Close encounters of the literary kind

On the eve of the Second International Writers Festival, Eli Amir looks forward to discovering other authors’ secrets

eli amir311 (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
eli amir311
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
The International Writers Festival of Jerusalem is taking place this week at Mishkenot Sha’ananim. It will also be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the decision of Jewish families to leave the overcrowded Old City and build new neighborhoods around it, one of them being Mishkenot Sha’ananim itself.
More than 20 writers from across the globe have confirmed their participation in the festival, where they will meet some 40 local authors. Some less common encounters will also be featured, such as meetings between authors and musicians. Old and new, tradition and renewal will be present at this prestigious gathering, which is also a way to remind locals and foreigners that Jerusalem is naturally associated with books.
Among the Israeli authors participating will be Eli Amir, who fled Iraq with his family when he was a child. In his books, he has vividly described his experiences as a Jewish youth arriving from an Arab country and culture into the Ashkenazi-dominated kibbutz and Zionist environment that prevailed here in the early 1950s. His latest book, The Dove Flyer, is the first in a trilogy reconstructing his childhood in Baghdad. Scapegoat recalls his early years as a teenager in the ma’abarot, and  Jasmine recounts his youth in Israel. Recently, Scapegoat and The Dove Flyer were translated into English.
Amir, 72, for years the head of the Youth Aliya organization and a social activist identified with the Labor Movement, lives in Gilo. He strives to acknowledge the problem of immigrants from Arab countries, whose culture was considered to be inferior for years. He is involved in numerous projects to promote the Oriental culture and history.
What do authors look for in such festivals?
It is about the encounter with foreign writers. For me, it is an opportunity to meet the people behind the names written on the books I read and love. It is important because each of us believes that the “other” knows the secret or holds the key to the secret – because writing is a sort of a secret or a miracle happening in front of our eyes, so we all look for the secret of how to do it. I come to meet them, and somewhere in my mind, in my imagination, I hope I will find the writer who has it. Perhaps I could steal it from him? But sometimes it can also be disappointing because you come to discover someone you’ve read, and there you meet somebody who doesn’t measure up to your dreams or your imagination. It can be very frustrating.
What else do you look for?You want to find out about the others’ sources of inspiration.
Do you have a key to these sources?
Yes, of course. I have my keys, I have my secret. But when I attend these encounters, I come without it. I come as a reader. I leave my writer’s hat behind. I come as I am. I sit among the public, listen to what is being read, mingle as part of the public. I find it enchanting.
Who else attends?It is very intriguing to see the people who attend. Readers and the curious; people who want to touch those who know the secret of making a story come through, dreaming they might be touched by some grace and obtain for themselves the key to that secret. You also meet those who read your books very seriously, and they have all kinds of things to say – criticism, appreciation, suggestions. Some of them, in fact, bring you their own story, hoping it will get the appropriate “treatment” in your hands.
Do you like that feeling?I love it! Friendship grows from there – ties, acquaintances between people, between writers and readers. It opens doors. And on top of that, it allows for encounters with decision-makers, critics and media people. Think of it – it is an exciting occasion to show such a beautiful face of Israel, not to mention revealing the incredibly wide range of literature we have here – beyond anything that exists anywhere else.
How can you explain the extraordinary amount of literature that is published here?
We are the first generation of immigrants; the urge to tell our story is tremendous – the need to leave our footprints in the sand of the immigration waves. Some of us have gone through horrible stories. Our writing is our shelter. It is also a time when we see the end of the dynasties: I was Fuad Elias Khalaschi. Today, I am Eli Amir. This is also because nobody could pronounce my name correctly, so I got sick of it and changed it. You know, my eldest son read my most recent book while he was away on a trip. When he came back, I went to meet him at the airport. The first thing he said to me was, “Dad, I read your book. Now I know who you are.” It was a unique moment. And, of course, the tremendous tension in which we live here – this also ends up as a large harvest of writing.
When your most recent book The Dove Flyer was released, Amos Oz declared that Arab literature wouldn’t be complete until the book was translated into Arabic.
There were enthusiastic reviews in the Western media; but October, the major Egyptian literary magazine, compared it to the work of Naguib Mahfuz. It is a book about Baghdad. The hero of the book is [the city of] Baghdad: Jewish Baghdad and Muslim Baghdad and cosmopolitan Baghdad – its people, its belly dancers, its prime minister and the Jewish talmudic sage the Hacham Bashi, common people, Jews and Arabs, love stories. And, of course, the aliya of Iraqi Jews – the dream and its failure. It’s a book about a Baghdad that doesn’t exist anymore except in the memories of people who were there at that time. People were astonished to find out that I was barely 12 years old when I left Iraq. It is all the memories of a child.
How do you explain that?
Mainly because my memories were memories of emotions. The remembering was done through the revival of my feelings, my emotions. At some point, Israeli TV suggested that I go back to Iraq and they would shoot a film about me there. I asked the advice of a friend of mine in the Shin Bet. His answer was, “Eli, stay here and write books.” So the film was never made, but this book tells it all, down to the smell of the city I was born in, Baghdad. Shimon Peres told me that while reading it, he could feel himself wandering around in Baghdad’s narrow alleys. I told him, “Get rid of all these things you do and immerse yourself for a year – you will come out with your own Baghdad story.”
This region is not an easy one. How do you experience it as a writer who was born not far from here?
There is a sense of being a stranger to this region. We Israelis don’t really know it, its culture, its civilization. Our identity as a Western country and society is the worst thing for us. Whether we are right to be afraid or not, the fact is that we are surrounded by Muslims, first here inside the country and around us, by about one billion Muslims, so we do have a sense of being besieged. The only way to break through is by achieving peace. There is no other way.
And what about the status of Jerusalem?
Our minds still do not grasp it. We don’t understand that it is in our hands to change the reality around us. Jerusalem can be an open city. What do I care if there is an Arab flag on some building? What does it take away from me as a Jew living in this marvelous city? But first, we have to open ourselves to Arabic culture. The fact that Israeli youth do not know Arabic is a disaster in my eyes!  We have to give up our Western way of looking at Oriental and Arabic culture because it is an arrogant look. But how can that happen? If the prime minister – any prime minister – doesn’t speak Arabic, why would our children bother to learn it?
As a writer, coming from there and living here, how would you describe the reality here?
We are living in a Masada state of mind. Our leadership is scaring us all the time. I don’t get it – we have the means to defend ourselves, we are not helpless. And although I do not look at the surrounding Arab world through rose-colored glasses, still we shouldn’t forget that we are no longer a helpless Jewish community in Eastern Europe.
The International Writers Festival is taking place in Jerusalem. What does Jerusalem mean to you?
Beauty. A city located among mountains cannot be less than beautiful: the natural landscape, the valleys around and the flowers – a real beauty. I am in love with Jerusalem. The Old City has tremendous charm. It is connected to history not only because of the heavy burden on our shoulders but also the architecture, the smells in the little narrow streets of the Old City, the colors. Yes, it has a historical deep insight – David and Jesus and Muhammad walked here. One doesn’t feel like an insignificant insect here – we are a link in a chain that goes back thousands of years, into the spiritual world of the three greatest faiths!
But a lot of people don’t want to live here. According to statistics, young people are leaving Jerusalem.
I think it is some kind of “bon ton.” There is no reason for that. Lookat the exotic sights here, the extraordinarily wide variety of peoplehere. I fell in love with Jerusalem at first sight, when I was only 16.And I have not wanted to be anywhere else since. I was living in theKatamonim; I was poor, but I managed to bring my parents here, and Iwas not ready to give in. And I haven’t moved from here since.
I do agree that Jerusalem was once a more intimate place to live. Iloved it when it was a small, calm and much more modest city – beforethe huge tons of concrete that came after the Six Day War covered it. Iwander a lot in the old neighborhoods – Mea She’arim, Nahlaot, theChristian monasteries, and you can still find those reminiscences inquite a few of these areas.