Exile Is His Country

For 23 years, poet-politician Maxim Ghilan, a self-described `man of the people,' was afraid to return to Israel because of things he said and did. Today, everyone says and does them, but he still does not feel totally at home

yossi klein
Yossi Klein
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yossi klein
Yossi Klein

During the conversation with Maxim Ghilan in a crowded Tel Aviv cafe, he asks that we move the table a little, because the woman next to us "is taking too much of an interest in our conversation." We are talking about long-forgotten events and it doesn't seem likely that anyone will take an interest in them. Ghilan is cautious, though definitely "not paranoid," he says. His minor paranoia ended, he says, on the day Yasser Arafat returned to the territories.

The trivial event in the cafe is a remnant of the period in which Ghilan tried to be ultra-cautious about what he said. For 23 years he was afraid to return to Israel because of things he said and did that everyone now says and does. In Paris, his life was threatened three times: "Once in French with an Arab accent, once in American English and once in Hebrew." He met with Palestinians in the period when the law forbade it, and he was talking about a Palestinian state about 30 years before Ariel Sharon did. What did he get out of it? Today, 10 years after his return from his lengthy exile, he describes his situation as "hard." Israelis barely remember him and he severed his relations with Palestinians, including senior figures in the future Palestinian state, "because of Oslo." He didn't believe it would be possible to stretch the process over such a lengthy period.

He publishes a slightly anachronistic literary-political journal and writes poetry, but who reads poetry these days? He has the appearance of a friendly pensioner but still keeps a few things to himself, like a secret agent. The 50 years that have gone by since he was in the underground have not reduced the intensity of the secrecy. A thin smile of mystery crosses his lips: There are some secrets that cannot yet be made public.

Ghilan has just published a new collection of poems, whose title can be roughly translated as "In a Collapsing House," and he speaks in praise of the separation between the quality of poetry and ideology. There is no need to mix the two. The infuriating ideology of Ezra Pound and Uri Zvi Greenberg does not diminish the quality of their poetry. Ghilan's current poetry is in part political. The "house" of the title is Israel and the poems place him in a clearly defined political position.

Maxim Ghilan's life follows alternating tracks: poetry and creativity give way to chapters of politics. He transferred his political doctrine from right to left and he has packed his bags more than once. He was born in France, grew up in Spain, lived in Israel, went into exile in France - and his wanderings do not seem to have ended.

Until he published his first book of poetry, at the age of 26, he thought deliverance would come to the world through an ideology of socialist nationalism and deeds that would actualize it. The transition from dogmatic nationalism to world-embracing humanism involved a few stays in prison and, in the end, a lengthy exile from which he is still finding it difficult to recover.

A secret, dangerous life

What is he, then? Poet? Politician? An adventurer who wants to fuse poetry and politics? He is ready to compromise generously on "man of the people." If manual labor is a condition for being a "man of the people," Ghilan deserves the title. He worked in a chandelier factory, in a printing house and in night shifts on newspapers. But the years have passed and a thick layer of rust now covers the connection between his poetry and ideology, and the people.

He began his ideological transitions half a century ago. He was, in chronological order, a "national socialist," a member of the mainstream pre-state Haganah defense force, a member of the ultranationalist pre-state Lehi organization, even the secretary of the General Zionists' youth movement. He has remained a socialist, but dropped the nationalism and assumed instead the ideological mantle of two states for two nations between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

His biography leaves the listener dizzy. He was born in 1931 in Lille, France. His father was a "millionaire socialist" who went bankrupt, became rich again and moved to Barcelona, where he met his wife (Ghilan's mother), a German woman who was the secretary of the German foreign minister. In Barcelona his father took advantage of his friendship with the king of Romania, Carol II, and with the king's friend, a certain Madame Lupesco, to be appointed "honorary consul of Romania." Ghilan's father eventually became the deputy minister for internal security in the Catalonian government of Republican Spain. After Franco's victory in his country's civil war, he fled and was tried in absentia and condemned to death. His wife, who tried to find out what happened to him, was told: Consider yourself a widow.

In 1944, Ghilan immigrated to Palestine with his mother and younger sister. They were housed in the Atlit detention camp and then transferred to the Hatikva neighborhood in South Tel Aviv. His mother's uncle, who was the tobacco king of Bulgaria, ordered his step-nephew, an Israeli tobacco tycoon, to support him. The support was enough only to pay for the hospitalization of Ghilan's sick mother; the young Ghilan had to leave high school and go to work. The journalist Ran Edelist, who interviewed Ghilan for the (now-defunct) magazine Monitin, in the early 1980s, summed him up: "He looks like Orson Welles, he lives like a revolutionary and he tells tales like Baron Munchausen."

He conceived of a plan, which was not implemented, to shoot Jordanian Legionnaires on the wall of the Old City of Jerusalem "in order to foment a provocation" (the full and secret details of the plan will not be revealed here, of course). What kind of provocation? Against who? "Leave it," he says. "It's complicated." In 1952 he was accused of being "in possession of secret documents." Which documents? Where did he get them? He didn't tell his interrogators and he is obviously not going to tell me today. He spent 18 months in two different jails, organizing a prisoners' strike and experiencing what turned out to be the turning point in his life. He saw warders who were survivors of Nazi concentration camps abusing Arabs. Until then he didn't believe that "a Jew was capable of torturing people, and then the torture took place before my eyes."

Four years later he established an underground group called "Hamangenon" (the apparatus). Its goal was vague even then, and is certainly vague today, but in any event it was definitely "against the government." Around the same time, he was suspected of being in contact with the murderer of Yisrael Kastner (who in a sensational trial in 1955 was accused of having collaborated with the Nazis in Hungary) - Ze'ev Eckstein, to whom he dedicated a poem. Ghilan was arrested, claimed he was "a victim of political persecution," was held in detention for 39 days and released without being brought to trial.

Fourteen years after Hamangenon, Ghilan was arrested again. He was then a deputy editor at the weekly photo magazine Bul. This time he was tried in total secrecy, in camera, together with Shmuel Mor, the editor of the sensationalist and salacious magazine. According to the press, the charge was "publication of false reports that are harmful to state security"; according to Ghilan, he was accused only of "publishing reports contrary to [military] censorship."

The Bul episode would seem to give Ghilan the status of a fighter for freedom of expression who was ready to pay for his principles with his liberty. But his underlying motivation was not much different from the plan to shoot at the Legionnaires (he objects vehemently to this notion and cites world-famous figures, such as Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre, who signed petitions calling for his release). Ghilan loathed government and loved anarchy. The item in Bul was no more than a provocation.

Bul specialized in publishing scandals and nude photos. What kind of scandals? "The student prostitute," for example. The same Bul suddenly came out with a cover story headlines, "Were Israelis involved in the assassination of Ben Barka?" Mehdi Ben Barka, the leader of the opposition to the Moroccan regime, was kidnapped by agents of the regime and murdered in France in 1965. The article in the Israeli magazine hinted that Israel had a hand in the killing. Six-hundred copies of the issue were sold. The rest were seized by the police and the magazine's editors were arrested.

The information about Israel's possible complicity in the Ben Barka assassination was known to the press before the publication in Bul. Isser Harel, then head of the Israeli security services, disseminated the rumor in order to undermine Meir Amir, who succeeded him as chief of the Mossad espionage agency. One of those involved in the kidnapping was a well-known film producer who, Ghilan believes, was working in the service of the Mossad. The producer was the son-in-law of an Israeli cabinet minister, who used the national editors' committee to ensure that the item was not reported in the country. The committee, which consisted of the editors of all the newspapers and newsmagazines in Israel, apart from Bul and the muckraking Ha'olam Hazeh, agreed not to publish the report. The editors of the sensationalist weekly did not submit their story to the military censors. Mor and Ghilan were convicted and sentenced to one year in prison. They were at first placed in solitary confinement and then transferred to Ma'asiyahu Prison in extraordinarily comfortable conditions. They were released after four months.

After his release, in 1967, Ghilan worked with Uri Avnery, the editor of Ha'olam Hazeh. Until then he had collected a panoply of titles: bohemian, poet, retired member of the underground, film critic, translator into Hebrew of "Fanny Hill" for the masses and works of Jean Genet for Habimah theater company. After two years or so he decided to move to Paris. There were three reasons for this decision: 1. The secret service threatened him; 2. He was fed up; and 3. there was a romantic affair involving "more than one woman."

How did the Tel Aviv bohemian suddenly find himself implicated, almost perforce, in a dark episode of the security services? What returned the poet and founder of literary forums to the underground of his youth?

Ghilan's friend, the painter and architect Nahum Cohen, has two answers, one of a practical nature, the other one of principle: 1. You couldn't make a living from bohemianism; and 2. in such mad times it was impossible to indulge in poetry.

Ghilan was what today would be called a "cultural leader," and the culture was above all the creative artists themselves. Then as now, few people read poetry, but then, unlike now, everyone knew poets. In the absence of professional snoops such as television and the local papers, stories about the "bohemian scene" were whispered from mouth to ear or published in Ha'olam Hazeh. The cultural community was a very mysterious entity. Struggles for honor fraught with passion and fueled by the consumption of large amounts of alcohol were waged between writers and poets whose works are now part of the school curriculum and for whom streets are named. They debauched themselves in their cafes in a way that is incomprehensible today.

Ghilan was there, at the parties, among the literary groups that gathered around a bottle of cognac and at the awesome quarrels that erupted there. "Those were my most beautiful years, the years of my cultural renaissance," he says.

Charmed by ugliness

Ghilan dedicated his third book of poems to Yehudit Ullman. Specific poems were also dedicated to women named Dalit, Dalia, Tatiana and Rimona. Ghilan was known as a womanizer, even though he was far from handsome. Writers and journalists delighted in describing him. Yigal Sarna, in his biography of the poet Yona Wallach, saw him as "Falstaff-like in appearance, heavy and bearded with swollen lips and bald. Above eyeglasses with thick frames one eye observes and the other roams with cross-eyed restlessness." Ran Edelist, in his Monitin article, encapsulates him as "short and fat, bespectacled, cross-eyed, balding, not healthy, not rich, not married, no children but always successful with women."

Ghilan has an explanation for this anomaly: He loves women and is not afraid of them, like other people, and they sense this and reciprocate love. For the heart of Yehudit Ullman he fought a short battle, which ended in defeat, with Nahum Cohen, and his marriage to another on the list, Rimona, was short-lived. "Yona Wallach was charmed by his ugliness," Sarna writes. She showed him her poems and threatened to burn them. He suggested that she keep them for herself. But the literary journal he was editing at the time, Ogdan (File Folder) was taken over by the poet Natan Zach and the critic Gabriel Moked, who changed its name to Achshav (Now), kicked Ghilan out and had the honor to be the first to publish Wallach's work. Wallach compensated him by dedicating her first book of poems to him.

Despite a few run-ins, Natan Zach is today a "good friend," Ghilan says. He met Zach at a club when Zach was a young intelligence officer. He then met the poets Yair Hurvitz and Meir Wieseltier and the critic Gabriel Moked (as we are sitting in the cafe chatting, Moked enters, his nose thrust upward, his lips shrunken and his shirt buttoned up to the collar; he says a correct "Shalom, Maxim," and is answered with a cool "Shalom, Gabriel").

With his friend the artist Nahum Cohen, Ghilan moved through Tel Aviv's cafes not as the head of a court, like the poets Nathan Alterman or Avraham Shlonsky, but as a freewheeling planet. He moved between the great luminaries, and creative artists occasionally gravitated to him.

"Ghilan was like a magic door through which [Cohen] entered a hidden city, dusky and smoke-filled, that existed under the prosaic Tel Aviv," Sarna wrote in his biography of Wallach.

In July 1969, Ghilan flew to Paris. The two years he planned to remain there multiplied to more than 23. He left because he was "fed up" and became a political exile. Few Israelis merit the title of "political exile," and Ghilan will not forgo it easily. The evenings of drinking at the bohemian hangout, the Kassit cafe on Dizengoff Street, were long forgotten. Ghilan went back to dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and was one of the first Israelis who made contact with representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). His ties with them were against the law, and the threat of another trial if he returned to Israel constantly hung over his head.

Letter to Mars

His 23 years in Paris did not make him a Frenchman. Even though he carries a French passport and French culture is part of his universe, he thought mainly about the country he was fed up with. "He landed here in a world that doesn't suit him," Nahum Cohen says. In Paris, with the aid of Nahum Goldmann, then president of the World Zionist Congress, he founded an English-language monthly called "Israel and Palestine," whose 40 pages addressed the Middle East conflict and supported the idea of two states for two nations.

The magazine had a press run of 10,000 and its headquarters were in the 10th District in Paris. It was an area that suffered from ethnic gang wars. One day the staff found the body of a Kurdish refugee lying in the entrance. Edelist offers this description of Ghilan's office: "Three desks, two telephones, an overflowing bookcase, a photocopying machine, typewriters and everything swamped by tides of newspapers and magazines."

In 1977, Ghilan hired Hanoch Marmari (today editor-in-chief of Haaretz). Marmari, like other Israelis in Paris who did not possess a work permit, worked for a year and a half collecting newspaper clippings in Hebrew. He remembers Ghilan as "a man with virtuosic abilities," who wrote and typed up his articles, edited and distributed his newspaper "like a one-man band."

An article in the magazine generated an official Palestinian response. "It was like sending a letter to Mars and suddenly getting a response," Ghilan says. The correspondence led to a dialogue. He talks about the relations he tried to forge between Palestinians and Israelis, initially those who were part of the "peace camp" and afterward senior political figures, such as Ezer Weizman, Moshe Dayan and Yossi Sarid.

Ghilan's last meeting with Yasser Arafat took place in 1993, at 4 A.M., in a Paris hotel. Shortly before returning to Gaza, Arafat asked Ghilan whether he could help him in any way; Ghilan thanked him and said he hoped God would help him and his people.

In 1972, the ties he forged led to his invitation to an international assembly for peace held at Bologna, where Israelis for the first time met publicly with delegates from Arab countries. The highly publicized event immediately engendered an unequivocal message that "someone" conveyed to him: If his contacts with the Palestinians continued, he would be arrested upon setting foot in Israel.

The "someone," Ghilan says, was attorney Amnon Zichroni, who over the years confirmed to him that the warning was still valid. Today Ghilan believes Zichroni is responsible for at least three of his years in exile, as he made no effort to get the warning rescinded. Zichroni recalls only that he was asked to help and did the best he could. "This is my thanks?" he asks, dumbfounded. "To come to me now with complaints? That's ridiculous."

It was Natan Zach who finally got him back to Israel: Along with the writer Yoram Kaniuk, the painter Dan Kedar and others, he persuaded Shulamit Aloni, who was then the minister of education and culture in Yitzhak Rabin's government, to get the threat of a trial lifted.

Ten years before his return, Ghilan described to Ran Edelist what he would do on his first day back. "He will visit his sister in Ramat Gan." Edelist reported, "He will visit the Old City in Jerusalem and have hummus, tehina and skewered meat there, and have a cup of black coffee; he will visit Nahum and Yaira Cohen, Natan Zach and Uri Avnery, will look for a place to live between Dizengoff and Rothschild Boulevard, will eat at Zion's restaurant in the Kerem Hateimanin area of Tel Aviv, will attend all the protest demonstrations and will write for one of the newspapers."

Ghilan returned to Tel Aviv in October 1993. He reacted like a stunned traveler who had been thrown out of a time machine that was frozen in the 1960s. There were photographers at the airport to capture his first steps back on Israeli soil, but not one security man. He was invited to appear on the "Politika" current events program on television along with a bank robber and the right-wing cabinet minister Rafael Eitan, but declined. The papers wrote about him "sarcastically and with puzzlement," he says. He brought 50,000 francs with him, which was enough to get him a small room off Dizengoff "with a mattress on the floor."

How does a person see the place where he lived for most of his life after an absence of 23 years? He speaks of "double vision," with past and present merging somehow and his inability to separate them. Everything was "the same," but "existing under a cover of transparent paper." He was surprised to see Dizengoff Center, the shopping mall, which was built on the ruins of the Nordia neighborhood. Ibn Gvirol Street did not end at Frishman, to his surprise, and roads had been built in the Hatikva neighborhood. His encounter with the new reality took place in a trendy bar, where a young man told him about "terrible things I did as a military policeman at checkpoints." Asked by Ghilan how he coped with this state of affairs, the young man replied: "At home, military life doesn't matter [he was a pianist and a composer], and in the army I forget civilian life."

Short stories and legends

Today, at 72, Ghilan is suffering from "all the things that people of my age suffer from." With a modest bow of the head he admits to his success with women. Today, too, he says, there is no law that forbids men of his age from seeing women. His Falstaffian girth has shrunk greatly. The bohemian and member of secret undergrounds is today an amiable pensioner (who has no pension) who gets around with a cane. His provocative black goatee has become a thin, long, soft beard that climbs up his cheeks. A thick magnifying glass assists him alongside the rectangular spectacles with the black frame. One eye, the healthy one, still looks at the world with a severe gaze, while the other one roams about restlessly. He rented a small apartment in North Tel Aviv ("not far from Tommy Lapid," the justice minister) and he complains about his economic plight. He doesn't have a television set, but he listens a lot to the radio.

At one time he thought he would write his autobiography, but the publishing houses don't seem to be interested. He is now writing a book of short stories and legends, and publishes a small magazine that comes out a few times a year. The texts are dense and the design is old-fashioned. The headlines, though, are short and snappy: "Settlements = Terrorism." The perceptions in Ghilan's editorials are familiar: "Objectively, [Ariel] Sharon is the embodiment of all that is inimical and harmful to humanism and to all of humanity." Or, "left and right have one economic/social approach: dispossession of the poor and strengthening the exploiters in the course of integrating into the international globalization." There are also rare poems by Natan Zach and the contributors include professors Tanya Reinhart, Ilan Pappe and Moshe Zuckerman. There are also "fine creative artists, most of the young people."

As a true person of the left, Ghilan is a perpetual skeptic. The house - the State of Israel - is collapsing, he says, because it is built on flimsy foundations, "but after the collapse comes a renaissance." He is living in a neo-fascist state, he says, which is itself living according to draconian emergency regulations.

He rents an apartment in Paris and visits there every few months. According to the poet Yosef Sharon, "Ghilan imbibes optimism outside so he can return here and despair." It's very easy today to bemoan the fate of a person whose ideas have triumphed though he himself has been marginalized. What Ghilan said 30 years ago about the need for a Palestinian state today seems self-evident and touchingly naive. These days he writes letters to the editor. He has abandoned all hope of getting political articles published in the press and complains about the ouster of the left from the papers. Nahum Cohen says Ghilan "has not adjusted to what is going on here." Asked what's with all of Ghilan's famous friends, Cohen replies: "We are all in pretty rickety condition."

What would have happened to Ghilan if he had stayed in Israel and not gone into exile in Paris?

Cohen: "He would have remained a poet - but a strange poet."n

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