A war of ideas

Sami Berdugo to discuss literature in conflict areas with Swiss, Algerian writers at the International Writers Festival.

Sami Berdugo 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Sami Berdugo 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Sami Berdugo has had his fair share of straddling social-ethnic divides. As such, he seems to be an ideal participant for Monday’s “Writing in the Bright Blue Light” panel discussion in this year’s International Writers Festival at Mishkenot Sha’ananim.
Subtitled “A Symposium about Literature in Conflict Areas,” the panel discussion promises an intriguingly broad makeup. In addition to the 41-year-old, Mazkeret Batya-born Berdugo, who lives in Tel Aviv, the discussion features 62-year-old prize-winning Algerian writer Boualem Sansal, a fierce critic of the non-democratic Algerian regime, and 40-year-old Swiss playwright and novelist Lukas Bärfuss.
While many believe that conflict area issues are a matter for the politicians to hammer out, Berdugo feels that writers should have their say, too, even though their impact may take some time to filter through.
“Literature can definitely bring influence to bear, although, unfortunately, the changes it generates take a long time to come to the surface,” he says. “I am not talking about politicized writing here. No one ever tried to influence my writing, and to channel my work into some political direction. I believe that literature can impact on social, political and cultural developments, in a very broad sense.”
There are also writers whose work is highly politicized, either by design or by the general public. The name David Grossman immediately springs to mind.
“I think Grossman knows he is considered to be part of the wider public debate,” says Berdugo.
But he adds that there is a far more basic issue to be addressed before we scrutinize literature’s potential bearing on political, social or cultural areas: “We need to examine the status of literature in general, and how people relate to it and what importance they attach to it.”
The jury is probably still out on that one, but Berdugo clearly addresses conflict issues – albeit seemingly apolitical ones – in his work. He was brought up in a socially challenging environment, in a definitively ethnically divided society. As the son of hard-working, cash-strapped Moroccan immigrants, he had his fair share of ethnic issues to deal with as a child, one of which was unwittingly parentally induced.
“My father decided to call me Sami, because he thought it was a progressive, modern name,” he recalls. “But, how much more Moroccan can you get than Sami? There were times when I simply didn’t say my name, to avoid having to deal with all sorts of uncomfortable questions about where I came from.”
In those days, Mazkeret Batya was a split melting pot: “You had the ultra-Zionist side, with people whose ancestors came here on the First Aliya [1881-1904], with the ethos of the agricultural Land of Israel and founding communities, and then you had families from North Africa, like my parents. So I grew up with the immigrant way of life, incorrectly spoken Hebrew and the struggle for acceptance and, on the other hand, I was exposed to very essence of the Israeli-Zionist ethos of the veteran population. I was right there in the social chasm.”
It was not an easy entry to Israeli society, and this, says Berdugo, gives him some insight into the plight of the Palestinians.
“I am the product of an underprivileged family. Sometimes I think that my upbringing was closer to the Palestinian model than the Israeli one,” he says.
And he is not the only Israeli writer with a sense of what it is like to come “from the other side.” He notes that “[85-yearold Iraqi-born writer] Sami Michael, to this day, refers to himself as a Jewish Arab. He says that his social standing dropped when he came to Israel.”
Michael’s first novel, All Men Are Equal – But Some Are More, published in 1974, portrays the trials and tribulations of new olim in transit camps in the 1950s.
But although both he and Berdugo experienced social discrimination due to their ethnic roots, the latter says the similarity between them ends there.
“We belong to different generations, and I also have a problem with the way Sami Michael utilizes the formats and paradigms of conventional Israeli writing, just like A. B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz, and even Grossman,” says Berdugo. “Michael talks about the social-ethnic division and pining for the Euphrates and the Tigris [the Tigris flows through Baghdad], but I don’t agree with the way he does it. He uses the same sentence structures, and images and metaphors that come from the [Israeli] consensus.... I don’t take that approach to writing.”
For Berdugo, the topics of his writing are not the be-all and end-all; the means he uses to express his ideas are important. “It is not just about talking about conflict, but also how to talk about it.”
He and his colleagues from Algeria and Switzerland will have a chance to talk about conflict issues under the guiding hand of writer- TV personality moderator Avirama Golan.
Berdugo says he is excited about discussing these issues with the overseas writers.
“I don’t know their work,” he confesses, “and I am curious to hear what a Swiss writer has to say about conflict areas. Of course, I would expect an Algerian and an Israeli writer to have some firsthand knowledge of the subject, but I wonder what Bärfuss has to offer.
Maybe he will add an objective viewpoint.”
In fact, Bärfuss’s oeuvre to date does address troubled parts of the world. His 2008 novel Hundert Tage (A Hundred Days) is based on the horrific events surrounding the genocide that took place in Rwanda in 1994, and the stark contrast between the “civilized” Swiss bubble in that troubled part of Africa and the inferno raging around it.
Berdugo says he is keeping an open mind on how the event will pan out.
“We might talk about our individual understanding of conflict, or we might look at conflict as a universal thing, or a local issue,” he speculates. “Is there any similarity between the way conflict is addressed in Switzerland, Algeria and Israel? Are my Arab roots the same as the Algerian’s Arab roots?”
It will indeed be intriguing to discover whether he and his cohorts at Monday’s session manage to find some common ground.
ELSEWHERE ON the conference agenda, there is an intriguing English-language session on the first day, when Dutch writer Kerman Koch joins forces with Israeli psychologist Dr. Ali Katz to discuss education, boundaries and parental authority, while Yochi Brandeis will participate in one of several Writing from Here – Writing from There sessions in the program, together with fellow Israeli author Aviad Kleinberg and British writer Tracy Chevalier, whose oeuvre includes best-selling book Girl With a Pearl Earring. That will be followed by another such thematic confluence between Israeli writer Nir Baram and his acclaimed British colleague Tom Rob Smith. •
The panel discussion will take place in English and French, with simultaneous translation provided. For more information about this session and the International Writers Festival (May 13-18): 629-2215, prog@mishkenot.org.il or www.writersfestival.mouse.co.il/en