(photo credit: .)
Last Wednesday, President Shimon Peres hosted an encounter between Jewish and Arab writers and poets to discuss literary creativity as a cultural bridge. “Language Neighbors” was the fifth in a series of meeting of Israel’s literati at Beit Hanassi.
Hebrew and Arabic, Jews and Arabs, two languages so close to one another, and two peoples in permanent conflict one with the other. Among others, the discussion dealt with questions such as: Does language constitute a bridge or a barrier? Is language a vehicle for creating culture, or is it designed to prevent it from developing? What is the role of literature in a multicultural society like Israel?
Professor Naim Araidi, author Eli Amir, poets Ronny Someck and Nida Houri, and Dr. Faruk Moasi came together on the panel in an attempt to explain what they share: a similar language, the desire to give voice to their communal sorrows and hopes for peace, and the same will to talk about their work, and, for once, not about politics.
“This encounter is about continuing with cultural initiatives; renewal and peace can only happen with culture, education, and literature,” said Peres.
The event was punctuated by interludes of traditional Arabic music, with Jewish artist Reheila singing in Arabic, and Arab singer Lubna Salame, singing “time of peace,” half in Arabic and half in Hebrew (“Zaman el salam / Zman shel Shalom”).
Amir, who was leading the discussion, remarked on the similarity between the two languages and noted the international success of Hebrew and Arabic literature, with Nobel Prizes being awarded to Israeli S.Y. Agnon on the one hand, and to Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz on the other. He lamented the fact that both sides, although they share similar languages, could not find a common ground. He emphasized the need for Israelis to learn Arabic, and for Arabs to learn Hebrew.
SOMEK TALKED about “a lyrical conflict,” but mentioned the possibility for both sides to compromise. With characteristic humor, he said, “I don’t know any other country where children teach their mothers their mother tongue. I don’t know, either, any other [country with a] radio [station] where at the end, the announcer says ‘good bye’ in three different languages, ‘yala, lehitraot, bye’ – the first in Arabic, the second in Hebrew, and the third in English.”
Houri spoke about her difficulties to write poetry that differs from the consensus in the Arab community. “Anything that diverges from the norm is immediately rejected,” she said. “I’m regarded as a traitor because I prefer to write in Hebrew.”
Araidi also said he preferred to write in Hebrew, which, he said, is a
deeper language, while Arabic was the more melodious of the two.
“Arabic and Hebrew are two Semitic languages. The difference is that
although Hebrew is written from right to left, it thinks more to the
left,” he added, prompting laughter from the audience.
Nur, one of the Arab Israeli high school students in the audience, said
her favorite part was when Salame sang. “We are proud to be in the
President’s residence today,” she added. “It is good to show the
positive side of our culture sometimes – that we have great
intellectuals, and that we are open to discuss with Israelis. It is not
always only confrontational.”
Or, as Peres summed it up, it was an event embodying “harmonious conflict.”