Turning over a new leaf
This month's first International Writers Festival in Jerusalem touts an impressive lineup of well-known Israeli writers and international best-selling authors.
Sometimes, Israel seems to be drunk on festivals. Not the religious kind -- though there certainly are those who feel that we overdo it in that department -- but rather the secular variety that celebrate the creativity of human beings, whether in film, poetry, liturgical music or modern dance, cooking and winemaking, or of course oud-playing. No matter how much one enjoys these events, it's impossible to attend everything, and one really can't be blamed for being unmoved when confronted with news of yet one more "international festival," in Jerusalem, no less, where residents so rarely have the opportunity to enjoy a little normalcy.
Hold that thought another few weeks, though, because May is upon us, and this year that means not just a "milestone" birthday for Israel but also the first of what its founders hope will become an annual International Writers Festival. And this one really shouldn't be missed. The Mishkenot Sha'ananim-sponsored event, scheduled to run May 11-15, could just as easily be dubbed a "readers" fest, as all of its events are open to public, and they offer an opportunity to encounter not only many of Israel's most highly regarded writers of fiction, but also a wonderful selection of 16 prose writers from around the world. The latter will include Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer from South Africa (unless she ends up giving in to pressure from Israel opponents to stay away), the husband-and-wife writers Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss, from the United States, and Man Booker International Prize winner Ismail Kadare, of Albania (who resides in Paris).
The program includes more than 70 events, which fall into a number of categories. "Home and Away" programs will bring together an Israeli with a foreign counterpart for a conversation before an audience (Amos Oz and Nicole Krauss; Yehudit Katzir and the Dutch novelist and poet Anna Enquist; Aharon Appelfeld and Ireland's Niall Williams; second-generation Holocaust writers Savyon Liebrecht and Amir Gutfreund with German novelist Hans-Ulrich Treichel, are but a few examples).
All of the visiting authors have works available in Hebrew, and another series, each morning at 11, will bring a number of them, including Gordimer, Andrei Makine (Russian-born, but resident in France) and "Red Tent" author Anita Diamant into conversation with the people who do the delicate work of rendering their literature into the local lingua franca.
There will be screenings of films selected and hosted by writers, most prominently "The Sweet Hereafter," Atom Egoyan's 1997 movie about a small town that is visited by a liability lawyer (Ian Holm) who sees an opportunity for profit in the wake of a fatal accident involving a school bus (May 14). New York State writer Russell Banks will host the film, which was based on his novel of the same name. On May 12, Portuguese novelist Lidia Jorge, whose writing has reflected the challenges facing her country in the three decades since the end of both its dictatorship and its colonial adventure in Africa, will introduce the 2004 film based on her novel "The Murmuring Coast." The movie, directed by Margarita Cardoso, follows a Portuguese woman's introduction to the harsh realities of occupation after she arrives in Mozambique to marry a Portuguese soldier stationed there at the start of the Frelimo insurgent uprising. Other screenings will include "Wristcutters: A Love Story" (2006), an American-British black comedy about an afterworld tailormade for suicides. It will be hosted by Etgar Keret, who wrote the story that served as the film's basis, "Kneller's Happy Campers."
One special panel will bring together three Israeli woman writers of Orthodox background -- Sarah Blau, Yochi Brandes and Mira Magen -- for a conversation in Hebrew about "Writing with God." Blau's 2007 novel, "The Book of Creation," involves a lonely religious woman who gives life to a golem who is meant to provide her with love. Brandes is the extremely popular novelist who grew up in a Hasidic home and incorporates Biblical themes -- her latest work, "III Kings," offers her fictionalized interpretation of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Magen writes about the domestic lives of contemporary Orthodox families: Her recently published Hebrew novel, "Time Will Tell," portrays the torment of a young woman who is convinced that she is responsible for the accident that sent her younger brother into a coma. The encounter of three such varied writers is certain to create sparks.
But there will also be a number of events afternoon designed for children, including a meeting on May 12 between Yehuda Atlas, author of many Hebrew children's books, and his illustrator, Danni Kerman, whose artwork will be projected on a large screen. The following day, best-selling writer Meir Shalev, whose children's books have a following at least as large as his adult novels, will appear with his illustrator, Yossi Abolafia. And there will be theatrical performances and movie screenings for young people as well.
Jerusalem tour guide Nurit Basel, from Yad Ben-Zvi, whose specialty is tours that explore the locations where Hebrew literary works unfold, will be offering a series of walking tours that do just that, through neighborhoods that readers have already gotten to know by way of the books of David Grossman, Amos Oz, Haim Be'er and Meir Shalev. The stroll through Kerem Avraham, the ultra-Orthodox central Jerusalem quarter described by Oz in his brilliant "A Tale of Love and Darkness," is bound to be an especially popular event, so walker-readers are advised to order tickets early. A tour in "the footsteps of Aharon Appelfeld," led by guide Reuven Gafni, is also on offer, on May 15. All the preceding are in Hebrew.
One of the more unusual guests will be Egyptian journalist Hussein Serag. Though his journey to Jerusalem will be relatively short, as the crow flies, he comes from a country that, despite having diplomatic relations with Israel, presents a hostile face to the Jewish state on almost every front. Serag, deputy editor of the Egyptian magazine October, has had the temerity to defy that hostility, and this very public visit here during the period around Independence Day is sure to earn him some new enemies back home.
Serag, a student of Hebrew, translates from that language into Arabic, with the results sometimes ending up in his magazine. Earlier this year, his rendering of Eli Amir's 2005 novel "Yasmin" came out in Cairo, published by the state-owned al-Ahram publishing house. Amir, who traveled there for the occasion, told Haaretz that the publication received a lot of attention, most of it negative. "Most papers questioned why an Egyptian was collaborating with 'the enemy' to bring out a book, a novel that is essentially political. They say, it's good for us to read the book -- to know the enemy -- but why should an Egyptian publish it'" "Yasmin" describes the romance between an Iraqi Jew and a Palestinian Christian woman in Jerusalem in the aftermath of the Six-Day War.
"Serag believes that as soon a book is published, it becomes a possession of world culture," says Amir, who will also lead a panel discussion between Serag and two Israelis, Dr. Naim Aridi and Salim Jubran, the former a Druze, the latter from Haifa, both of whom also translate from Hebrew into Arabic. "Since the Six-Day War, Israelis have extensively translated and published Arabic literature. It's in demand -- novels, essays, poetry. Israelis are hungry for it. But only four Israeli novels have been published in Egypt since the peace agreement," signed in 1979. "When I was there, I asked the Egyptians: Why are you afraid?"
Another promising session will bring together three younger German novelists -- Gila Lustiger, Ingo Schulze and Hans-Ulrich Treichel -- for a conversation with the Israeli journalist David Witzthum, on May 14. "All three are of the generation born after the war," says Witzthum -- Schulze and Lustiger in the 1960s, Treichel a decade earlier. Lustiger, who has lived in Israel, has written about the Holocaust, as well as a popular chronicle of her family. She is the daughter of Arno Lustiger, the historian, who is a cousin of Jean-Marie Lustiger, the Jewish-born survivor who converted to Catholicism and eventually became the archbishop of Paris. Treichel is the author of "Lost," about a German family who, some years after the end of the World War II, received news that the son they believed died as a young child at the tail end of the war, may have survived. Schulze, from Dresden, grew up, and writes about life, in East Germany.
"What's interesting," says Witzthum, "is that each brings a different biography, as if they were from different worlds. One is the daughter of survivors, another was born in democratic West Germany, but deals with the shadows of Germany's dark past, and the third is from East Germany. But each can talk about the German identity, and how they see it, and to the issue of literature and reality. Reality in Germany is so strong that it imposes itself on literature. Like in Israel, it's very hard for a writer not to deal with it."
The planned appearance of Nadine Gordimer at the festival took on extra significance as the opening approached. After the 84-year-old Nobel Prize winner came under pressure both in her native South Africa and from opponents of Israel worldwide to cancel her trip, she informed Mishkenot Sha'ananim that she wanted to have the opportunity to meet with Palestinians while she was here. Journalist Benjamin Pogrund, onetime deputy editor of Johannesburg's Rand Daily and now a resident of Israel, who is slated to present Gordimer at one of her appearances, told Haaretz that the writer was "under a lot of pressure not to come. Militant Muslims in South Africa are urging her to boycott Israel, and so is Bishop Desmond Tutu."
Reached by telephone at her Johannesburg home shortly before press time, Gordimer refused to comment, other than to say that she was "dealing with the issue." Yael Nahari, director of the writers festival, told Haaretz that Mishkenot Sha'ananim was making arrangements for Gordimer to "meet the other side," per the author's request, and that she expected her to have a meeting with students from Jerusalem's al-Quds University. Mishkenot said it had also added another festival appearance for her.
Some of the best-known visiting writers will be traveling to Jerusalem from the U.S. Festival head Nahari explained that the decision of Foer and Krauss to come was made only within recent weeks. "We had invited them over a year ago, but they said no, as they had a young baby. Then a few weeks ago, a delegation of Israeli writers was in New York -- Meir Shalev and Zeruya Shalev, and David Grossman. They met with Foer and Krauss and told them they had to come. So they changed their minds," said Nahari. "They're planning to bring their son," who is now nearly two and a half, "and Nicole's mother is going to come along to take care of him."
Another late entry into the program was Nathan Englander, who lived in Israel for several years in the late 1990s. He will be making two appearances at his former hangout in the capital, the cafe Tmol Shilshom, where he wrote much of "For the Relief of Unbelievable Urges." There, on May 13, Englander (who is profiled in the accompanying article) will be joined by his friend Foer and Israeli Etgar Keret, the prolific short-story writer, screenwriter and film director.
A very different, but also promising English-language event will bring together Anita Diamant with Israeli Masorti Rabbi Einat Ramon. Diamant had been writing books and magazine pieces about family life, many of them with Jewish themes, for 30 years, before her first novel turned her into a major literary figure in the U.S. "The Red Tent" (1997), which was followed by two novels with very different settings, imagined the untold story of Dina, the daughter of the Patriarch Jacob. About Dina, the book of Genesis tells us only that her "violation" by Shekhem served as an excuse for her brothers to kill the prince and all the men of his town, and plunder their wealth.
Ramon told Haaretz that she uses "The Red Tent" as a text in the course on Jewish feminism she teaches at the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem. She anticipates asking Diamant, who was also one of the founders of Boston's Mayyim Hayim, a non-Orthodox mikveh, not only about the feminist aspects of "The Red Tent," but says she also looks forward to talking with her about "how she sees the Jewish identity of the characters in Genesis as separate, or perhaps similar, from that of the pagans." Ramon explains that "the authors of Genesis don't perceive the patriarchs and matriarchs as pagan -- on the contrary -- but Diamant does discuss a pagan way of life in her book. I want to know if she thinks it was different from that of the Jewish characters."
The preceding offers a taste of some of the programs that will take place during the festival, but readers are encouraged to visit the Web site of the festival, which can be downloaded at http://www.mishkenot.org.il/programs.php?id=439&, to see the full listings. Several musical programs are planned, each with a literary theme, and a number of theatrical programs intended for families, too. Although the base of the festival is Mishkenot Sha'ananim, the beautiful guesthouse and conference center now run by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation that overlooks the Old City, a number of other Jerusalem venues will also host programs.
Events will be conducted in a number of languages, though simultaneous translation to Hebrew (note: not English) will be provided for the audience in cases where participants speak foreign languages. Admission to each event is separate and by ticket (available online and by phone from Bimot), whose price will range from NIS 30 to NIS 120, for a few of the live concerts. Needless to say, the festival is heavily subsidized, by a number of sources, including the Jerusalem Foundation and the Israel Lottery Council for the Arts.
So, go and enjoy the International Writers Festival. Later, when the summer is more advanced and weather even hotter, you can draw the blinds, turn on the fan, and begin plowing through that pile of books you will surely have been driven to assemble after festival week in Jerusalem.