Metin Arditi talks about his writing contest and Israel

“The only way to get to the bottom of things is through writing – the words, les mots, la parole (speech). Otherwise, you are always in an artificial situation.

ARDITI COMPETITION winners with Metin Arditi (left) and Tel Aviv University vice president Prof. Raanan Rein (photo credit: CHEN GALILI)
ARDITI COMPETITION winners with Metin Arditi (left) and Tel Aviv University vice president Prof. Raanan Rein
(photo credit: CHEN GALILI)
Metin Arditi certainly believes in the power of the pen, and has been prepared to put his money where his mouth is for some time now.
Born in Turkey to a Jewish family with Spanish roots, he moved to Switzerland with his family as a youth and attended a boarding school there. He went on to take an undergraduate degree in physics, followed by a master’s in nuclear engineering, and then a PhD in business administration. The variety of fields he delved into as an academic says much about the man and about his sweeping range of interests in general.
Arditi’s philanthropic and other efforts on behalf of his fellow human beings – across the globe – dip into all sorts of areas. A frequent visitor to these shores, he says he has been here “thousands of times.” Arditi was in Tel Aviv a couple of weeks ago to attend the award ceremony of the Arditi Playwriting Competition, sponsored jointly by the University of Tel Aviv and the Arditi Foundation. The latter organization’s full title is the Arditi Foundation for Intercultural Dialogue, which supports the playwright contest of the Tel Aviv University, and also initiated a similar competition for Armenian and Turkish students.
The literary contest was actually spawned by a similar project but in a different field of the arts.
“I started this competition in 2014,” Arditi notes. “I had already had some philanthropic activities in Israel with musical education. I supported programs in the conservatory [of music] at Ma’alot-Tarshiha [in the Galilee] and a school in Petah Tikva.”
It was around this time that Arditi stepped up his music-related endeavor by joining the board of the Geneva-based Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, but he also began developing his own literary gifts.
“It just so happened that, when I was 50, in 1995, I joined the board of the orchestra and I started writing,” he recalls. “So these two activities, music and writing, accompanied each other.”
Over the years he has produced an impressive slew of tomes, including close to 20 novels, picking up a clutch of awards in the process.
His body of literary work, originally written in French and subsequently translated into various languages, focuses on deep emotions and challenging life situations, such as the difficulties of parenting, loneliness and displacement.
Arditi wasn’t just content with exploring the personal developmental possibilities offered by foraging in the arts. He wanted to put them to practical, gap-bridging, beneficial use. The Instruments of Peace Foundation, which he established and chairs together with Palestinian poet Elias Sanbar, started life in 2008. It addresses the musical education needs of Israeli and Palestinian youth.
A little further down the line, Arditi – whose numerous altruistic activities also feature a posting as UNESCO Honorary Ambassador and Special Envoy for Intercultural Dialogue as well as a stint as a UN Goodwill Ambassador – began reconsidering his principal means of dispensing acts of generosity aimed at creating a more harmonious existence for one and all.
“In 2013, I realized something. I understood something very easy to understand. It just took me five years,” he laughs. “Music is something very beautiful. It is essential in life. It is an expression of life. But it kind of sugarcoats the problems. When you and the other person listen to music together, everything looks much more beautiful than it really is.”
ARDITI WANTED to get to the nitty gritty.
“The only way to get to the bottom of things is through writing – the words, les mots, la parole (speech). Otherwise, you are always in an artificial situation. Music is too beautiful. This is the only critique I can make of music. Music doesn’t get to the bottom of things.”
That is an intriguing viewpoint. Many, from all political, social and ethnic stripes, have talked – and continue to talk – about music as “the universal language,” as a means of negotiating otherwise seemingly unbridgeable discrepancies.
Arditi begs to differ, and now says that much of his energy goes into doing what he believes is good for this country.
“As a Diaspora Jew, I am very very concerned about the future of Israel,” he says. “This is not a once-in-a-week concern. It is a 15-times-every day concern.”
Even the briefest of glances at Arditi’s bio amply spells out that the man is not one to sit back and let others get on with things. He was determined to address his anxiety over this country’s lot. His epiphanous moment came immediately after yet another round of regional violence.
“I thought, what can I do? Maybe I can do nothing. Literally the day after the Gaza War of 2014 stopped, if I remember correctly it was August 24. The day after, August 25, I had an idea. Why don’t we organize a competition whereby Israeli Jews write fiction based on the situation, regardless – yesterday, today, tomorrow. Free topic. But the Israeli Jews will have to write it by putting themselves in the shoes of an Israeli Arab, and vice versa.”
Arditi happened to know someone who could possibly facilitate the implementation of the new notion.
“I called a guy called Amos Elad, who is vice president for development at the University of Tel Aviv. I called him and I told him I’d like to organize a competition at his university, between students of Arabic and Jewish origin. I told him it should be about fiction, a short story, and I said, ‘What do you think?’ He answered: ‘It’s a fantastic idea.’ Just like that.”
So, one green light had lit up, and Arditi was looking to spread the word as far and wide as possible. With Elad’s blessing Arditi set the ball rolling and made the competition open to students of all leading academic institutions across the country.
“Ten days later I was at the University of Tel Aviv, at a meeting, and around the table were representatives of all the major universities in Israel.”
THAT SOUNDS all neat and cozy, and it looked like everyone was on board in double quick time. But recent events seemed to cast their shadows on the initiative.
“Raanan Rein [vice president of the University of Tel Aviv] said to me, Metin, we’re just out of a war and you’re asking Jews to put themselves in the shoes of an Arab, and vice versa. Maybe you’ll get 10 or 12 stories from the Humanities Departments.”
Rein missed that mark by a mile.
“We got 550 short stories,” Arditi exclaims.
Arditi is a man of the big wide world, with connections in all sorts of places and circles, and he got some A-listers along for the competition ride. People from the universities sifted through the hundreds of entries, and whittled the list down to manageable proportions. They also had the stories translated into English. That enabled Arditi to ask a couple of former Swiss presidents to serve on what he calls “the internal jury” in Geneva, as well as former President of South Africa Frederik de Clerk to serve as an honorary member of the panel. The latter gave the initiative a rousing thumbs up. It transpired that de Clerk knew what he was talking about.
“I went to see him in London and I asked him if he’d be willing to participate – I knew he would. I said, ‘What do you think?’ And he said. ‘You are doing the exact thing you should be doing. That is exactly what they did with Mandela. We would not have succeeded [in post-Apartheid South Africa] had we not put ourselves in the other’s shoes.’”
AFTER A couple of short stories contests, Arditi upped the creative requirement ante.
“After two years, I thought we should make the competition a little more demanding. We decided to ask the guys to write plays.”
That set the cat among the pigeons, but things soon picked up again.
“The first year we got 30. Of course to write a play is much more demanding than a short story. The following year we got 60 and this year we got 130.”
Arditi attributes the incremental growth in entries to a basic local exigency.
“I think there is a genuine need to communicate in this country,” he posits, adding that the powers that be don’t seem to be doing the business, so an alternative route to supporting peaceful dialogue is in order.
“Many efforts are made politically not to encourage people to communicate. This is the problem. And it appears in the plays we will reward tonight,” he said a few hours before the prize-giving ceremony took place. “There are ways here to discourage Jews and Arabs from communicating. I am not talking about Palestinians in the West Bank. I am talking about Israeli citizens.”
The baseline framework was more than a simple two-way street.
“In the play, there must be at least one Israeli Jew and one Israeli Arab, as characters. Of course, the Israeli Jew who is writing the play has to put himself in the shoes of the Arab. But, in the play he also has to put himself in the shoes of the Israeli Jew. In other words, he has to take a step back and have a hard look, an objective look, at his own actions, at his own attitude. That is much more difficult than just putting himself in the shoes of an Arab. It calls for self-appraisal. It calls for a lot of strength.”
That may be a stretch for some but, naturally, all artists, including the incipient kind, need to be tested in order to produce the goods.
Arditi believes the competition allows the writers to get a thing or two off their chests, and share some of their views about ongoing conflict here.
“Especially among university students there is a genuine need to communicate. There is a genuine need to understand what the hell is going on.”
CARMIT DGANI, an English literature MA student from the University of Haifa, won this year’s playwriting competition with a work called Entitled. The play is about an intimate encounter between two people and the complexity that arises from it. Dgani looks at the space between loss and identity, attraction and rejection, unity and separation, and the connection between our wish to accept ourselves in a deep way, and our ability to love the other.
Rotem Bachar came in second with We Remember – An Autobiography. Her play addresses the origins of life and matter, and light emerging from chaos.
The bronze position was taken by Adi Brodeski, for Stuck, a comic drama that depicts an unusual meeting between Danny and Michal, who are stuck in a traffic jam on their way to their son’s graduation ceremony, and Mahmad, who is stuck in the same traffic jam, also on his way to his son’s graduation. Anyone who has ever driven on an Israeli road knows just how explosive a situation that can be, even without cross-ethnic tensions.
Arditi hopes the competition will continue going from strength to strength, and prompt us to be a little more considerate and accommodating of each other.
“I think that the concept of – very modestly, very humbly – asking people to put themselves in the other’s shoes is something that is pertinent to the situation.”
He is keen to the fact that, often, taking on someone else’s baggage can be far easier said than done.
“Of course, all shoes don’t fit your size,” he chuckles. “Sometimes it takes some effort to get into them.”