Friday, August 17, 2007

Still closed-off worlds

"Ein habuba" ("The Doll's Eye") by Sami Shalom Chetrit, Hargol & Am Oved, 205 pages

Reviewed by Oren Kakun


When I wrote a review for Haaretz about Dudu Busi's latest novel, which was not very complimentary, the new hegemons of Mizrahi culture jumped on me with two accusations, which are actually related. One was that being granted a forum in a prestigious newspaper had gone to my head and turned me into an Ashkenazi, and the other was that what I wrote was a product of self-hatred. The first charge is not even worthy of an answer. About the second, let me say this: Yes, I do hate myself, and for a lot of reasons, but being Mizrahi is not one of them.

The absurd implication of these charges is that origin is fate: Because I was born Mizrahi (i.e., with origins in Middle Eastern and North African countries), I am not allowed to say anything bad about Mizrahi literature and I am not allowed to judge a "Mizrahi" book by literary standards. I am supposed to be an ambassador for all Mizrahi Jews from time immemorial, for my persecuted brethren to whom I am tied by culture. That is precisely the argument I was trying to refute in my review of Busi's book, if not in general.
This distressing episode might not have come to mind if not for an invitation I received recently to speak about Mizrahim and the Nakba (the "catastrophe" of the establishment of Israel). If there is any such connection today between Mizrahiness and the Palestinian tragedy, I am at a loss to say what it could be. But certainly there is a growing similarity in the way Mizrahi Jews and Palestinian Arabs are portrayed, as a kind of homogenized entity.

Instead of real Mizrahim from Katamon or Yeruham, or authentic Palestinians from the Gaza Strip and Hebron, what you get is a delegate, someone who represents them. The Mizrahim have gone through every possible incarnation on the way to recovery. Now they are suffering from over-treatment.

The truth is, anyone who wants to be an educator in the peripheral areas of the country today encounters a whole new world of not-so-new immigrants - Jews from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, living in the housing projects abandoned by the previous occupants: the Mizrahim. Anyone who wants to write about the Mizrahi problem will have to do it out of real love or passion, rather than a sense of humanitarian mission.

I am not saying that the world is perfect. Equality is still a long way off. But to make Sami Berdugo's book required reading in schools simply because he is a Mizrahi Jew is not a matter of fairness or equal rights, especially not for Berdugo himself, who might have achieved the same status by dint of writing well, if Mizrahi patrons had not intervened on his behalf.

When it comes to the Palestinian problem, Israelis are dangerously blind, despite the fact that it constitutes a dominant feature of our lives and exists in our own backyard.

People are too busy searching every crack and crevice for Holocaust deniers, while inventing all kinds of creative ways of denying the destruction, displacement and killing that is going on around them.

What we learn from all this is that uniform representation is a hoax. Those who are doing the representing have their own agenda. The Palestinians and their pain, and the Mizrahim and their sorrows, are as far apart as Judaism and Islam. The distance is too great for any real rapprochement.

In this world of representation, there are no real people. The former defense minister, Amir Peretz, and Israel's first Arab minister, Raleb Majadele, are a facade for the stuffy democracy that has grown up here.

Activist Tali Fahima, for example (who has now been dragged into representing some other bizarre cause), will be tried for espionage only if she dares to set foot outside her house. (It is interesting to compare the biblical story in Genesis 34, where Jacob's daughter, Dina, leaves her home and goes to Shechem (Nablus), unwittingly bringing about the destruction of the city by her brothers. Then, as now, Jewish nationalism is the strongest of all emotions).

There are no two ways about it. We are imprisoned behind walls that we have arrogantly built for ourselves, never allowing ourselves the opportunity to know or understand other worlds. Even if they are an hour's drive away, even if there are distant cultural roots, even if there appears to be some faint resemblance between one injustice and the other, these worlds are closed off to us, whether we are Mizrahi or Ashkenazi.

Archetypal thinking

Conventional wisdom holds that Mizrahi Jews should be the ones most capable of understanding the Palestinians. What could be more natural than thinking that the Mizrahim could be excellent mediators between Israelis and Palestinians, and their sole representatives? After all, they know Arab culture; they grew up in it. But this Orientalist stance is based on the stereotype that an Arab from Palestine is identical in outlook to an Arab from Morocco. That is the archetypal Western thinking.

Sami Shalom Chetrit's "Ein habuba" ("The Doll's Eye") came into the world without literary pretensions. It is not even a novel. It is a Hollywood script (parts of it written in Los Angeles), derived from real life in its most distilled form (the Jewish-Palestinian conflict), and then further distilled.

Meta-realism never enters the picture, and that is a major problem in a book where the author's viewpoint is so central. On second thought, maybe "The Doll's Eye" could be described as a lengthy article from the "house" of Haaretz's Gideon Levy - the journalist Israelis love to read to get a sense of where they are in geopolitical space, if not to ease their guilty consciences.

The story, in short, portrays a few days in the life of Linda, an American girl with an Arab mother and a Jewish father. In preparation for making a documentary film, she interviews three women shahids (martyrs) from Jenin. She gravitates between Salah, the Shin Bet security service's No. 1 wanted man, and Danny, her Jewish cousin, who works for the Shin Bet. The two men march toward their tragic end, and Linda, after being wounded, finds consolation in the arms of Michael, her American Jewish lover.

Chetrit sets himself up as the Mizrahi revolutionary, his tried and true persona, and then moves away from this position by means of a narrator, who can gain entry to the Palestinian camp because she is a journalist and make friends with terrorists because she is part Arab. So now he can tell the Palestinian story without hindrance. But this strategy is based on the same ridiculous presumption that a Mizrahi writer can represent the Palestinians and their feelings.

Chetrit has read the late Prof. Edward Said's "Orientalism." Said is mentioned in Chetrit's book and seems to be the driving spirit behind it. But Chetrit has a very strange understanding of Said's message. Otherwise, how do we explain the fact that he consciously creates a false picture of the Jewish-Palestinian conflict?

Chetrit paraphrases Said, but takes a stance that is precisely the opposite, fueled by the special closeness between America and Israel, and presenting the Orient to the West wrapped in convenient, even intriguing, packaging. And the truth is that all of this is closer to Chetrit's white world than to the coal black world of the Palestinian shahid.

New Mizrahi-speak has become a kind of Buddhism that gives back love. In contrast to the panicky rebellion of the social action group, the Israeli Black Panthers, for example, who made do, after putting up a tough fight, with running a gas station and joining the Communist Party, the new representatives have embraced a deep, narcissist intellectualism. They perceive themselves as the sole messengers of peace and the only ones who can deliver Israel from the conflict, and all because of their Levantine origins.

What might have saved Chetrit's book from being a literary flop is reading it as a parody of the failed attempt to write something in the name of the Palestinians (or any other people). But that is beyond the new Mizrahi intelligentsia. It doesn't know how to laugh at itself yet. Parody remains in Hanoch Levin's court.

Yet there is a certain danger in a book of this kind, where the authority of the author is seemingly absent (although it is there, and very much so). With its hyper-realism, the book is liable to give lay readers the impression that they know the truth.

Closer ties with the Arab world around us, and also with the Arabs in our midst, is the heart's desire of people who believe that mankind deserves a better world, a more interesting world, a world that is less discouraging. But this desire is also shared by petty individuals who squabble needlessly over ethnic origins, and stand with their hands in their pockets and their faces to the wall.

The Mizrahi talk about cultural affinity and common roots with the Palestinians is immature and forced, and smacks of separatism. Sami Shalom Chetrit, despite his efforts to bring the Palestinians to the Hebrew reader, only pushes them further away, creates alienation, and above all, imparts an eerie sense that there is no real Palestinian literature.


Blogger prof said...

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8:47 AM  

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