Battle of words

At nearly 90, Haim Gouri, whose career will be celebrated at the Metulla Poetry Festival, looks back on the evolution of his worldview and the local language.

haim gouri 370 (photo credit: wikicommons)
haim gouri 370
(photo credit: wikicommons)
Haim Gouri has led an incredibly adventurefilled life in his close to 90 years on terra firma. He is best known as a poet, but he has also enjoyed a rich career as a journalist, has penned several books and even produced a Holocaust-based documentary film trilogy – one part of which almost won him an Oscar. Gouri has accumulated a string of awards for his writing, including the 1988 Israel Prize for poetry, the 1975 Bialik Prize for literature for Gehazi Visions and the Uri Zvi Greenberg Prize for the the Poems anthology of his works written between 1945 and 1997.
Gouri will only complete the ninth decade of his life in October, but the tributes are starting to come in thick and fast. Next week, the impending milestone will serve as a good enough reason for a celebratory slot at the annual Poetry Festival that will take place in Metulla, under the auspices of the Jerusalem-based Confederation House, from May 13 to 16. The lineup for the event will feature a host of artists from various disciplines, including musicians Eran Tzur, Ronnie Wagner and Hemi Rudner, as well as writer Gideon Tikowski and poet Uri Hollander.
Gouri has the energy of a man two decades younger, and when we arrange a time for the interview, his equally youthful octogenarian wife Aliza cautions me that “there are lots of stairs to climb to our apartment.”
As I make my way up to the third floor, I note there is no elevator in the Talbiyeh building that is a hop, skip and a jump from the Jerusalem Theater.
“I go up and down the 53 steps twice a day,” says the almost-nonagenarian. “A doctor once told me that if you live on the second floor, without an elevator, you get enough daily exercise to keep away from the kupat holim [health fund], and I’m on the third floor!” If, by definition, an artist feeds off his accrued life experiences, then Gouri has plenty of fodder for both his poetic and literary arsenals. He was born in Tel Aviv in 1923 and joined the Palmah in 1941. Politically aware from an early age, he recalls taking part in demonstrations against the British presence here.
“We’d go to Dizengoff Square [in Tel Aviv] and chant all sorts of things against the British, which would segue into “Hatikva,” until the British mounted police came out with their truncheons, and then we’d run away.”
There were comical moments too. “We once demonstrated outside the British police station in Afula and we shouted booz [boo in Hebrew], and a police officer came out and asked us: ‘Who is Mr. Booz?’” Gouri’s humanist political philosophy took shape when he was very young. “My mother was a zealous Zionist – I never spoke anything but Hebrew at home – but one day an old Arab came to our neighborhood, selling tomatoes and cucumbers. People were buying from him when two men turned up – they were extremists – and said he should go away. When my mother said they should let him make a living, they said, ‘What would happen to our own moshavim and kibbutzim if everyone bought from Arabs? We have to take care of our own first.’ My mother told me she saw the vegetables rolling down the street after the men attacked the Arab. She helped him gather up the vegetables and she cried for two weeks after that.”
Gouri says he continues to grapple with that dual mind-set to this day. “When I was at school there was this mix of Zionism and socialism. You know, May 1 [May Day] was the day of the worker, all over the world, regardless of nationality or religion. Back then, you saw wonderful writers and people of culture, who came here from Europe, hanging around by the sides of the orchards, looking for work – any work – while the Arab laborers picked the fruit. So, you want Jews to have a means of income, but you also want the Arabs to live a good life. Not a day goes by when I don’t suffer from that dilemma.”
That didn’t stop Gouri from being an avid supporter of the Greater Israel stance later in life, but his political thinking has taken plenty of turns over the years. He has joined demonstrators in east Jerusalem protesting against Jews moving into Sheikh Jarrah, and says he cannot condone human suffering of any sort. “Israelis have done all sorts of terrible things, for instance in the area of Mount Hebron, which I simply cannot accept.
We have to treat each other with respect.”
DESPITE HIS vehement opposition to the British Mandate, Gouri says he grew up as something of an anglophile. “During World War II, we were terrified that the Germans would make it here. Then Churchill came along with his famous speech – you know: ‘We’ll fight them on the beaches, etc.’ – and how people in London survived the German bombings, they showed such courage.”
Gouri’s admiration for the British actually surfaced long before the war. “When I was six, on Purim, everyone wanted to dress up as a policeman, but I wanted to be a British soldier,” he chuckles.
Later, he was a staunch opponent of British policy in Palestine. “Here, they were bastards. How could they close Palestine to Jewish refugees who could have survived the Holocaust if they’d been allowed to come here? The British could also have prevented the Arab riots and massacres of 1929, but they didn’t.”
Then again, some British did help the Jewish cause. “I remember when I was in the Palmah, that was in 1942, for a short time there was a British base near us and they helped train us in all sorts of things,” Gouri notes.
The Mandatory benevolence was probably prompted by the presence of a certain British officer. “There was a major there called Aubrey Eban, who later became [Israeli foreign minister] Abba Eban.”
Gouri applies his humanist approach across the board. “I was against the British Mandate but, if course, we supported them in the war against the Nazis. But there were [militant Zionists the Stern Group] Lehi and [Zionist paramilitary group Irgun] Etzel – Lehi was against the British while they fought the Nazis, and Etzel carried out that bombing at the King David Hotel [in Jerusalem] and 80 people died – Arabs, Jews, Christians. That is terrible.”
There was plenty of grief and violence in Gouri’s early years. “Think about it – the world war ended in 1945, and two years later the fighting started here, right after November 29 [1947, following the UN acceptance of the Partition Plan in Palestine]. They said, at the time: ‘The last of the revelers met the first casualties.’ After the UN vote people danced in the streets through the night – that is something you see once in 1,000 years – and the war here started the very next day.”
Gouri served as an officer in the Negev during the War of Independence, and his first wartime experiences spawned his debut prose offering, Ad Alot Hashahar (Till Dawn), which was published in 1950, in which he describes some of the battles he participated in against the Egyptian army. He also includes an eyewitness account of the founding of Eilat, and the fabled story of hoisting an improvised Israeli flag there that became known as the “Ink Flag.” Gouri also used Ad Alot Hashahar to express his support for the Revisionist political ideology promulgated by Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
He had another formative experience during the Six Day War, when he was part of a convoy heading north from Jerusalem towards Ramallah. “We passed by [refugee camp] Shuafat. All the buildings were shut up and blinds were drawn, but there was a woman standing by the side of the road as we drove by, jeeps, tanks, the lot. I don’t know whether she was shell-shocked or what, but she just stood there and she cried out: ‘I am a problem for you [Israelis] and I will never go away.
You’ll have to deal with me [and the Palestinian problem] forever,’” says Gouri. “She was right.”
DESPITE BEING a Sabra and having no direct personal connection with the fate of European Jewry during World War II, the Holocaust became a pervading element in Gouri’s life – and work. In the summer of 1947, he worked with Jewish Holocaust survivors in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, as a representative of the Palmah and the Hagana. “I have never forgotten the misery I saw then,” he recalls. “I was shocked. That has changed my view of life, and I have mentioned the Holocaust a lot in my work since then.”
Fourteen years later, the Holocaust was to loom over his life again. “I was the only journalist who covered the trial of [Nazi Adolf] Eichmann from start to finish,” he notes. “There was a French journalist called Yves Berger who, wrote for a Communist paper called Les Lettres Françaises, and he wrote: ‘Gouri put himself in a prison from which he can never escape.’ He was right. I have never been able to shake off the Holocaust. There is never a day that I don’t think about it, and that led to what I did with Lohamei Hagetaot.”
The latter refers to a request from the said institution, in 1971, for Gouri to produce a documentary about the Holocaust. The writer had no previous experience as a filmmaker but he decided to go for it. “I spent 12 years working on the project,” he says. “I didn’t expect it to be such a long venture, and I was surprised by what came out of it all.”
Ultimately, the documentary became a trilogy, start-ing with The 81st Blow, which came out in 1974 and for which Gouri received an Oscar nomination. “I received the notification in the mail,” he says. “I didn’t bother going to Hollywood for the ceremony. It didn’t interest me.”
In the end, Gouri came tantalizingly close to becoming our first Oscar winner. “Haim Topol told me I missed out by only two votes,” Gouri laughs. “He said he would have voted for me, and got someone else to vote for me too.”
The three-part work also includes The Last Sea and Flames in the Ashes, which came out in 1980 and 1985 respectively. “They have just been released in digital form, and in six languages,” notes Gouri proudly.
Between his burgeoning manifold professional pursuits, Gouri managed to squeeze in some formal education, completing a degree in Hebrew literature, philosophy and French culture at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem from 1950 to 1952, followed by a year at the Sorbonne University in Paris. He has lived in Jerusalem since 1949.
Gouri continues to fuel his seemingly boundless energy into his work, and over six decades after first putting pen to paper he remains a strong and relevant force in our literary world, and in the national psyche. “I have had young people coming up to me in the street, telling me how much they enjoyed Eyval [the book of poetry Gouri published in 2009]. And there were people who were angry with me about Eyval, because they said it was post-Zionist, which is total rubbish.”
While time and technological progress have marched on, Gouri – unlike many of his contemporaries, he has mastered the mysteries of the computer – says poetry and the ideas that have accompanied him throughout his lifetime remain just as relevant today. “The fact that a plane moves faster than a horse has not changed the condition of man,” he observes. “Computer technology has helped to increase the number of poems that are available to people. People can write things on the Internet, in blogs, without having some editor tell them their work isn’t worth anything.”
In addition to his voluminous poetic and prose oeuvre, Gouri has also penned the lyrics for a couple of songs which, over the years, have taken on anthemic status. Most notably, he wrote the words for Shir Hareut (Song of Friendship) to music by Sasha Argov, about the soldiers who fell in the War of Independence. “I have young children coming up to me saying how much they like Shir Hareut, and how much it moves them,” says Gouri. “That is very gratifying.”
Besides doing his best to keep up with mundane technological advances, Gouri does not follow the ivorytower approach when it comes to linguistic evolution.
“I wrote my first poems in literary Hebrew, but over the years there has been a meeting of literary language and the everyday language of the streets. The amazing thing about Hebrew is that if Abraham were to suddenly appear in Tel Aviv, he’d understand what people were saying. But Hebrew has evolved, and that is fine.”
Despite being inundated with requests for interviews, as the milestone birthday approaches, Gouri says he is looking forward to next week’s Poetry Festival, and exposure there. “I am sure everyone will be nice to me, and the session with the musicians and the poetry readings is a nice opportunity to talk about my work.”
But accolades, awards and fame notwithstanding, Gouri is not one to blow his own trumpet, and draws on his long military experience to place the importance of literary endeavor in what he considers to be its proper perspective.
“You know, if one poet criticizes the work of another poet, that’s not the end of the world. But if a general blames another for defeat in some battle, that’s important. There is no second chance in battle.”
For more information about the Poetry Festival: (02) 624-5206 and