Claustrophobic Israeli dynamic, in the heart of the open desert
Daniella Carmi writes political fiction, in the most urgent and immediate sense of the term. She does not pass up the opportunity to comment on the new and poisonous morality of these times − which has nothing to do with either Judaism or democracy, and has no interest in offering either solace or hope.
by Daniella Carmi. Illustrations by Hilla Havkin.
Am Oved (Hebrew), 130 pages, NIS 88
You’d better rush to read Daniella Carmi’s book before someone drafts a bill banning the publication of Hebrew books that don’t suit the government’s priorities, or that are thought to weaken Zionist morale. That day is approaching.
But actually, a committee charged with approving books wouldn’t find itself terribly taxed. Very little political literature is being written in Israel today, and there are understandable reasons for that. When the moral ground under one's feet has been swept away, mainstream literature helps divert the gaze to the personal and the domestic, providing us with comforting tales about family relations or romantic obstacles. And there’s nothing wrong with that: They provide the Israeli reader with a sense of calm: It’s part of the desperate instinct of keeping up the pretense that everything is just fine, that we just need to lie low for a moment and not look too deep around us, that it’s only an ill wind which will soon pass.
But Daniella Carmi writes political fiction, in the most urgent and immediate sense of the term. She does not pass up the opportunity to comment on the new and poisonous morality of these times − which has nothing to do with either Judaism or democracy. She has no interest in offer either solace or hope. Carmi’s writing is a work of morality, of the type recommended by Aristotle: It demonstrates the laws of reality through fiction. Carmi elicits strong feelings of political compassion and anxiety in readers, something that could cause ordinary citizens to lose their balance, or their tendency for escapism. That may be why most Israeli readers are not familiar with her name.
“Goats,” her lean, packed and intense new novella, takes place in a time that is not a time, and in a place that is not a place: somewhere in the open spaces of the Negev, some time during the past 40 years. The protagonists are three men in one shack, the subcontracted workers of a sweaty and aggressive political operator. Their mission is simple: They have to locate herds of goats belonging to Bedouin, load them onto trucks and confiscate them.
They are paid per head. That is not considered criminal activity in real-life Israel, to my amazement. I checked and discovered that such appropriation of goats is explicitly protected by the 1950 Plant Protection Law (Damage by Goats), which is today enforced by the Environmental Protection Ministry’s “Green Police.”
The reason given for the law is that the grazing damages the natural flora of the Negev. But we have reason to suspect this unusual ecological concern. In fact, scientists agree that having sheep and goats graze in the western Negev actually preserves the ecological fabric of the sand; it prevents the stabilization of the soil, which in turn enables the survival of a variety of animals unique to the sand dunes that have existed in the Negev for thousands of years. Natural grazing also prevents fires and preserves a variety of plants.
No, the interests behind this law are of an entirely different sort.
Waiting together for Godot
Identifying Bedouin herds, showing up unexpectedly and loading the goats onto trucks − that’s the name of the game. The three men in charge of this operation are the naive and idealistic Miki, a former kibbutznik who needs the money to support his fiancee; Azulai, a young small-town man of Mizrahi origin who is taking the goats to provide for his family, including a brother in a drug rehabilitation center in Belgium; and Arik, who was involved in fraud in the United States and now does business − always on the side, always shady − in Israel. They are imprisoned in a single shack, in which the book’s plot takes place. It is here that they wait together for Godot, for the tomorrow that will arrive only in the guise of yesterday.
The realistic sparseness of the novella, which unfolds mainly through dialogue, is an accurate depiction of the claustrophobic Israeli dynamic, which I recall from my reserve duty. It is an existence characterized by intense and aggressive tests of masculinity − a mixture of chauvinism, conformism and racism, connected by superficial expressions of camaraderie. Located in the landscape of the open desert, Miki, Azulai and Arik talk about “freedom,” but are imprisoned in a shack and in the contract work they have to do. They are trapped in the toughness typical of the Israeli army, in a culture of ass-covering and shady deals, of administrative bureaucracy and a pragmatism that is blind to justice and decency, since those are liable to prevent them from getting the job done and receiving their salary slips. The goat rustlers aren’t inspired or made curious by the desert and its inhabitants; they see them merely as a nuisance.
Miki, Azulai and Arik are not evil, nor do they have a strong ideological belief in their mission. They are perfectly ordinary and familiar and, occasionally, even touching. They do have a basic moral compass, but it is gradually ground up like the desert dust, crushed by the urgency of earning a living and the well-oiled mechanism of conformist complacency encapsulated in phrases like “Come on, don’t make it into a big deal.” The men survive, day after day, slowly learning how to identify the herds and how to surprise them. They have a pistol, but they don’t use it so there won’t be any legal issues. They entertain a volunteer from a kibbutz, get her drunk and gang-rape her under the cover of alcohol − just because these things happen sometimes. But most of their evenings are spent cooking supper and talking about themselves and their dreams, to the extent that their masculine taciturnity allows.
Everything’s all right − until Azulai makes a mistake: He steals goats from Area C of the Negev, or from Area B − in other words, not from the right area; and those goats have to be returned to their owners. But is it possible to return what was stolen, to admit the sin? Azulai believes that it is. He still has something to learn.
The novella is illustrated by Hilla Havkin’s naive and sometimes sentimental, but always lovely, drawings. The drawings interrupt the realism of the story’s language with more contemplative intervals, as though to emphasize the tough cruelty of what is happening inside the shack. But the toughness has no need of emphasis; it encompasses the characters and readers like a dust storm, and brutally shapes contemporary Israeli culture.
That is why “Goats” is an unusual literary work: It places a non-distorting mirror of fiction before a familiar reality, thereby enabling us to reexamine the face of our collective Israeli identity. The book forces her readers to acknowledge the scars that are being added to that face, as well as the expressive wrinkles that are being erased from it.
Literary critic Omri Herzog is a regular contributor to Haaretz Books.