Text size
related tags

Haaretz Editor Dov Alfon asked me to introduce the commendable and challenging mission his newspaper has taken upon itself - to ask writers to take the place of journalists in today's issue to mark the opening of Hebrew Book Week.

Is the author's point of view necessarily different from that of the reporter, directly touching the live flesh of exposed reality? And what, in any case, is the link between life and literature, between news and fiction?

In my youth I dreamed of reaching the exalted status of a scientist - I wanted to be an engineer. In the world of ignorance and superstition in which I was raised, I saw the modern school as a house of worship.

In my mind's eye the university was a temple in which only a chosen few were allowed to enter. I was addicted to reading, and saw writing as a kind of elevated hobby. Without television, or any links to the wider world, stories were magical charms bringing the snows of the north pole to my home, baking in Baghdad's swelter. Books brought me the lifestyles of the British aristocracy, the striptease of American culture, the jewels of Russian prose.

But my cultural hero was the scientist, the brave man who dared ask the forbidden questions and who was willing to sacrifice his life for unpopular answers. I thought literature would be an enjoyable pursuit for the rest of my life, but science would be the focus of my vocation and vision. I aimed confidently for the leading institutions in scientific higher education in Iraq and beyond.

But my secure life plans were crossed by a certain Hitler and the country he drove mad. Radio Berlin had a station in Arabic broadcasting day and night that determined that I, a Jew, was a parasite and subhuman fated for annihilation.

Not in the ancient Jewish synagogue or in my modern school could I find an answer to the new gospel that had almost instantaneously seized the most cultured continent on Earth.

During those same dark years, the dream of becoming a scientist receded, and my priorities were overturned.

Science could not equip a youth like me to return fire against an entire continent that had enlisted to eradicate him and those of his race. But poetry could, literature could, wild imagination could.

I didn't have a rifle on me, just words. And it was words that restored my honor as a human being and a Jew. With those words I arrived in Israel with nothing 60 years ago.

Miraculously, the two streams that had balanced my consciousness since youth flowed together.

By day I earned a livelihood as a water surveyor in the hydrological service, and at night I labored at literary creation. Of all professions, journalism is most recommended to aspiring authors. Through journalism the writer learns the secrets of concision; the ability to rivet the reader in a mere few lines.

My colleagues featured as guests in this enterprise have answered the call to serve as reporters examining the profound link between labor and poetry, between reality and imagination.

Above all of my colleagues' estimable efforts is the will to find the correct language, language that will lead us to applaud the same joys and shed tears at the same tragedies, whether we speak Arabic, Hebrew, English or Chinese. A language suitable for raising children to understand that the most important message of any is the respect for all.

Sami Michael, born in Baghdad in 1926, immigrated to Israel in 1949. His works have explored his early experiences in Iraq and the clash between political communities in Israel. An early work "Storm Among the Palms," won the Ze'ev Prize for children's literature. Michael is also the president of The Association for Civil Rights in Israel.