What can be more sublime than to sit on a balmy summer evening, in a Jerusalem garden overlooking the Old City walls, drinking wine and enjoying thin slices of crusty bread from a local bakery, listening to the warm and melodious voice of a literary scholar as he discusses bread and its historical importance for the first Jewish community established outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, as reflected in the works of Israeli writers Yehuda Amichai, Hayim Nahman Bialik, and Shai Agnon?
And when else can you dare to be affectatious and use words like “sublime” and “melodious” if not when you are writing about a writers’ festival?
Normally a biannual affair since its inception in 2008, the International Writers Festival at Mishkenot Sha’ananim brings some of the literary world’s best writers to Jerusalem for five days of readings, conversations, discussions and tours. Last year it was decided to make the festival an annual event.
“Everywhere there are annual literary festivals,” said Misheknot’s director general, Motti Schwartz. “This is the only literary festival in Israel.”
After hosting a local Hebrew-language literary festival last year, Mishkenot Sha’ananim realized that they were capable of holding the international festival on an annual basis, he said. “It is very important to be able to meet foreign writers here,” said Schwartz. “It is important to bring in fresh voices, new writers or new books of known writers.”
The lineup for this, the seventh writers’ festival, included well-known writers such as Joyce Carol Oates, who received the 2019 Jerusalem Prize, and André Aciman, whose acclaimed novel Call Me by Your Name – about the sexual awakening of a teenage boy and a male graduate student who stays with his family one summer – was made into a movie, as well as newer voices including Syrian/Canadian Ahmad Danny Ramadan, who sought asylum in Canada as a gay Syrian refugee, and Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀, one of the most prominent young writers in Nigeria today.
Amos Oz, who died in December, was to celebrate his 80th birthday at the opening event of the festival in May 2019. Instead, a tribute to Oz was held in his memory.
For Joyce Carol Oates, who was on her first visit to Israel to receive the Jerusalem Prize award, being in Jerusalem was a way of connecting to her maternal grandmother’s long-hidden Jewish heritage.
“I feel that Israel is inspiring me,” she told The Jerusalem Report in an interview prior to receiving her award. “It is a place of history and great emotions.”
Oates, who has written nearly 60 novels, won the National Book Award and received five Pulitzer Prize nominations, says that inspiration for much of her writing comes from certain places she has been. She says she is considering writing a novel which takes place in Israel, but the idea is too vague to discuss.
“I hope I can bring my protagonist here,” she said.
Raised nominally Catholic in rural upstate New York, Oates has credited her maternal grandmother for being the influential force that directed her toward writing by giving her a copy of Alice in Wonderland. Oates says she inherited her own love for books and culture, which she describes as “Jewish,” from her grandmother.
“It was a very potent book, it was the one book which liberated me – what would have happened to me if my grandmother hadn’t given me that book?” she pondered out loud. “I think I would have been someone different. I would like to think she chose it very carefully. Tracing it back, that book really changed my life.”
Though she insists that she does not write on political topics, she has been verbally opposed to the gun violence enveloping the US, and many of her books have touched upon social issues like her recently released novel, My Life as a Rat, which explores the tragic family consequences of a racially motivated crime.
Oates visited the Western Wall and placed a note in one of the cracks between the stones, as is the custom. She enjoys Israeli movies and TV series back home, such as “Fauda,” “Shtisel” and “Footnotes,” she says.
“The portraits of the women in “Fauda” are very compelling, the woman are very strong,” says Oates. “I’ve never seen such a cast of strong women. The faces are astonishing…these faces are craggy and creasy. And “Shtisel” provides a window into ultra-Orthodox life in a gentle comedy, [it] opens doors to worlds different than my own. Art in general usually brings something to the world but does not displace anything. Art is an offering to the world.”
SITTING IN a small courtyard of Mishkenot Sha’ananim shortly after his arrival to Jerusalem, Aciman – who was born in 1951 in Alexandria to a secular Jewish-Egyptian family – declared that he likes the idea of coming to Israel. This was his second time visiting.
“I grew up during a difficult time to be Jewish in Egypt,” he says. “It was during the most atrocious time of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. It was horrible to be Jewish there. It was very obvious we would leave but just not clear when. We didn’t belong there any longer, but if we could, we were dragging it out longer.”
His family finally left Egypt in 1965, two years before the Six Day War, and moved to the US. Unlike when Christian Coptic families left and returned for visits, he said, it was clear that when a Jewish family left they were never coming back.
“Israel is the only place where a Jew can feel safe,” says Aciman, who in the same breath describes himself as a “terrible Jew” who doesn’t practice his religion and did not even have a bar mitzvah. The only reason his own son had a bar mitzvah is that his wife is more traditional than he is and insisted on following the tradition. He is proud that when it came to discussing his weekly Torah portion, his son discussed the New Testament. “It is possible for me to be this devilish Jew because Israel exists,” Aciman says. “By its existence, Israel gives me the luxury to not be Jewish. I know who the enemy is because I have lived with them.”
Following the surprise success to his novel Call Me by Your Name — which was only started as a diversion after he was not making progress with another project — he is busy writing the sequel, which will also be adapted for film.
“I’ve always been interested in blocked love,” he says. “I am only interested in things that might have happened, could have happened, but couldn’t happen, but still could happen.” He had no idea the story he was writing was going to be related to sex. “But it was so liberating. It was going to be a one-night stand but somehow something happened. In many ways I wanted to go all the way and have done with it and then put it away.”
But when he showed the finished novel to his agent, she sold it in two days.
“The part of the novel people most associate with is not the sex, but the anxiety of desire,” he says. “We all desire someone reluctantly, shamefully. We are ashamed of this forbidden desire.”
FOR FELLOW writer and festival guest Ahmad Danny Ramadan, 35, his forbidden homosexuality forced him to flee his native Syria, and his debut novel The Clothesline Swing evokes the Arabian tale of One Thousand and One Nights in its tale of two homosexual lovers, one of whom is dying, during the Syrian civil war.
“I came out to my family when I was 17, and they didn’t appreciate it specifically,” says Ramadan, lamenting that he no longer has contact with his mother or the rest of the members of his family. He had to escape Syria because of his homosexuality and now lives in Canada, where he has raised over $100,000 in funds for LGBTQ-identifying refugees and has supported 23 people in receiving asylum in Canada.
“I think it is sad how my relationship [with my mother] evolved, but at the same time I understand the world where she is coming from and this is the message it gives her,” Ramadan says. “She probably feels that it is a failure on her part. I am sorry she feels that way.”
For five years until 2017, Ramadan provided private sponsorship in Canada for many gay Syrians in Damascus. Now he is continuing helping the refugee community in Canada by producing the ye arly “Evening in Damascus” event, which raises some $30,000 (Canadian) for refugee causes.
“Most of the younger generation [of Syrian refugees] are welcoming and supportive [of me], and the older generation doesn’t dare say anything homophobic to me or I will call the police,” he says.
There was no one representing the gay, brown, refugee story in the literary world, and so he began to write about the experience.
Ramadan won the 2018 Independent Publisher Book Award for Gay/Lesbian/Bi/Trans Fiction and has a second novel in the works.
He also has great confidence in his writing, and already predicts that at some point when he reaches his 60s he will be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. His work has been lauded for its lyrical and magical quality.
“I am just good at writing,” says Ramadan unabashedly. He writes in Arabic and thinks in English, he says. “Arabic is very poetic and flowing, digging into the deepest of feelings.”
For example, he says, Arabic does not have only one word for love. There are specific words for different kinds of love, ranging from words, which describe love with devotion, a feeling of love, a long-lasting love, a love that drives you crazy, and love that grows into a partnership.
On his first visit to Israel, Ramadan noted that the history between Israel and Syria was “way more complicated” than the headlines allow for. He didn’t permit himself to get excited about the trip to Jerusalem until he actually made it through all the security because he was afraid he would be detained and not allowed in. He noted the similarities between Damascus and Jerusalem with their walled Old City at its heart, surrounded by residential and business neighborhoods.
He says he was always taught that Israel was the enemy.
“I have serious criticism of the Israeli government about the violations toward the Palestinians but at the same time I come from Syria, so I don’t have a high horse to stand on,” he says. “History is very complex, and there is a value in sitting down with people…you don’t have to agree with everything they say, but you can just have a conversation. I don’t expect [us] to understand each other, just to get to know each other as a person. But I don’t want to represent anyone.”
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