Tag Archives: Israel

Amira Hass’s Drinking the Sea at Gaza

Amira Hass, Drinking the Sea at Gaza (1996, English translation @Metropolitan Books 1999; Owl Books 2000)

0805057404Amira Hass is a rarity: a Jewish Israeli journalist who lives full-time among Palestinians. She went to live in Gaza in 1993 and moved to Ramallah on the West Bank in 1997. She writes for the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz. Drinking the Sea at Gaza is rooted in her daily witnessing and sharing of the lives of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. It deals with the period from the Oslo Accords (1993–1995) and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, followed by the general elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (1996), with flashbacks to 1948, 1967 and the first Intifada (1987–1991), and an occasional footnote on changes between the Hebrew and English publications.

An awful lot has happened in the Gaza Strip since Hass wrote this book, including the second Intifada (2000–2006), the withdrawal of the Israeli army and dismantling of Israeli Settlements (2005), the election of Hamas (2006), the blockade (2007–) and armed conflict involving rockets, air attacks, land invasions, targeted assassinations, demolition of homes, and constantly violated ceasefires. So the books political narratives are historical rather than current news, the statistics on the economy are way out of date, and the living conditions of the people have almost certainly changed, and not for the better.

But the strength of the book lies in its intimacy. However formidable it is as journalism – marshalling statistics, providing context, arguing a position, constructing lucid narratives – it absolutely shines as a multifaceted portrait of people who have endured and resisted dispossession, armed occupation, economic oppression, neglect, wilful misunderstanding and betrayal. Hass has been described as an Israeli-bashing journalist, but on the strength of this book that’s rubbish. What she does is attempt to communicate an understanding of Palestinian points of view: suicide bombings are nightmarish, but the extraordinary hardship caused to ordinary people when the Gaza Strip is ‘hermetically sealed’ in response is monstrous. She writes about her friends.

Gazans include three main groupings, each with its own perspectives: refugees, people who were already living there before the great influx of refugees in 1948, and Palestinians who returned from exile after the Oslo Accords in the mid 1990s. Hass’s sympathies lie firmly with the refugees. There is also, of course, great political diversity: Fatah, preparing to govern and then backing Yasir Arafat (with reservations: Hass is not a fan); Hamas, at the time of this book gaining strength as the main Islamist party; the secular left, small but insightful. Older men who have spent time in Israeli prisons have a greater understanding of and sometimes sympathy for Israelis than the young, some of whom know them only as stereotypical oppressors (a little boy who followed some Israeli soldiers around tells an adult questioner he is trying to see their tails). Women are largely absent for public life: Hass, a Jew, mostly deals with men as a journalist, and her chapter on women is made up largely of pieces written by Gazan women contacts.

An unexpected quality of the book is its humour – Hass herself has a sardonic edge, and she has a good ear for the illuminating jokes of her Gazan friends.

The chapter ‘It is written in the holy Quran’ is a wonderful antidote to the notion that Islam is a dangerous monolithic hive mind. In a discussion of Muslim diversity is a neat example of religion-based humour. Hass was getting into a lift with a male acquaintance when another man, known to them both, joined them as the door was closing, and said, ‘I’m Satan.’ When Hass showed her lack of understanding, they explained that a verse in the Quran says that when a man and a woman are alone together Satan is between them.

Another chapter begins with a teasing exchange between drivers in a traffic snarl. The men, both from the same refugee camp, mock each other on the basis of generations-old jokes between the villages their parents were driven from in 1948. And so we are introduced to a very bitter–very sweet culture of remembrance. The yearning for lost country is not just a political motivator. It also sustains people who have been trapped in refugee camps for half a century.

Even when dealing with the torture of political prisoners in Israeli prisons, there are unexpected flashes of laughter. This, from a man named Abu Majed, is probably my favourite moment in the book:

One of his interrogators was rather overweight. As the man was jumping on him and squeezing his testicles, trying to get him to squeal on his comrades, Abu Majed managed to gasp, ‘They must be paying you double for your fat ass.’ Incredibly, the interrogator bent over with laughter and left the room.

Hass describes that as an unexpected moment of contact. That’s not a bad description of the book itself. In the context of so much that is written about the intractability of the Israeli–Palestinian entanglement, here is someone attempting to build a bridge of understanding. She writes:

If more Israelis with good intentions would actually come to Gaza and talk to people directly, I am convinced that they would have a better understanding of [attitudes described in the Israeli press as] ‘fundamentalism’ and a better grasp of the true face of the Oslo Accords. But Israelis are not allowed into Gaza unless they come to meet with Palestinian Authority leaders as part of an official delegation.

We can be very glad that at least one Israeli has managed ‘talk to people directly’, and has given us a chance to do so by proxy through this book.

Megan Stack in the village of liars

Megan Stack, Every Man in This Village is a Liar: An Education in War (Scribe 2010)

Megan Stack was a 25 year old US journalist on assignment in Paris on 11 September 2001. She was sent to Afghanistan after the US invaded, and over the next years she reported for the Los Angeles Times on war and upheaval in Afghanistan, Israel, Iraq and half a dozen other Middle Eastern countries. She’s no slouch as a journalist, as her bio demonstrates. She’s won prizes, been shortlisted for the Pulitzer and is now LA Times bureau chief in Moscow. If you’re looking for a brief, accessible introduction to the 21st century Middle East (at least as it was before the events beginning with the Egyptian Spring) this book probably fits the bill as well as anything. And I suspect we all need regular introductions and re-introductions like this, because of the phenomenon Stack describes in her Prologue:

As Americans we have the gift of detaching ourselves and drifting on; it has saved us over and over again from getting mired in guilt or stuck in the past. Sometimes we are too good at it. Here in the same generation, the wars happening over there, elsewhere, already have the irreality of a dream. […] But the wars are still happening, and they have been happening all along. People died. Promises were broken. Things were destroyed. And as Americans these actions belong to us.

Detachment and moving on are even more rife in Australia. ‘Over there, elsewhere’ is even further away for us. And we can tell ourselves that we’re only bit players after all.

The book is animated by a passionate concern to break through that detachment. It’s a series of personal essays, more personal and more ambitious than a collection of journalistic pieces. Again and again she brings us the reality of war on the ground: not the prurient suspense of The Hurt Locker, the heroics of embedded journalists, or the ever so slightly smug satire of, say, Wag the Dog, but the purple corpse of a baby found in a bombed house in Lebanon, an Iraqi boy shot by US soldiers on his way to the corner shop, US expatriate women living in luxury and fear behind high walls in Saudi Arabia, the appalling realisation that two   university students have disappeared after being seen talking to her, the hardening of an Ammanese interpreter friend against the US when she learns about Abu Ghraib.

This book, in other words, has shit on its shoes and, to push the metaphor, blood on its boots. It stands as a formidable challenge toawful lot of coverage of the Middle East – things like spin about spreading democracy and freedom, ‘balanced’ reporting of the bombing of civilian populations, or cant about collateral damage and rebel strongholds. As just one example, the other day a former CIA operative said on the radio that George W Bush’s one chance to capture Osama Bin Laden, at Tora Bora in December 2001, failed because he entrusted the task to two Afghans who had fought alongside Bin Laden against the Soviets, who were therefore ‘going to be a day late and a dollar short’. Well, maybe. Megan Stack was near Tora Bora at the time, and spoke to both the Afghani warlords involved: she doesn’t claim to know what happened, but she saw how upset they both were at Bin Laden’s escape and heard their frustration at the US military’s handling of the situation. On the evidence the CIA man’s version is conveniently self-exonerating.

The book has one major flaw which I think comes from Stack’s having to work against her training as impersonal, objective reporter. To tell this story, she needs to be present as a character in the story, to convey the emotional reality of  what she witnesses, and the emotional reality of being a witness. To do this, she seems to have felt the need to write in a literary mode, and hardly a page goes by without a strained simile, an adjective that’s working too hard or a dubious epigram. ‘Zaman came out, tall and deliberate, his face sagging from his skull.’ ‘Violence is a reprint of itself, an endless copy.’ ‘The sun had teeth and a hard glare; every blade of grass glowed like a stalk of ice.’ Even the book’s title is an example: it’s meant to evoke the difficulty of determining the truth in a war zone, but it refers to a famous logical puzzle, and sends the reader down a trail of irrelevant associations. In the Epilogue she writes, ‘By now I have given up on pulling poetry out of war.’ If only a great bully of an editor had persuaded her to give it up before the book got into print, this very good, useful book might have been a great one.

Suddenly in the Depths of the Forest, Of Bees and Mist

Amos Oz, Suddenly in the Depths of the Forest (2005, translation from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston, Chatto & Windus 2010)
Erick Setiawan, Of Bees and Mist (Headline Review 2009)

The Re-enchantment web site’s tag line, ‘Not all fairy tales are for children,’ could have been coined with these two books in mind. Both have fairy tale settings (a village in a forest, an enchanted castle) and are shot through with fairy tale motifs. Both introduce supernatural elements in the matter-of-fact manner of fairy tales. Both, in the manner of fairy tales, have spirited, curious child protagonists – or start out that way. And both definitely have an adult readership in mind, though the first doesn’t leave potential child readers in the lurch, as the second does with its explicit sexual content.

Suddenly in the Depths of the Forest has elements of ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’ and other familiar tales, integrated into a completely serious fable. In a village in the middle of a forest, there are no animals – no birds, no fish, no insects, not even any earthworms. Something terrible happened long ago, when the older villagers were young, and now the village children are faced with a near pervasive silence about the past and stern warnings about the dangers of the night and the forest. Maya and Matti, our heroes, dare to investigate, and find that the adults’ stories about a demon who lives in the forest are both true and misleading. It’s a short read, just 137 pages, and though it becomes preachy towards the end, the preachiness, against the ‘mocking and scoffing disease’ of bullying ridicule, stays true to the fairy tale mode, leaving the reader to savour the deeper themes unharassed.

Those deeper themes have to do with memory and forgetting. As Matti says:

Maybe there should be another word, a special word that includes both remembering and forgetting: sometimes, out of the blue, a mother or father in the village imitates animal or bird sounds for their child. But a minute later, they regret it and correct themselves and explain that animals are merely a fairy tale. Then they sigh because our teacher, Emanuella, confuses us so much with all those crazy animal stories out of her poor head.

This reminds me of The Silence, Ruth Wajnryb’s fascinating book about how the children of Holocaust survivors gleaned hints of their parents’ stories from just such a process of remembering and not remembering, telling and not telling. As Amos Oz is Israeli, he may have had the Holocaust in mind. Or he may have been thinking of the Naqbah. Equally, I found myself thinking how in my childhood the history of dispossession and genocide of Australian Aborigines was both common knowledge and somehow unacknowledged. These reflections and associations arise from the narrative but never disrupt its integrity as a tale about two children and a village without any animals.

Sadly the same can’t be said for the ‘meanings’ of magical events in Of Bees and Mist. I confess up front that I stopped reading soon after page 50, but it was only because I knew other people love the book that I could force myself to last that long. Meridia lives in a big old house whose magical properties – perpetual cold and gloom, a staircase that stretches and contracts arbitrarily, strangely sentient surrounding mists – are pretty well explicitly presented as symbols of her parents’ unhappy marriage, her father’s extreme authoritarian coldness and her mother’s babbling, forgetful misery. Other magical details, such as a woman in the marketplace who grows herbs on her body for customers to snip, seem to be there as decorative afterthoughts. I revolted at the prospect of 500 pages of this sort of thing.

Was it fantasy writer Jo Walton who, when someone asked her what the dragons in her work represented, replied that they were just dragons? I guess I’m the kind of reader who wants my zombies to be zombies. In the middle of a zombie story, I want to be worried for the hero’s brains, not – at least not at the front of my mind – ruminating on modern society’s fear of the mob or feeling for the author’s deeply unhappy childhood.

Not all fairy tales are for children. Some aren’t for me.

Closer than it looks

Some months ago my elder son was invited to join the Aid Flotilla that was being planned to bring humanitarian aid to Gaza. He would take a camera and make a documentary. The idea appealed to him. His mother said that if he was going to do something like that it needed to be in a cause he was willing to die for. In the end he didn’t go, partly because he had other commitments he couldn’t responsibly shuck off.

He and I didn’t exactly discount  his mother’s warnings, but we did think she was being a bit melodramatic. After all, it was a humanitarian mission.

And then today, this:

Israeli forces have attacked a flotilla of aid-carrying ships aiming to break the country’s siege on Gaza.

More than 10 people were killed and dozens injured when troops stormed the Freedom Flotilla early on Monday, the Israeli military said.

The Israeli military said four soldiers had been wounded, one of them seriously, and claimed troops opened fire after ‘demonstrators onboard attacked the IDF Naval personnel with live fire and light weaponry including knives and clubs’.

Free Gaza Movement, the organisers of the flotilla, however, said the troops opened fire as soon as they stormed the ships.
Al Jazeera’s Ayman Mohyeldin, reporting from Jerusalem, said the Israeli action was surprising.

‘All the images being shown from the activists on board those ships show clearly that they were civilians and peaceful in nature, with medical supplies on board. So it will surprise many in the international community to learn what could have possibly led to this type of confrontation,’ he said.

Suddenly the Middle East feels awfully close to leafy Annandale.