from the Border Police post nearby. It was a former student of his from the Kedma High School in Jerusalem's Katamonim neighborhood, where he taught history, and Jewish and Arab philosophy. He remembered the student well; they had often had long talks about Jewish, Muslim and Arab cultures. And here he was in a Border Police uniform, tasked with overseeing the eviction of Palestinian families from their homes and keeping settler children and Palestinian youngsters apart.
The two started to talk about the situation in the neighborhood, and about the student's feeling as a Mizrahi person (with roots in Middle Eastern countries ) vis-a-vis the Sheikh Jarrah conflict. Behar found that the military education the student received had led him to identify completely and automatically with his ethnic, Jewish side – with a desire to suppress the story of the other side, and even essentially his own Mizrahi, class-based narrative as well.
"In the end we spoke about something else," relates Behar. "Not Jewish history or Palestinian history, Mizrahi identity or social class, but appearance. The face one shows the world. When he takes off his Border Police uniform and has to go through Jerusalem, past all the police inspections, he has a problem, because he isn't always recognized right away as a Jew: He's taken for an Arab. And when he wants to go out to a club on Friday night he often runs into a similar problem. But he'd found a solution, more or less: He started shaving twice a day, sometimes more. This 'solution' of course saddened me even more. Here the man is, standing on the border, policing between settlers and Palestinians, and he's forced to shave off his Mizrahi 'shadow' again and again so he can finally be a Jew without one.'"
Could one say that the outward appearance preserves the "Mizrahiness"?
Behar: "In a certain sense. The outward appearance survives after the cultural 'erasure.' It's impossible to hide and to erase such things even if you try, and there are many who do. In the end, you look in the mirror and see your grandfather and your Arab neighbor. In Jerusalem, during the time of all the terrorist attacks, I often got stopped for inspections. In this city, mistaken identification can happen easily. The desire to differentiate actually leads to more confusion. There need to be policemen who look like Arabs and speak Arabic."
Behar adds that in Sheikh Jarrah, he especially feels the paradoxical aspects of Mizrahiness: "The demonstrators – leftists who come to defend the Arab residents – curse the Border Policemen who are mostly Mizrahis, Bedouin and Druze. While the policeman are unwittingly defending the Asheknazi billionaire [who owns buildings there]. And I myself on the one hand feel opposition to the injustice being done to the Palestinian families, but I also understand my student who went into the Border Police, like many Mizrahim from the weaker neighborhoods, because this is one of the only options open to him to get ahead and be part of society. I feel a closeness to the worshipers who march to the grave of Shimon Hatzaddik – as a Jewish place where prayers for peace and justice should be offered – but not with the violent police activities that deliberately harm the Palestinians."
Reminiscent of Agnon
Almog Behar, 32, lives in Jerusalem with his wife Maya and their newborn son Ariel. He has just published his first novel, "Rachel and Ezekiel" (Keter Press ), a book that is unusual in terms of both its language and characters. The protagonists, Ezekiel and Rachel, are a young Jerusalem Mizrahi couple, who had an arranged marriage. Other characters include Ovadia and Mazal, a rabbi and his wife. The story takes place in the poor neighborhoods of Jerusalem, in the alleyways of the marketplace, in yeshivas and synagogues. Not the usual settings of stories by young Israeli writers. From time to time, the narrator himself pops up, interrupting the flow of the story to reveal his intentions and motivation.
"The narrator wants to show his face because he doesn't believe in writers who hide like ghosts in their books, and he wishes to come out of his hiding place, even knowing that, to the writer's great dismay, his face can never remain completely hidden," writes Behar.
The language of this story comes from the world of liturgy, the midrash and halakha (Jewish law ). To the secular reader, this will almost certainly call to mind the writings of S.Y. Agnon.
"It's a shame that [Agnon] is the only mediator between the writings of Jewish tradition and the secular world," says Behar ruefully. "I don't feel that I drew from him necessarily, but rather more from the writings of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, or the book 'Ben Ish Hai' by Rabbi Yosef Haim of Baghdad."
You look to the writings of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, but you are also a humanist and go out to defend Palestinians. How does this fit together with some of the rabbi's statements?
"I needn't accept everything that he says. The rabbis themselves often disagree. The problem is that public discourse starts off with denouncing everything that has to do with Judaism, and then the apologetics and defensiveness begins. Imagine that everyone who talked about Italian culture had to first of all defend Mussolini. I don't look at [traditional] Judaism as being better than secularism. There are a lot of problems in Judaism. There is a deep rift. But the repair has to be made from the inside and not forced from the outside. Repair without the burden of shame. It's worth remembering that modern secular nationalism brought a lot of wars and economic oppression to this region. The rift didn't start with religion, and there is an option of a religious solution."
But you're not religious.
"I'm traditional in the way I was raised and in my consciousness, and this traditionalism is always viewed from the outside, by secular and religious people, as a compromise, or as a temporary 'mistake' that will eventually lead to a 'real' choice: either secularism or religiosity. But I don't think I'll ever get to one of these extremes, and don't believe they are more genuine. I live my Jewish life via dialogue with the customs, the halakhot, the doubts and certainties about faith, the Jewish texts and heritage – a dialogue that holds within it the possibility of change, of inner repair. "I believe the traditional option can save part of Judaism, that in recent generations it has been reduced only to halakha – to a narrow version of nationalism, or only to land issues. My traditionalism remembers that there is no Jewish life without non-Jews and that the state is not the embodiment of the messianic goal, and that one must fight daily against injustice and for justice. And my traditionalism remembers, in the Mizrahi context, how much our Judaism is really Arab, how Jewish our Arabness is, and it can rely on this both in dialogue with non-Arab Jews and with the non-Jewish Arabs." "Rachel and Ezekiel" is the fourth book by Behar, who was awarded the Prime Minister's Prize for his body of work. It was preceded by two books of poetry, "Tzemaon Be'erot" ("Well's Thirst," Am Oved, 2008 ) and "Hut Moshekh Min Halashon" ("The Thread Drawing from the Tongue," Am Oved, 2009 ), which won the Bernstein Prize for Literature, and the anthology "Ana Min al-Yahud" ("I am One of the Jews," Babel, 2008 ), the title story of which won first prize in the 2005 Haaretz short story competition, was translated into Arabic and earned positive reviews in Egypt. Despite all this acclaim, for many people, the cultural world that Behar seeks to portray in his books has a similar effect to his attempts to grow a serious mustache: It stirs strong aversion. Some well-known literary critics, including Prof. Dan Meron and Nissim Calderon, have attacked him with a fury of indeterminate origin, as if he'd threatened to bring down their intellectual and cultural world, a world that from Behar's point of view, at least, is standing on very shaky ground. "There's this poet going around in the role of a new [Yehuda] Amichai. His name is Almog Behar and I've been reading all this excessive critical praise of him. And I say to myself – Dear god, what is happening here?" Meron wrote (Haaretz Magazine Hebrew Edition, July 30 ).
"To be honest, the first time I read Prof. Meron's review I found it quite amusing," says Behar. "It was like a heavyweight boxer had come into the featherweight ring just to give a punch to one of the contenders. But what can he get out of this? If the featherweight boxer is knocked out, it's only natural. And a little embarrassing for the heavyweight to have bothered to come and punch him … I reassured myself by recalling the harsh reviews that Meron once gave to Leah Goldberg and Ronit Matalon. On the third and last reading, I was actually kind of pleased to get beat up by him."
"Yes. After all, Profs. Dan Meron and Gershon Shaked were the 'shapers' of the Hebrew literary canon over many decades, and as guardians of literature they fought against the invasion of 'foreigners' and 'minorities' that wanted to pollute 'their' literature. Shaked more for reasons of rigid perceptions of what constitutes Zionism, and a need to clearly define what is permissible or forbidden; Meron more for Euro-centric reasons. But both took a 'brave' stand against Mizrahi literature for many years, out of a desire to limit it, to catalog it, to keep it outside of Hebrew literature, or only in a small ghetto inside it. In this respect, I was pleased that Meron went to the trouble of defending Hebrew literature from me."
Were you also amused by Calderon's review on Ynet?
"Much less. I find something outrageous in this shopworn argument he made against me, saying that I'm racist, a claim that those who accuse Israeli society of racism love to make against Mizrahim. As if they're giving us a taste of it and at the same time letting us know it is forbidden for us to speak about Mizrahiness, because just talking about it is racist. He goes on to say that I assume guardianship of various Mizrahi artists and he defends them and their uniqueness from me. As if someone were to refer in his book to Shakespeare, Kafka and Bob Dylan, and also to Cervantes and Homer, and that would automatically amount to a superficialization of Western culture, an attempt to assume ownership over it, and racism. He also claims that the denigration of the culture of [Jews] from Arab lands is a thing of the past, but the only example he cites is the popularity of Mizrahi music."
There's a lot of criticism about how Mizrahi music is taking over.
"This wave of criticism is a wave of fear, and a wave of racism in the guise of a discussion about quality. Most of the music these days is unfortunately simplistic, and this is also true about a lot of the non-Mizrahi Israeli music. A lot of quality Mizrahi music has been made over the years too. From Joe Amar to the Sounds of the Oud band, Ahuva Ozeri, Magalit Tza'anani, Avihu Medina and Zohar Argov, Zehava Ben, Amir Benayoun and Dikla.
"But I want to say something else, too: The model that separates popular music from classical music or religious music is a problematic model that needs to be changed. In the communities of the East there were different models. For example, the ensemble Chalari Baghdad had two singers, one who sang the more artistic music – the maqam – and the other who sang the more rhythmic popular music. In Israel, in certain ways the connection between the two forms has been severed. They need to be reintroduced. And within Mizrahi music here, wonderful things are certainly happening, with groups like Hayonah and Shaharit, and the old and new Andalusian. With singers like Esti Kenan-Ofri and Hadass Pal-Yarden, with lyricists like Moshe Habusha, Haim Louk, Yehuda Ovadia Patiya and Roni Ish-Ran, and singers in Arabic like Yaakov Nashawi, or singers who integrate Hebrew and Arabic languages like Yair Dalal."
Integration is also the best word to describe Behar's cultural doctrine. An integration of old and new, East and West, sacred and profane, of others' texts with his texts, and of prose and poetry. He acknowledges that his poetry is much closer to spoken language than the prose that he writes.
"Maybe it's because I was always fond of non-realistic prose," he says. "My first influences were adventure books, and writers like Kafka and Borges."
But Kafka and Borges write human allegories that are almost detached from time and space, while you choose heroes whose ethnic origins are very significant in terms of their behavior, as are the time and place in which they live.
"I think Kafka cannot be separated from the time and place in which he wrote. It think that the critics do him an injustice this way. Even the depiction of the family in 'Metamorphosis' is one that in many ways could only fit a Jewish family in Central Europe in a certain time period … But I definitely always felt a tension between realism and the non-realist possibility. Between the Bible, which seeks to tell a story about a certain people and a certain place, and Kafka. When I got to know the midrashim, I found them to be a kind of solution. A kind of synthesis between the allegory and the narrative."
Although he dreamed of being a writer from a young age, Behar thought he first had to acquire a "real profession" that would enable him to make a decent living.
"I thought of writing as an inferior profession compared to others," he recalls. "The way I saw it at the time, and the way I was brought up to think about it, it was an occupation that was far removed from the practical world and from what really mattered in life, and that it was by and large, so I thought, the domain of women. Everything around it – librarians, literature teachers, readers in the library. They were all women. It wasn't a suitable world for a man who had to support a family."
Feminists won't like hearing this.
"That may be. But that's how I was brought up and that's how I saw things. Today I understand that the time in which I grew up, beyond the Israeli resentment against unprofitable intellectual pursuits, was also a time of revolution in which for the first time in human history most readers and writers were women and not men, but I didn't know that I was living precisely in a time of change."
Behar couldn't stay away from his true calling for long, however. After eight years of high school and army spent largely dealing with electronics, which "bored him to death," he began studying philosophy and Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. One day he came across an announcement for a student poetry evening at the Tmol Shilshom Cafe in town. The first time he went, he listened to other people recite their poetry, but the second time he started reading from his own poems, which he had never shown anyone; he continued doing this once a month for the next four years. The reactions he received boosted his confidence and he began to publish.
Meanwhile, he also kept on writing prose. "Rachel and Ezekiel" started out as a short story, he explains; he also read it at one of the Tmol Shilshom evenings. Initially, he felt that something was still unresolved with respect to the male protagonist, Ezekiel. He kept on writing another eight chapters in which the character of the woman, Rachel, became more and more dominant. But that also didn't resolve the conflicts of the story, and he continued writing until the characters of the rabbi and his wife Mazal also developed, and before he knew it he had a novel on his hands.
"So he sits at the computer writing these lines, and he's lonely coming and going, and perhaps this is why he believed that he could really understand his heroes, but who can truly understand another's soul? Is the mere loneliness of both of them enough for that?" writes Behar in another one of the narrator's interjections into the story.
Alongside his prolific writing, which as noted has a clear cultural-political bent, Behar also frequently recites his poems at various political demonstrations, sometimes within the framework of a group called Guerilla Culture, which aims to connect literary artists to political activity. Thus he has demonstrated in Sheikh Jarrah, at a protest against the separation fence in Abu Dis, and against the Oz police unit in Holon to protest the policy of deporting illegal immigrants. He also joined the Black Panther movement, headed by Ayala Sabag.
"The poet has a responsibility not to ignore the society in which he lives and from which he draws his cultural heritage," says Behar.
But what exactly is his cultural heritage? "Secularism is Behar's starting point," poet and critic Eli Hirsch wrote about Behar in Yedioth Ahronoth. "He conducts an internal dialogue, in which he never ceases to assess his religiousness, his yearning for the [Jewish religious] sources, his ability to get closer to them without getting farther away from himself. On the face of it this is a contradictory movement, but it is similar in many ways to that of the Yiddish and Ashkenazi-Hebrew poetry in the late 19th century and 20th century: One came out of Jewish ground and planted its secularism in it, while the other come out of secular ground and is trying to dig its Jewish 'wells' in it."
How did the boy from Ra'anana, from a traditional but not religious family, get to such a situation? He says it started first of all because of a sense of emptiness.
"You're brought up in a context of emptiness, of nothing. There was no real alternative content to take the place of everything we were asked to forget. My mother immigrated to this country from Iraq when she was five. One day the teacher comes to her house and asks my grandparents to stop speaking Arabic to her. My mother accepted this and started answering them in Hebrew, but they kept on speaking Arabic. The breakdown is in the previous generation, the generation of my grandparents. The generation that chose to keep quiet so that their children would advance. For my mother the whole process of acclimating in Israel was a process of development. They moved from a tent to a shack, from a shack to a housing project, and from a housing project to a home. But her grandfather, who came to Israel 10 years after them, saw it completely differently. He saw it all as a deterioration compared to life in Baghdad; as total ruin. My mother claims to this day that he died of a broken heart when he saw how they were living here."
The death of Behar's grandfather, Yitzhak Behar, was evidently a key moment in shaping his worldview. His grandfather was born in Berlin in 1917 to parents who came from Istanbul. In the late 1930s he fled to Denmark, just before the rest of his family was killed in the Holocaust. In his old age he resumed speaking his mother tongue: Ladino.
"At 79 he suddenly started crying that he was an orphan, that his parents didn't have a grave," says Behar, whose grandfather asked him to write his life story.
"I didn't get it done," says Behar, who was 24 when his grandfather died. "It pained me. I felt that he was the last Mohican, that with his death the language and an entire cultural world disappeared. Only after his death, when I started searching for Ladino, I discovered the vitality that his culture still has, its richness, and the sad possibilities of tying threads to your culture after the death of the grandfathers and grandmothers."
"Death always comes too soon, and by surprise," Behar wrote in an essay published in the Tehudot Zehut ("Echoing Identities" ) anthology (Am Oved ), "and then you realize that all the questions that you waited on, that you never asked a living person – you'll never be able to ask the dead person. And on my journey from Mount Scopus in Jerusalem to the cemetery in Kfar Sava, I was filled with dread over how much was now gone and would never be revealed."
Behar's sense of a disconnect between the generations grew stronger when, in the last six months of her life, his Iraqi grandmother forgot her Hebrew and could only speak Arabic. "I couldn't talk to her. I felt this thread breaking," he says.
Those feelings spurred him to study Ladino and Arabic, and to delve into his ancestors' cultural heritage.
Maybe you're fighting to bring back things that are beyond saving at this point? Vanished languages, forgotten cultures? Isn't this the nature of the world? Things disappear. There were once Aztecs in the world and now there aren't.
"If I were an Aztec, it might bother me."
Old-new hymns / Ketzia Alon
Tchahle Vehezkel (Rachel and Ezekiel), by Almog Behar.
Keter Books (Hebrew), 260 pages, 89 NIS
Over the past decade, we have witnessed the meteoric rise of a second generation of Mizrahi writers, as evidenced by the impressive novels of Ronit Matalon, Sami Bardugo, Dudu Bossi, Shimon Adaf, Sara Shilo and others. With his fourth book and first novel, "Rachel and Ezekiel" (his previous works include two books of poetry and a short-story collection ), Almog Behar joins the ranks of these writers.
The book's title reveals something about the author's intellectual orientation; the Mizrahi nicknames in the Hebrew title (Tchahle for Rachel and Hezkel for Yehezkel, or Ezekiel ) and the fact that the title characters are married hints at the sort of lives the novel aspires to describe. The book centers on the relationship of the young Jerusalem couple, both of them bereft of living parents, and now expecting their first child.
The couple's unofficial guardians, a rabbi named Ovadia and his wife Mazal, are older mirror images of the novel's protagonists. The climax of the story comes at a Passover seder at Tchahle and Hezkel's home, to which they have invited a Moldavian Jewish neighbor; Hezkel's half brother, Ismael, and mother, Ana'em; and Mazal, Ovadia and Ovadia's mother. The seder is organized as a multicultural event at which Mizrahi and Russian-speaking Jews, as well as Jews and Arabs, and the young and the old, sit together. And it is on this night that Ovadia and Mazal depart this world, not without having left their imprint on the young couple.
Jerusalem figures as one of the novel's heroes, and Behar provides a description of the city "from the inside." This is not an exotic glance at the tourists who frequently roam around the Nahlaot neighborhood, where the couple live; instead it is a detailed, expansive view that includes the city's eastern side, including the neighborhood of Beit Safafa, where Ismael lives. For instance, when Hezkel is fired from his job, there is a colorful description of his journey to Saladin Street in search of work in the printing trade. As an aside, the narrative discloses that this is Hezkel's first visit to this central East Jerusalem thoroughfare: "He had heard the name, 'Saladin,' but he had never come to this place." In this way, Behar reveals much about the way residents from Jerusalem's western and eastern (that is, Jewish and Arab ) sides are cut off from one another, about the way they orient themselves in the urban space, and about how life in the city becomes organized in symbolic enclaves.
This book aims to bust open these enclaves, but its political passages are founded on reality, rather than ideology. Here is the continuation of the passage about Hezkel's wanderings in East Jerusalem: "And nobody could offer any form of work to his long outstretched arms. In one place they said we are about to go out of business, they don't let us distribute our newspaper in Ramallah or Nablus; in another, that we are cutting back on staff, we couldn't get a license to bring our journal to Hebron, and anyway, who has time today to read; and in a third that we are being shut down due to an order relayed by the military governor or the army judge or army minister, as we have written things that you're not allowed to write, or our journalists are not allowed to leave Jerusalem – neither to the east or west, north or south, and who's going to buy a newspaper whose news items relate exclusively to Jerusalem?" The author's critical vision hides behind the coolly factual survey.
Variations of identity
Behar uses the title characters, especially Hezkel, to reinforce various attitudes and positions upheld in the book, and they embody variations of Mizrahi Jewish identity in the Israel of 2011, giving readers vibrant, colorful slices of contemporary reality. Hezkel's outlook represents the political viewpoint (championed by the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition ) that decries the inequality between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews; religious traditionalism is exemplified by the pious Ovadia, whose name is a clear allusion to Shas' spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Ismael is the representative of a political ideology that stresses similarities between Mizrahi-Jewish identity and Arab identity; that issue is also brought to the fore when Tchahle and Hezkel attend an event dedicated to Iraqi song (she is troubled to discover that he doesn't understand the song's lyrics in Arabic, and "is angrier with him at that moment than in all the other times when she was angry with him" ).
Both Hezkel and Tchahle find themselves trying to balance a desire for full intellectual autonomy with a readiness to be influenced. Their intellectual outlooks develop during the course of the novel. The harmony within multiplicity that Behar proposes is expressed on various levels; in one of the novel's most powerful moments, Hezkel prays as a Jew in a Beit Safafa mosque, as though he is beseeching the heavens for theological unity.
The book sometimes seems to place a greater focus on political ideology than on the literary aspects of the plot or the characters. Some symbols of its literary commitment are manifest, though. For instance, during the course of the novel, Hezkel turns into a poet. He starts out having connections to a circle of poets who hang out at the Tmol Shilshom cafe in downtown Jerusalem. He reads poems by Erez Biton, a well-known Algerian-born Israeli poet, before he starts writing his own verse. Hezkel's rise as a bona fide artist is clinched when his first work is published. The poem opens with the line "With my dead brother, I have traveled on a long road," and this infuriates Hezkel's half brother, who is very much alive.
When he is starting out, Hezkel wonders to himself: "Perhaps if I add lines that I heard during prayers, and religious verse that I remember, and spice them up with some of my own words, I will be able to write words in the form of a poem, and call them my own." With these simple words, Hezkel identifies the DNA of Mizrahi poetics, and alludes to the type of writing exemplified by this book, writing that draws upon traditional Jewish liturgical poetry and religious sources.
The medley of secular and traditional prose characterizes Behar's own work. His writing career began with texts that featured a long string of poetic quotations; and this novel too is influenced by the author's interest in poetry.
Hezkel offers an alternative to the "reams of secular poetry," lyrics that are attuned to synagogue melodies. He proposes poetic metier that adheres to its own, different set of rules. "I ask that you write a new piyut [liturgical poem] for the synagogue, for Passover," Rabbi Ovadia says to Hezkel, when he learns that he has begun writing.
"Rachel and Ezekiel" is a rich cornucopia of images, ideas and echoes, and there is not enough space in this review to do justice to everything it offers. But I would like to note another characteristic of Mizrahi literature that unfolds richly in the novel, and that is the book's status as an object. Almog Behar's novel provides its own distinctive way of relating to printed matter that is called a "book"; this perspective views a book as being more like a sacred text than a secularized batch of printed pages. Hezkel deliberates about this perspective, as in a passage that describes his ruminations on a book written by the great Iraqi-born scholar of Arabic literature Sasson Somekh, to whom Behar has dedicated this book: "In the end he decided that the book by Somekh had a holy quality, and he placed it on top of a book that discusses Jewish law."
Istanbul on the Hudson / Almog Behar
A few months ago, Haaretz published an interesting article by Orhan Pamuk, who was then only a nominee for the Nobel Prize for Literature. The article – about which audiences Turkish authors are really targeting – had first appeared in The New York Times.
Istanbul is much closer to Jerusalem than New York, but hell would probably freeze over before any self-respecting Israeli newspaper would print an article by Pamuk that appeared "only" in an Istanbul-based newspaper. On the other hand, an article published in New York by Pamuk, or by anyone else for that matter, has excellent prospects of appearing here in Hebrew translation.
It thus seems that much of the dialogue between countries in the world's "periphery" – in this case, Turkey and Israel – which are in geographical and cultural proximity to one another, is conducted through the mediation of a world "center" – such as New York, the modern-day successor to ancient Rome, and Stockholm, capital of the Nobel Prizes.
Pamuk is keenly aware of the paradoxes between the center and the periphery (or, perhaps, a better word would be "diasporas"), specifically between Turkey and the West. He showcases them in his memoirs, "Istanbul." On the one hand, the literary image that has developed of Istanbul is, to a great extent, the work of foreigners – 19th-century French and English authors. From them the Nobel laureate has learned to see his city through the eyes of foreigners, to love the aesthetics of their perspective while rejecting the image they depict. A large part of his literary activity is devoted to rebuilding the literary Istanbul – both through their perspective and in flagrant opposition to it. On the other hand, even the melancholy native authors of Istanbul who preceded Pamuk, whom he admires and hopes to follow (including Yasar Kamal), were trapped between a desire to write (and live) as Westerners, and the need to be authentic and express their own voice, one that would be distinct from that of the French or English. (Had these writers not written in a different style, French and English readers would certainly not have been interested in reading their work.)
As a result, nothing is more characteristic of Istanbul, nothing is more "authentic" in a Turkish author than a fixed westward gaze. That is why one finds so moving and so ironic Pamuk's declaration that, whenever he senses an absence of Western eyes, he becomes a Westerner gazing at himself.
Pamuk has frequently said that Turkey is the most Westernized country in the Orient and that Ataturk was the most Westernized of all Turks. That is why the inner clash that the writer experiences and his internal dialogue are invariably between Turkey and the West. And that is also why he will always compare Istanbul to itself and to Western cities, but never to other cities of the Orient. However, the saga of multicultural Istanbul – which in the 20th century surrendered to the pressures of a unifying, uni-cultural, national story that aspired to Westernization – is very similar to the saga of cities like Alexandria, Thessaloniki (Saloniki), Beirut and Jerusalem. Pamuk mourns the loss of his native city's multicultural past and its richly variegated multi-ethnic culture; he remembers, for example, a row of houses abandoned by Greeks, Armenians and Jews. Yet he himself is not an author whose main interests are immigrants and the transition from one language to another. The shift in the Turkish language from Arabic to Latin letters occurred before he was born.
'Author of place'
Orhan Pamuk is an "author of place." Whereas some people migrated to, or were forced to leave, Istanbul, he is the city's "legal" offspring (even if the residents of the slum neighborhoods regarded him as a foreigner when he was growing up). He is a native of Istanbul who grew up in the secular and Westernized upper class. According to him, he and his fellow residents wanted to appear different from what they really were, and essentially did not understand themselves at all. He seized the opportunity to see Istanbul through a foreigner's eyes as a defense mechanism in the face of nationalistic and conformist pressures, but also as a means to experience pleasure. However, despite the foreignness he adopted from time to time, Istanbul remained, when all was said and done, a sort of family. That is why he wrote that the city's residents could not help but love Istanbul, although they had to decide which part of it they loved and to justify that choice.
Pamuk wrote his article on the real audience of Turkish authors for The New York Times, perhaps without knowing that there was a good chance that it would be translated into Hebrew. Who did he imagine would read it? For the most part Americans, of course, although he may have imagined that some of the readers would, like him, be from the "periphery." These are people whose native tongue is not English, but who read what is written in English to stay abreast of events in the "center." He turned to the two groups simultaneously, feeling a closeness to both of them. He noted that the fact that the target audience of writers, for the most part, do not include members of their own national group is a source of great concern to the so-called "representatives of non-Western nations," who are suspicious of creative writers whose perspective regarding history and nationalism is not consonant with that of their own nation.
There is a considerable element of truth in Pamuk's irreverent explanation of the suspicious attitude of such representatives; however, a more thorough explanation is needed. There are additional, substantive reasons for their concern. One is the fact that, as their international fame grows, the finest authors from countries in the world's "periphery" – and this is true for both Turkish and Israeli writers – often turn to foreign audiences and their culture, at the price of turning their own culture into something alien and superficial (or, sometimes, exotic and mystical). These authors deliberately target foreign readers. However, they do not address just any foreign reader: Instead, they focus on the "Western eyes" that Paruk has so strongly been drawn to – on the affluent world and on speakers of English, which has become a true lingua franca.
An easier life
We are rapidly approaching an era when, even in the original version in their native language, Third World authors, seeking success in the affluent world, will try to make life as easy as possible for their future translators and readers. Thus, we are repeatedly being denied the opportunity for an ongoing, internal dialogue between adjacent cultures, which are being shunted to the sidelines – such as Turkey (of both the present and past eras) and Israel.
The English language to which many of the finest of today's writers orient themselves is not universal; it has specific cultural and ideological messages. Nor is English literature universal: It only represents the powerful economic and military forces that are operating in today's world. Holding a discussion in English, even when the language has only symbolic importance, represents a major concession of one's unique historical identity to a language that seeks to swallow up everyone with imperial magnanimity. (It is truly a dreadful situation when an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian from the territories conduct peace talks in English, rather than alternating between Arabic and Hebrew.)
Pamuk presents the simple fact that the readers of the most successful authors in the world do not reside in those authors' countries and must read their works through the mask of translation. However, this is not an alliance between peripheries, whether adjacent to or distant from one another. Rather, each periphery is seeking shelter under New York's wing or in its bosom.
Pamuk is quite easily accessible to Hebrew readers in Israel. Two of his books – his historical novel, "The White Fortress," and his classic and complex Istanbul-based "The Black Book" – have beautiful, legal Hebrew-language "offspring." Hopefully, now that he has been awarded the Nobel Prize, additional books by Pamuk will be translated into Hebrew.
Those who want to become familiar with the rest of Turkish literature – whether of the newer or older variety – which is so close to Israeli and Jewish culture (Jews occupy a respected place in Turkish literature), can do so only through the filter of other languages. Some comfort can be derived from the fact that Turkish literature translated into Hebrew is not in as dismal a situation as, for example, Afghani literature translated into that language: The only Afghan book with which Israeli readers are familiar is Khaled Hosseini's "The Kite Runner," which he wrote in America and in English.
I ask myself, "For whom am I writing this article?" For Pamuk, perhaps. However, he will have to read it in English, and not in either of our respective languages.
Published at haaretz English edition at 20/10/2006:
We, as the descendents of the Jewish communities of the Arab and Muslim world, the Middle East and the Maghreb, and as the second and third generation of Mizrahi Jews in Israel, are watching with great excitement and curiosity the major role that the men and women of our generation are playing so courageously in the demonstrations for freedom and change across the Arab world. We identify with you and are extremely hopeful for the future of the revolutions that have already succeeded in Tunisia and Egypt. We are equally pained and worried at the great loss of life in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, and many other places in the region. Our generation’s protest against repression and oppressive and abusive regimes, and its call for change, freedom, and the establishment of democratic governments that foster citizen participation in the political process, marks a dramatic moment in the history of the Middle East and North Africa, a region which has for generations been torn between various forces, internal and external, and whose leaders have often trampled the political, economic, and cultural rights of its citizens. We are Israelis, the children and grandchildren of Jews who lived in the Middle East and North Africa for hundreds and thousands of years.
Our forefathers and mothers contributed to the development of this region’s culture, and were part and parcel of it. Thus the culture of the Islamic world and the multigenerational connection and identification with this region is an inseparable part of our own identity. We are a part of the religious, cultural, and linguistic history of the Middle East and North Africa, although it seems that we are the forgotten children of its history: First in Israel, which imagines itself and its culture to be somewhere between continental Europe and North America. Then in the Arab world, which often accepts the dichotomy of Jews and Arabs and the imagined view of all Jews as Europeans, and has preferred to repress the history of the Arab-Jews as a minor or even nonexistent chapter in its history; and finally within the Mizrahi communities themselves, who in the wake of Western colonialism, Jewish nationalism and Arab nationalism, became ashamed of their past in the Arab world. Consequently we often tried to blend into the mainstream of society while erasing or minimizing our own past. The mutual influences and relationships between Jewish and Arab cultures were subjected to forceful attempts at erasure in recent generations, but evidence of them can still be found in many spheres of our lives, including music, prayer, language, and literature. We wish to express our identification with and hopes for this stage of generational transition in the history of the Middle East and North Africa, and we hope that it will open the gates to freedom and justice and a fair distribution of the region’s resources. We turn to you, our generational peers in the Arab and Muslim world, striving for an honest dialog which will include us in the history and culture of the region.
We looked enviously at the pictures from Tunisia and from Al-Tahrir square, admiring your ability to bring forth and organize a nonviolent civil resistance that has brought hundreds of thousands of people out into the streets and the squares, and finally forced your rulers to step down. We, too, live in a regime that in reality—despite its pretensions to being “enlightened” and “democratic”—does not represent large sections of its actual population in the Occupied Territories and inside of the Green Line border(s). This regime tramples the economic and social rights of most of its citizens, is in an ongoing process of minimizing democratic liberties, and constructs racist barriers against Arab-Jews, the Arab people, and Arabic culture. Unlike the citizens of Tunisia and Egypt, we are still a long way from the capacity to build the kind of solidarity between various groups that we see in these countries, a solidarity movement that would allow us to unite and march together–all who reside here–into the public squares, to demand a civil regime that is culturally, socially, and economically just and inclusive. We believe that, as Mizrahi Jews in Israel, our struggle for economic, social, and cultural rights rests on the understanding that political change cannot depend on the Western powers who have exploited our region and its residents for many generations.
True change can only come from an intra-regional and inter-religious dialog that is in connection with the different struggles and movements currently active in the Arab world. Specifically, we must be in dialog and solidarity with struggles of the Palestinians citizens of Israel who are fighting for equal political and economic rights and for the termination of racist laws, and the struggle of the Palestinian people living under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank and in Gaza in their demand to end the occupation and to gain Palestinian national independence. In our previous letter written following Obama’s Cairo speech in 2009, we called for the rise of the democratic Middle Eastern identity and for our inclusion in such an identity. We now express the hope that our generation – throughout the Arab, Muslim, and Jewish world – will be a generation of renewed bridges that will leap over the walls and hostility created by previous generations and will renew the deep human dialog without which we cannot understand ourselves: between Jews, Sunnis, Shias, and Christians, between Kurds, Berbers, Turks, and Persians, between Mizrahis and Ashkenazis, and between Palestinians and Israelis. We draw on our shared past in order to look forward hopefully towards a shared future. We have faith in intra-regional dialog—whose purpose is to repair and rehabilitate what was destroyed in recent generations—as a catalyst towards renewing the Andalusian model of Muslim-Jewish-Christian partnership, God willing, Insha’Allah, and as a pathway to a cultural and historical golden era for our countries. This golden era cannot come to pass without equal, democratic citizenship, equal distribution of resources, opportunities, and education, equality between women and men, and the acceptance of all people regardless of faith, race, status, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnic affiliation. All of these rights play equal parts in constructing the new society to which we aspire. We are committed to achieving these goals within a process of dialog between all of the people of Middle East and North Africa, as well as a dialog we will undertake with different Jewish communities in Israel and around the world.
We, the undersigned: Shva Salhoov (Libya), Naama Gershy (Serbia, Yemen), Yael Ben-Yefet (Iraq, Aden), Leah Aini (Greece, Turkey), Yael Berda (Tunisia), Aharon Shem-Tov (Iraq, Iranian Kurdistan), Yosi Ohana (born in Morocco), Yali Hashash (Libya, Yemen), Yonit Naaman (Yemen, Turkey), Orly Noy (born in Iran), Gadi Alghazi (Yugoslavia, Egypt), Mati Shemoelof (Iran, Iraq, Syria), Eliana Almog (Yemen, Germany), Yuval Evri ((Iraq), Ophir Tubul (Morocco, Algeria), Moti Gigi (Morocco), Shlomit Lir (Iran), Ezra Nawi (Iraq), Hedva Eyal (Iran), Eyal Ben-Moshe (Yemen), Shlomit Binyamin (Cuba, Syria, Turkey), Yael Israel (Turkey, Iran), Benny Nuriely (Tunisia), Ariel Galili (Iran), Natalie Ohana Evry (Morocco, Britain), Itamar Toby Taharlev (Morocco, Jerusalem, Egypt), Ofer Namimi (Iraq, Morocco), Amir Banbaji (Syria), Naftali Shem-Tov (Iraq, Iranian Kurdistan), Mois Benarroch (born in Morocco), Yosi David (Tunisia Iran), Shalom Zarbib (Algeria), Yardena Hamo (Iraqi Kurdistan), Aviv Deri (Morocco) Menny Aka (Iraq), Tom Fogel (Yemen, Poland), Eran Efrati (Iraq), Dan Weksler Daniel (Syria, Poland, Ukraine), Yael Gidnian (Iran), Elyakim Nitzani (Lebanon, Iran, Italy), Shelly Horesh-Segel (Morocco), Yoni Mizrahi (Kurdistan), Betty Benbenishti (Turkey), Chen Misgav (Iraq, Poland), Moshe Balmas (Morocco), Tom Cohen (Iraq, Poland, England), Ofir Itah (Morocco), Shirley Karavani (Tunisia, Libya, Yemen), Lorena Atrakzy (Argentina, Iraq), Asaf Abutbul (Poland, Russia, Morocco), Avi Yehudai (Iran), Diana Ahdut (Iran, Jerusalem), Maya Peretz (Nicaragua, Morocco), Yariv Moher (Morocco, Germany), Tami Katzbian (Iran), Oshra Lerer (Iraq, Morocco), Nitzan Manjam (Yemen, Germany, Finland), Rivka Gilad (Iran, Iraq, India), Oshrat Rotem (Morocco), Naava Mashiah (Iraq), Zamira Ron David (Iraq) Omer Avital (Morocco, Yemen), Vered Madar (Yemen), Ziva Atar (Morocco), Yossi Alfi (born in Iraq), Amira Hess (born in Iraq), Navit Barel (Libya), Almog Behar (Iraq, Turkey, Germany).
Photo by Moti Kikayon
Translated from the Hebrew by Chana Morgenstern
In this installment of "Artists Talk: Israel/Palestine," Chana Morgenstern. speaks to Almog Behar, whose poem, Sheikh Jarrah, 2010" you can read over here.
Chana Morgenstern: Can you tell me a little bit about how your experiences organizing with Israelis and Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah [East Jerusalem] informed the writing of this poem?
Almog Behar: Well, I think it was everything combined, the fact that Sheikh Jarrah is really close to my house in Jerusalem, but at the same time is a different world–a world that in its conduct, in its rules, in the police and the army that walk around there, and in the eviction of people from their homes—is a place that steals from me my Judaism, both the state and the settlers do it, and it hurts that for the most part this theft is accepted by the majority of the public. Also, as a practicing Jew, the confrontation with the religiosity of the settlers—the experience of protesting in front of a congregation in prayer—produced a difficult estrangement for me. At one point I tried to create an alternative prayer, a combined Jewish and Islamic prayer that would unite the Israeli and Palestinian protesters and shield them from the police, but the Arab-Palestinian community had a hard time with this idea because they associate Jewish prayer with the settlers and the settlements, and I understand that. It was difficult for them to see prayer—which in my eyes and in my world is a major link between Judaism and Islam—as a symbol of connection. At the synagogue I go to, we pray in the same Arabic notes that the Islamic muezzin sings in; historically and in the day to day, the music and symbols of Judaism, especially Mizrahi Judaism, have a relationship with the music and symbols of Islam, and part of my own search is about exploring this connection. Look, it’s really troubling that the Israeli-Arab conflict is often conceived of as a Jewish-Muslim conflict, but in some sense I also think that part of the solution to the conflict has to have a Muslim-Jewish component to it. This may be far off because the political reality is opposed to it, but in the end, from my perspective, from the perspective of my faith and my belief, some of the tools for recovery exist within the potential for Jewish-Muslim connection.
CM: The idea of bringing Judaism and Islam together as part of a solution to the conflict seems like a very different approach than the approach taken by the Israeli left or the European left, who are traditionally secular.
AB: Yes, definitely, But look, I think that in this sense there is a difference between the general Israeli left and the Jerusalem left. The old left or the Tel-Avivy left, at least stereotypically, is far from this perspective because it’s far from its own religion, it identifies its Judaism with someone else: the ultra-orthodox or settlers, them and the state. In other words what’s left is the state as a representation of Judaism, which I think is a total theft of Judaism. Judaism is something much more complicated, with many more layers. The Judaism that comes after the second temple, after Christianity, after Islam, is in dialogue with Christian and Islamic practices and customs, and this means that it can be a vehicle for dialogue with other communities instead of a vehicle for exclusion. Traditionally, In Iraq, where my mother's family is from, these communities were much more intertwined. Even—for example—in order for the Jewish communities in Baghdad to celebrate Passover they had to have a Muslim to sell their bread to. You couldn’t celebrate your holidays without members of other religions. This was also true for holidays like the Morrocan Mimuna to which all religious groups were invited—other groups were part of the holiday and the holiday atmosphere in the Middle East my grandparents grew up in. But here, in the Israeli imagination, the holidays—ours and theirs—are justifications for curfew. When do you hear about Muslim holidays on the Israeli news? When there is a curfew on the territories because of Eid al- 'Ad'ha and Eid El-Fiter and Ramadan. And in this sense we are moving farther and farther away from understanding the connections between our cultures and traditions. Take for example the tradition of joint liturgical poetry: the 16th century (tzefat) poet Rabbi Israel Najara’s work was in dialogue with Sufism; and in 20th century Rabbi David Buzaglo combined Judaism, Islam, Hebrew and Arabic in his work, over Arabic melodies songs with words in Arabic, Aramaic and Hebrew. And some of the liturgical poetry is common to both Muslims and Jews, as prayers that are used by both religions. From my perspective as a Mizrahi Jew I feel that part of the value of Mizrahi culture is that it is part of the tradition of shared cultures in the Middle East. When Mizrahi culture in Israel disconnects itself from Arabic culture and from Islam it is in danger of becoming a caricature of itself. The moment we lock ourselves up in Hebrew and in the phobia of Arabic, we start to resemble an immigrant group that has migrated from the East to the West and is trying to assimilate to that Western culture, when in fact we forget that we are still in the East, we haven’t roamed very far. Hebrew and Judaism have roots in the East and it is precisely the living connection with the Arabic language and culture and Islam that nurtures us.
CM: Do you think that because of their roots in the Arab world, the Mizrahi Jewish community plays a role in the conflict between Israel and the Arab world?
AB: In Shimon Ballas’s book The Transit Camp , his first book in Hebrew, one of the characters says, “We the Arab-Jews, will be a bridge between the Arabs and the Jews.” But first of all, a bridge is something that people step on, and they were stepped on. And they, the Arab-Jews, were also a bridge that was forgotten by both sides. It’s not just that from the perspective of European Jews in the new Israeli state Mizrahim were these kind of half-strangers that filled roles in the army and the factories and fields, and needed to be re-educated before they could play any kind of national or cultural role. There was also a great deal of denial about Mizrahi Jews’ connection to the Arab world. In the beginning, the optimism of people like Shimon Ballas stemmed from the fact that in contrast to the half of the nation that came from Europe and treated the Arabs with elitism the Mizrahi half was born into a joint life, into a more equitable life with the Arabs and the idea was that this would help on some level. But it is clear that as the generations have shifted most of this difference has been erased, and due to the Israeli re-education and the media, most of the Mizrahim have joined the general racism of the majority. Also, because the Mizrahim were relegated to the working class they were pitted against the Palestinians. But it’s also important to remember that amnesia and repression existed on the other side as well. A large part of the Arab world chose most of the time to forget the Arab-Jews within the dichotomy of what eventually turned into the Arab-Israeli struggle. They were not forgotten in Morocco, but that’s the exception. After more than a thousand years of being part of the history of Arabic culture we have virtually disappeared in the Arab world. It’s an understanding on both sides—the Israeli and the Arab—that the Mizrahim were not Arabs and never were part of the Arabic world. And in this sense, instead of being a bridge between the two sides, the Mizrahim have actually succeeded in being disconnected from both sides. Both sides forgot them and suppressed their identities. Paradoxically, one of the last communities in the Arab world to actually remember the Arab-Jewish connection is the Palestinian one, especially the Israeli-Palestinian community, who like the Mizrahim, also find themselves caught between the Arab world and Israel. Now the positive aspect of this situation is that I think Mizrahim have nonetheless forced and will continue to force the state of Israel to change culturally. For example, I went to a school that erased my past and my family’s past. Now there’s no way that I am going to let the same thing happen to my child’s education, that I will allow my children and my grandchildren to be sent to a place that erases them. I think the mission of our generation is to change this place from the inside, in terms of the culture, in terms of historical consciousness, and in terms of the definition of what it means to be Israeli and what it means to be Jewish.
CM: And what role do you feel like your generation—especially the writers and artists you are involved with—play in this process of transformation, particularly in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Given the conservative state of the culture, do you feel like such a small group can make a difference? Do you feel like the work is meaningful even though it does not reflect mainstream values?
AB: In the words of Emile Habiby, translated by Anton Shammas, I am a pessoptimist. But even if you’re being pessimistic you can say that someone like Samir Naqqash, who preserved his culture by being an Israeli Jewish author who wrote in Arabic during the 1960s and 70s, carried a torch for the rest of us. He knew he lived in a dark age, that he was living in a generation in which this position and this act would not prevail or even stand out. He knew that this act would be denied, both in Israel and in the Arab world, that it would be swallowed up by all of the darkness around it. But . . . the simple act of holding the torch, illuminates the notion of possibility for future generations. There is a possibility; the possibility of a generation that will change and will be capable of changing society and carrying this torch forward. From a cultural point of view and a historic point of view the Jewish-Arab connection is a living possibility, it can be a real possibility right now in a limited capacity, but its existence also provides a torch for coming generations to actualize the vision more broadly. I think that in the young literature certain things are happening that are optimistic in terms of the Mizrahi-Palestinian-Israeli connection; things are also happening in the realm of music that are very positive and that foreground Arabic culture. So on the one hand, I’m optimistic that a young Israeli-Palestinian literary community is being created, that change is being created alongside all of the very difficult aspects of the situation. In terms of the general cultural situation of channel 2 representing our culture and so on, I feel we have not developed very much. It’s clear that the dominant cultural options exclude our connection. The dominant cultural situation includes two options: the neutral—in other words Ashkenazi (Jews of European descent)—Israeli option and the American option, or a symbiosis between these two options. Once someone asked me, why are you even wasting your time on the struggle between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, when in a few years we’re all basically going to be Americans? But I feel like as long as we are engaged with these questions of Ashkenazi and Mizrahi and Jewish and Palestinian identity we aren’t completely American. Part of our engagement around the definition of our cultures, around the question of how we want to educate our children and live our lives reminds us of the alternatives to the dominant culture. These are part of our foundational questions, not just questions of collective and national identity, but also the question of a solution to the horrors that have occurred here; it is both collective and deeply personal and familial, in the sense that we are asking how we want to live as a family, as a community.
 Midrash is a Jewish Literary-religious genre the old sages (rabies) used in order to tell a biblical story or verse anew, with it’s meaning changed according to time.