The unspoken word

Was this year’s International Book Fair, held in new, multiple locations and with different programming, a success?

Mashiv Haruah’s Eliaz Cohen at the launch of ‘Tzipor Ha’esh.’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
Mashiv Haruah’s Eliaz Cohen at the launch of ‘Tzipor Ha’esh.’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The young man seated to my right turned the pages of the brochure detailing the events of the Jerusalem International Book Fair with an obvious lack of patience, and finally uttered, half to himself and half to me, that the fair this year was no less than a failure.
“They should have removed the ‘inter’ from ‘international,’” he added. “That would at least have been more honest toward the public.”
We were sitting in the Mishkenot Sha’ananim auditorium on the evening dedicated to the launch of Seals – a new collection of short stories by Prof. Haviva Pedaya, a poet and a scholar of Kabbala and Jewish studies at Beersheba’s Ben-Gurion University.
Indeed, many of the events scheduled for the five-day fair last week had nothing to do with the international community of publishers. The event seemed more like a cross between the Kissufim Conference (the biennial conference of Jewish writers from here and abroad) and the annual Hebrew Book Fair: Most of the publishers, writers, poets and moderators were either Jews from overseas or Israelis; many of the encounters were in Hebrew; and the majority of the topics were on Jewish issues.
Not that the fair lacked attractions; on the contrary, many attendees enjoyed the variety and quality of most of the literary events. However, the absence of foreign publishers was acutely felt.
“I looked at the fair’s brochure a few times,” says Orna, a visitor at the fair, “and it took time to understand what bothered me – I eventually realized that there are no books, I mean there are plenty of events, but I don’t see books.”
The most obvious example was the absence of the French book stand, traditionally the largest stall and known for the richness, diversity and quality of its books and publishers. The Germans and the Austrians were represented by, respectively, the local branch of the Goethe Institute, and the embassy in Tel Aviv, but not with a publishers’ stall as they usually are.
The Italians opened a stand through the Dante Alighieri Association, and the Spanish did so via the Cervantes Institute in Tel Aviv. The Polish Embassy presented some of Poland’s publishers, while the Romanian Embassy did the same for its own publishers. The UK set up a stand with a large array of Penguin Edition books, and the books at the Russian stall were all from Israeli Russian-language publishers.
Guest writers arrived from several countries as well. Among them were Erri De Luca from Italy, Genevieve Brissac from France, and Anna Enquist from the Netherlands – as well as Albanian writer Ismail Kadare, who received the Jerusalem Prize and opened the fair.
For the rest of the time, though, the schedule focused almost exclusively on local production – and even then, only on a few Israeli publishing houses (not the largest) and writers. Presenting a large portion of the events was the Mashiv Haruah poetry group – all young poets, all religious, most of them from the Gush Etzion region, and all presenting in Hebrew.
Wandering around the First Station on the second evening of the fair, Sonia and her husband, retired immigrants from the former Soviet Union, seemed quite disappointed. Asked if they enjoyed the fair, their answer was that they usually buy books in English at reduced prices at the fair, “but we couldn’t find anything this year, there are practically no books, it’s a shame,” explains Sonia.
“There [were] fewer foreign publishers at this year’s fair,” admits the fair’s director, Yoel Makov.
Elegantly avoiding mentioning the possibility of a political boycott, he suggests that the economic crisis in the publishing field might have been responsible.
He acknowledges that for those who see the biennial fair primarily “as a provider of foreign books at reduced prices, then this fair did not provide it, for sure. We are all sorry for the lack of representatives from the foreign publishers, and even the Israeli publishers, which were mostly absent. It is too early to say, but we will of course learn from what happened this year when preparing for the next fair.”
Indeed, the last International Book Fair, which took place two years ago, already seemed meager compared to the former ones, which drew the most prestigious foreign publishing houses and guest writers to the capital.
FRENCH WRITERS did come this year, including prestigious cartoonist Plantu of the daily Le Monde, but they were not present at the fair itself; instead, they were mostly in two locations: the Romain Gary French Institute at Safra Square, and the French library Vice-Versa – something of a pilgrimage site for French-speakers and Francophiles across the country.
Vice-Versa owner Denise Berrebi explains that “for years, the books were shipped to us via the [French Embassy] and sold to us at special discount prices [without VAT], so we could sell them at a 30-percent reduction in the prices – all of that making the French stand a kind of anchor stand at the fair.”
As such, the absence of an official French stall this year caused some trouble for the library, as it received no free shipping or VAT exemptions.
“Nevertheless, out of commitment to our customers and our love for French culture, we did sell at very reduced prices and held a few successful encounters at the library,” says Berrebi. “But there was no French presence at the fair itself, and we all feel sorry about that.”
Aficionados of French literature could meet some of its representatives, but these encounters took place outside the First Station grounds at the fair’s other locations – “in a way, indicating that they were here, but not really completely here,” says one customer.
Indeed, that was the major change in this year’s fair: the spread to so many additional locations – some of them close to the First Station, others not so close.
They included the Cinematheque, Mishkenot Sha’ananim, the Khan Theater, Confederation House, Beit Masie, the Romain Gary French Culture Center, and Vice-Versa – though the last two were not mentioned in the brochure, as their events were not officially part of the fair.
Makov explains that the decision to move the book fair from its traditional location at the Jerusalem International Convention Center resulted from the fair staff concluding that it was too remote and not attractive enough for the younger generation.
“Maybe yes, and maybe no,” says poet Gilad Meiri, founder and head of the group Makom Le’shira (A Place for Poetry), who moderated an event dedicated to Iraqi poetry.
In fact, Meiri sounds relatively satisfied with this year’s fair.
“It’s a new concept. I think it is too early to say if it is the right place or not – time will tell. But I do appreciate the serious effort invested in the artistic content, which displayed a large number of quality events.”
He also points to a new event, an evening “at which Israeli writers had an opportunity to meet representatives of some foreign publishing houses in order to raise their interest in local books [for translation and publishing abroad]. So it’s true, we didn’t have the publishing houses we are used to seeing, but for serious ‘business,’ we had at least that option.”
Yet for some local writers, the decision to fill up the roster with items in Hebrew about local literary projects was not a satisfactory solution.
“I think that the organizers should have worked on this differently and more seriously,” says poet and critic Hava Pinhas-Cohen, who moderated a few encounters with publishers, editors and writers – foreign and local alike – at the 2013 fair. “If the situation was that bad, perhaps it would have been better not to have the fair, but to postpone it and rethink it all. The current situation does not add much pride to the books and to literature, or to book lovers, and it’s a pity.”
THAT SAID, two events that attracted large audiences deserve attention. Both were launches of new books in Hebrew, and both books were anthologies – though the similarities end there.
On Tuesday, poet and writer Almog Behar – a social activist for Mizrahi and Arab cultural issues – together with Tamar Weiss and Ta’mer Masalha, launched Shtayim (Hebrew for “two”), an anthology of “Hebrew and Arabic Contemporary Young Literature.”
And Thursday evening saw the launch of Tzipor Ha’esh (The Bird of Fire) – a new anthology of poems about Jerusalem, collected and edited by Mashiv Haruah members Eliaz Cohen, Tamar Elad-Apelbaum and Yoram Nissinovitch. The young religious poets in their group have brought a new voice to the Hebrew corpus of poetry in recent years with works depicting their Jewish-Israeli identity, and many kippot and women’s head scarves were apparent at the launch.
While few to none of the city’s Arab residents attended the Hebrew-Arabic anthology launch, Behar says that “at the launch we had a few weeks ago in Jaffa, there were many Palestinians present, and we expect the same in the coming events scheduled in the South and the North of the country.”
Behar explains that “attending an event in Jerusalem is still a step the majority of Palestinians won’t take.”
He adds that it took six years for the three editors to produce the result: an anthology of short stories and poems by new and relatively young writers in both societies, in both languages, side by side.
Tzipor Ha’esh, meanwhile, offers samples of poems from past centuries as well as contemporary ones – poems of yearning for the Eternal City, and poems of living a daily life in a real city.
As Cohen adds, it is not the first such anthology the city has inspired, and certainly not the last.
“It was part of a common dream that we dreamed together, the poets of the Mashiv Haruah group, to establish a Center for Jerusalem Poetry, and we had in mind the famous ‘Bird of Stone’ – the beautiful anthology collected and edited by Haim Be’er in 1983 – and we wanted to add another ‘Bird,’ with poems that were not included in Be’er’s work,” says Cohen.
It took the group three years of searching in old libraries and old books to reveal these gems and bring them together in a collection – three years that Cohen likens to searching in an infinite ocean.
IN THEIR general assessment of the fair, some writers also mentioned the lack of “literary” voices in the selection process for the Jerusalem Prize winner, as well as in the fair’s overall artistic decisions.
“I think that this year’s recipient, Albanian Ismail Kadare, is highly deserving of the prize, but I would feel better, as a writer myself, to know that the committee that chose him was a committee of writers and poets, and not only officials or politicians,” says a Jerusalemite writer who prefers not to be identified.
Regarding the diversity of the event locations, Meiri thinks it reveals how much a real home for writers and literature is lacking in the city.
“What I am sorry about is that Jerusalem, which has so many quality literary and cultural events, still doesn’t have one suitable, decent and respectable home for this kind of event,” he says. “Why should we, lovers of literature and poetry, run from one place to another, instead of naturally going to the home for literature and poetry that this city certainly deserves?” Makov, meanwhile, says that despite the paucity of international book stands, there is an aspect of the festival of which the greater public may be less aware: the professional networking angle.
“We had a delegation of French publishers, and from a few other countries, too. They did not display books, but they came to know more about the books, writers and editors here – and that aspect was successful,” he says.
As for moving from the ICC to attract more young adults to the fair, Makov explains that the new concept for this year (which also included the cancellation of the very popular “Literary Cafe”) was still being evaluated, and that definitive decisions regarding the next fair, scheduled for 2017, were far from being sealed. “It’s too early to say. We will examine all the aspects, understand and draw conclusions for the next fair – nothing is set in stone and we are ready to reconsider everything.”