Ian McEwan joins left-wing protest in Sheikh Jarrah

British author to be awarded Jerusalem Prize today by Mayor Nir Barkat.

Ian McEwan 311 (photo credit: Annalena McAfee)
Ian McEwan 311
(photo credit: Annalena McAfee)
British author Ian McEwan joined the weekly protest in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah on Friday, just two days before he was set to receive the Jerusalem Prize.
McEwan is in Israel as guest of the 25th Jerusalem Israel Book Fair, held at the International Convention Center from February 20-25.
Awarded biennially to an author whose work “reflects and promotes the freedom of the individual in society,” the Jerusalem Prize is Israel’s most distinguished international literary award. Previous laureates include Bertrand Russell, J.M.
Coetzee, Mario Vargas Llosa and Haruki Murakami, the most recent recipient of the Prize in 2009.
The prize is considered particularly prestigious by the international literary community, with four former laureates subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
McEwan, 62 is the author of 11 novels – including the 1998 Booker Prize-winning Amsterdam and 2010’s Solar – two short story collections, two children’s books and several screenplays. He originally faced pressure from pro-Palestinian groups to decline the Jerusalem Prize, which the British Writers in Support of Palestine group called a “corrupt and cynical honor” in a letter to the British Guardian newspaper. Acceptance of the award, the letter said, was evidence of “an unprincipled approach” and would “make him a collaborator with Israel’s worst human rights offenders.”
McEwan announced in late January that he would accept the award. On Friday, he joined Israeli author David Grossman (Someone to Run With, The Zigzag Kid, The Book of Intimate Grammar), a regular participant in the Friday protests in Sheikh Jarrah.
“I hope that the next time that I come to Israel, there won’t be any need to demonstrate in these types of circumstances,” McEwan said at the protest, but added that he was not optimistic. He recently said that “the present outlook for negotiations is bleak” and that “many Israeli writers feel this way, too.”
In a letter to The Guardian responding to the pro-Palestinian groups calling on him to refuse the prize, McEwan wrote: “I’m for finding out for myself, and for dialogue, engagement, and looking for ways in which literature, especially fiction, with its impulse to enter other minds, can reach across political divides. There are ways in which art can have a longer reach than politics.”
The Friday protests, organized by the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement, draw hundreds of left-wing activists each week. The protests started in November 2009 in response to three families who had been evicted from their homes, after which Jewish families moved in. The al-Kurd, Ghawi, and Hanoun families lived in tents outside their former building from August 2009 until late spring 2010.
Foreign visitors have often come to the Friday protests, including former US president Jimmy Carter and Peruvian writer and 1995 Jerusalem prize recipient Mario Vargas Llosa.
McEwan will receive the Jerusalem Prize at the opening ceremony of the Book Festival on Sunday evening. On Friday, he dismissed calls for a cultural boycott of Israel, maintaining that such actions run contrary to the importance of cultural engagement between peoples.
Speaking at a press conference arranged by organizers of the book fair, McEwan observed that since Israel is a country that supports a “true democracy of opinion,” his participation in the fair cannot be interpreted as endorsement of all aspects of the country’s domestic and foreign policies.
McEwan, who arrived in Israel Thursday, acknowledged that it was a depressing time to visit Israel, particularly in the context of the stalled peace talks between the Israel and the Palestinian Authority. He felt it was a “bad sign” when politics invaded every aspect of life, but said this made it all the more urgent to engage with the reality of the situation. Dialogue is always better “than to freeze any nation out,” he said.

There was laughter at the press conference when he admitted that he had already learned the word dugri (“straight talking”). He also expressed admiration for Israeli writers Amos Oz, A.B.
Yehoshua and David Grossman – who had invited him to visit Israel last year – and mentioned that he had just finished reading S. Yizhar’s classic Khirbet Khizeh.
First held in 1963, the Jerusalem International Book Fair this year features the participation of over 600 publishers from more than 30 countries.
The Jerusalem Prize will be awarded to McEwan by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat at the fair’s official opening on Sunday, in the presence of President Shimon Peres and Minister of Culture and Sport Limor Livnat.