Worse Than Distortion

Yossi Sarid
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Yossi Sarid

"A Journey into the Heart of the Enemy" by Najem Wali, translated into Hebrew from Arabic by Michal Sela, Sifriat Poalim, 232 pages, NIS 84 (forthcoming in English)

Najem Wali is a Muslim Arab author and journalist currently living in exile in Berlin, after having been declared an "opponent of the regime" in his homeland, Iraq. After being drafted into Saddam Hussein's army, Wali openly opposed the Iran-Iraq war and was jailed. After being released from prison, he fled, immigrating to Germany.

Wali has visited Israel three times in the past two years, accepting to invitations from the University of Haifa and the Jerusalem International Book Fair. Indeed, he attended the fair last month, and in honor of this, Sifriat Poalim published a Hebrew translation of his "Journey into the Heart of the Enemy," an account of his previous visits to Israel.

This literary account has a delightful bottom line: Najem Wali falls in love with Israel and with us Israelis - a fact that is both flattering and uplifting. He truly likes everyone he meets during his journey without exception, from taxi drivers to academics, finding them enlightened and pleasant. As for us, we didn't even know we were this friendly, but it's nice to be told. Sometimes it is worth seeing the country and its inhabitants through the eyes of a visitor who arrives unprejudiced or who, if he ever harbored stereotypes, soon rids himself of them. Wali tells the world, without embellishment, what he sees and hears here, and all in pursuit of a praiseworthy goal: "to gather knowledge and to realize for the first time that it is possible to learn from the other - the often mentioned 'enemy' - and that it is even possible to follow his lead."

Only rarely does one encounter an individual like Wali, full of good intentions and good will. So how can one express even the slightest criticism of such a person, such a book? It would appear unseemly. But by exempting himself from engaging in the inconsequential occupation, Wali leaves the door to criticism open. "Journey into the Heart of the Enemy" reports on the reality of life here without mentioning any trace of the reality of the past 41 years; there is no occupation in the book.

"Yes, there is militarism in Israel. Its brutal policy of occupation must be addressed. But I will leave this to the Israeli intellectuals. They should fight for peace, just as some Arab intellectuals are starting to," he explains in the foreword.

If we adopt this perspective, Israel becomes one thing and the territories another, a reality in which one kingdom has nothing to do with the other. In Wali's opinion, the kingdom of Israel is not created in the image of the occupation; in my opinion, the occupation categorically alters the country's image. Without entering the West Bank and Gaza, "Journey into the Heart of the Enemy" is inevitably reduced to a touristic expedition, nothing more - and this is what the author has in fact created: a synthetic Israel, more fantasy than reality.

Israel's Arabs will have a hard time recognizing their homeland and the home of their fathers, as reflected in Wali's view: "He might meet the Arabs of '48, the Palestinians whom Israel's army was unable to drive out," he writes. "He would see that these Palestinians basically enjoy the same rights as all other citizens. That they are allowed to express their views and live their traditions without fear of imprisonment. He would meet Palestinians who are allowed to vote for their representatives and found their own political parties."

Surface layer

The picture painted here is correct, but it isn't the whole picture, merely half of it; as such, it is worse than distortion.

The security personnel who inspect Wali and his wife, Inaam, at the airport and elsewhere, seem very amiable; they do their jobs well, as required by the unique security circumstances here. Who wouldn't enjoy reading this enthusiastic description of a gracious and welcoming reception? But, at the same time, who could fail to recall utterly different instances, which any Arab Israeli could describe better than Wali?

Jewish-Arab relations in Israel are characterized by intimacy, coexistence and cooperation: While one side enjoys life and the other lacks for nothing - at least according to Wali: "According to Israeli law, the Palestinians enjoy full rights and there is no difference between them and the Jews, except for military service."

If only reality were like that, taken from Wali's mouth to God's and Allah's ears. The book is silent on the events of October 2000, about which the author has heard nothing; not a word is said about nationalist politicians and their indecent proposals for Israel's Arab citizens - all of which share a common denominator: Without loyalty there is no citizenship, and if you cannot accept that, you can always leave the country, and we will even be happy to help you pack. As such, in "Journey into the Heart of the Enemy," Acre is presented as a miracle of coexistence. Had he only waited a little longer, until unrest flared between Jews and Arabs there last October, before coming up with this hasty conclusion, Wali might have realized that his account constitutes an idealization, not a representation, of the facts.

Wali relates to the region's Christian-Muslim-Arab society as one single whole, devoid of any nuances or sub-nuances. All come from the same stock, which is uniformly crude and impassive, and covered by a thick layer of hatred and zealousness. He is especially fed up with the intelligentsia in Arab states: writers with fiery, myopic politics, who swarm into the courts of tyrant-rulers and come out en masse to serve as their master's voice - if they don't already serve even more extreme voice. While reading the book, at times one gets the impression that this monolithic Arab society is simply mentioned to underscore Wali's "monopoly" on Israel. He is the exception to the rule, and his journey into the heart of the enemy is therefore painted in a brazen, pioneering light. Never has there been anyone quite like him, and who knows when others of his ilk will follow.

Wali detests the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said: "In the West, he is in the practice of selling his love for peace as if it were merchandise, and he has garnered numerous prizes, but no one in the Arab states has ever heard of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, in which Israeli and Palestinian musicians play together." So great is Wali's animosity that he labels Said's partner, conductor Daniel Barenboim, "the Argentinean Jew." Strange, and a bit unfair: Wherever he goes, Barenboim, who has for many years devoted himself to promoting peace, identifies himself as an Israeli. It is not entirely clear where this label came from, even if he was born in Argentina many years ago.

Wali did not really get to know Israel during the few weeks he spent among us. And what you do not know, you cannot reveal to others. His Israel is a celestial Israel - one of heartfelt dreams that we ourselves harbor. There is no need to come from afar to show the world and us that in comparison to Syria and Iran, Israel is a democracy. While flattering, this trivial comparison to the Arab dictatorships is inadequate - after all, we aspire to more.

It is a well-known fact that the fleeting visitor sees every wrong. Yet, in "A Journey into the Heart of the Enemy," Wali does the complete opposite: He is a fleeting visitor who sees nothing wrong. But regardless of what one may think of the book, Wali will continue to be an accepted and desired guest in our land, which he will doubtless learn to decipher better and describe in full complexity in future visits. Perhaps on his fourth visit, he will delve beneath the touristic surface layer of our country.