We Have Led Others Astray

A residency program for writers from around the world almost demands categorizing the visiting artists by nationality. But such labels can be deceptive .

Moshe Sakal
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Moshe Sakal

IOWA CITY - The first thing I noticed was the flag: An Israeli flag flew from the facade of the brick house where I was to take up residence in the United States for three months. An Israeli flag, replete with crease marks imprinted in it by having been folded precisely in eight parts, was flying at the entry of my new residence, a building constructed in 1840 at the corner of Jefferson Street and Iowa Avenue. Barbara, the residence's owner, was surprised to see my response to the flag; a look of insult and bewilderment rippled across her face.

Thirty-seven writers and poets were set to begin the residency at the 45th annual International Writing Program at the University of Iowa (IWP). They came from 30 countries, from Argentina to Nepal to New Zealand, and above each writer there flew an imaginary flag, based on which there hovered a number of suppositions about his or her character. These could be somewhat misleading: A South African writer and journalist resided in Israel for two years 20 years ago, and is a Hebrew speaker; a Burmese writer has been persecuted by authorities in his country and has no passport; an Italian poet was born in St. Petersburg, and lived for six years in Jerusalem; a French writer was born in Martinique; a Pakistani writer lived for years in the United States; a German writer was born in Czechoslovakia; a Spanish writer lived in Toulouse, France for two years; a Venezuelan writer was born on a Caribbean island. And there were many other examples of such mixed backgrounds and identities. Though most of the writers are not political activists, and some of them were unwilling to say absolutely anything about their countries of origin, or their politics, each was identified with the country from which he or she came to a maddening degree.

Participants at the writer’s conference ‏(from left‏): Kevin Bloom ‏(South Africa‏), Kgebetli Moel ‏(South Africa‏), Moshe Sakal ‏(Israel‏) and Usha K.R. ‏(India‏).Credit: Nate Brown

Only in my case was the flag real - the flag that flew from Barbara's building in order to warm my heart, after the long journey of connecting flights from my country of origin. "Why are you laughing," Barbara exclaimed, insulted. "No, there's nothing wrong," I replied, trying to dispel her consternation. "You just moved me."

But Barbara is no fool. Five minutes later, after I had dropped my suitcases in my room, I saw that the flag was already gone. Now the building looked like a typical American brick house, and its owner invited me to a drink of water in her office. She told me that once she flew an Israeli flag from the front of the building only to discover that the newly arrived writer was a Palestinian.

I said to myself that I was already familiar with such situations. During the six years I spent in Paris I got used to being "the Israeli." Paradoxically, life in Israel exempts you from such branding. Once you actually make your home in that country, you can become a human being.

A few days later we writers stood on the lawn of the house of writer Christopher Merrill, who is the IWP's director, and introduced ourselves to the literary figures of Iowa City. The previous day, at the program's opening session, Chris implored us to sit and write, and not to try to go fish in the river, whose water is polluted. Above all, he warned us not to dare to put whatever we pulled up on a hook in a microwave, since the machine and the fish would explode; nor, he said, should we try to obtain narcotic substances of any sort on the campus. Narcotics crimes are "offenses taken very seriously in the United States," he explained, after he had made a declaration about the widespread support Obama had won among residents of Iowa City in 2008. Two days later we met with Iowa University's legal counsel, and he taught us about the severity attributed to each sort of crime in the world's largest Western democracy.

Hind Shoufani, 33, a Palestinian poet and film maker, and I stood in a long line of writers who were to introduce themselves to the city's citizens. "Are we supposed to get up, one after another and introduce ourselves as a Palestinian and an Israeli?" she asked me. "You're right," I told her - and let a Colombian and a South African move ahead of me in line.

Neither Hind nor I really wanted to be seen as a Middle East cliche, though the two of us became, by dint of necessity, close friends during the program.

In 2006, a few weeks after the Second Lebanon War, I spent a month in Berlin, and took a German-language course. A fellow pupil in the class was a Palestinian from Gaza who had been sent to study electrical engineering. All of the German teachers rejoiced to see Shimon Peres' vision of a New Middle East crystallize before their eyes. They quickly made sure that we sat beside one another, and tossed out parallel questions about Palestine and Israel, such as "What does it cost to rent an apartment in Tel Aviv?" and "What's the rent for an apartment in Gaza City?" This infuriating, vacuous spectacle annoyed and flummoxed me.

In Iowa City, Hind stood up and presented herself in polished English. She grew up as a refugee in Amman, Beirut and Damascus. In 2002, she was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship from Jordan to obtain a master of fine arts in New York. Today, she lives in Dubai and is working on a film about her father, the historian Elias Shoufani, who was a lecturer at Princeton and a PLO member. Dressed in sparkling, somewhat daring clothes, Hind cut an impressive figure as she delivered her remarks to Iowa's denizens. She held a keffiyeh in her hand.

In his novel "The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist," Emile Habiby described the Nakba catastrophe of 1948: "Our great family became scattered, living in all of the Arab countries not yet occupied. And so I have relatives working in the very Arabian Aal Rabi court, with posts in the Bureau of Translation - both from and into Persian, I might add. And I have one who has specialized in lighting the cigarettes of different kings. We also had a captain in Syria, a major in Iraq and a lieutenant-colonel in Lebanon ... The first Arab to be appointed by the government of Israel as head of the Committee for Distribution of Dandelion and Watercress in Upper Galilee is from our family, even though his mother, so they say, was a divorced Circassian girl. And he still claims, so far unsuccessfully, distribution rights for Lower Galilee too. My father, may he rest in peace, did many favors for the state before it was founded ... After my father fell a martyr on the road and I was redeemed by the ass, my family took the boat to Acre. When we found that we were in no danger, and that everyone was busy saving their skins, we fled to Lebanon to save ours. And there we sold them to live."

The trailer to Hind's film features her father, Shoufani, during his years in Beirut as a PLO activist, through the "failed revolution," as she describes it, in 1993, of the Oslo Accords. She relates how he sacrificed everything for the revolution; he left a position that promised tenure in the United States and dedicated his life to the liberation of Palestine. The trailer also shows photos of Yasmin, Hind's mother, who died a few years after that revolution's failure.

Elias Shoufani is 80 years old today. In the film, he sits in the living room of his residence in Damascus, and Hind's voice is heard in the background, saying: "He will go nowhere, living in exile, he is many, many, and yet only just one. He is a Palestinian. His journey starts in one country, and ends in many others. It's about underground missions to the ports of Haifa. It has romance, it has the man leaving a woman he loved, to liberate the country he loved more ... He is an elected member of the Fatah revolutionary council, a writer, a widower, a revolutionary, a hero and a villain, a madman, a father. What happens to our loved ones, who will give up everything for the possibility of home? What is home?"

The IWP writers allow Hind and me to roam about without interference. They fire curious glances in our direction, as though they are convinced that we are sitting and resolving the issues of life in the Middle East. We fool them, lead them astray. Sometimes, when we sip a glass of whiskey and nosh on something, we are actually discussing emotional matters. At any event, the word "peace" is barely mentioned in our discussions.

Are we trying to correct anything? Perhaps what is really needed is for two souls to take residence on neutral ground (for argument's sake ), in order to make things right? We don't even try. Hind has no interest in Israeli society, and I will not act as a pimp on behalf of this culture.

Sometimes we converse in French, and her accent brings to mind the Damascus accent of my grandfather, Moshe Sakal (after whom I am named), who taught French at the Alliance school in Damascus, and wrote prose in Arabic. My grandmother's name was Subhiya ("radiance" ), whereas the name of Hind's sister is Nur ("light" ). Nur is the name of the Syrian grandmother in my novel "Yolanda"; the name of the grandfather in the novel is George - which is Hind's grandfather's name. Such coincidences follow us, by necessity; Hind takes a liking to me, by necessity. "With you, it's different," she says, almost in an apologetic tone. "Perhaps because you are an Arab-Jew"

I am drawn to Hind's company as though I were tied to it by chains. Yet in many senses we are like two parallel lines in this alternative utopia; in the Euclidean equation, the two lines will never meet. There's not enough room for the two of us in this space.

"But I am the daughter of a failed revolution," she says in the film's trailer. "I am the heiress of a nation's misfortune. I am the reminder of resistance."

Around me there swirl the nations that converged in Iowa, from Argentina to Nepal to New Zealand. Hind and I long to be part of society, but are also repulsed by it. Our mental situation here brings to mind le mal du pays (homesickness ): the sorrow and adjustment difficulties of someone who is uprooted from one place for another. The acclimation woes of such an uprooted person find expression in feelings of nostalgia and melancholy, and sometimes in pangs of depression. This is what the French writer Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand (1768-1848 ) wrote in his memoirs: "Nostalgia is longing for the homeland. Even on the banks of the Tiber river, a man can experience homesickness for his native land, but these longings bring about the opposite of the usual result: he is attacked by love of solitude, and contempt for his country."

Hind and I love the solitude. She sits during the day in her room, across from the river, and reads volumes of poetry. She learned about the Tel Aviv protest camps on the Internet, and tends to ridicule the movement, since it is ostensibly non-political. I try to explain to her that this is actually a consummately political phenomenon. I don't tell her about the flag that Barbara ran up on my residence, but the incident would surely amuse her. And then there's the story of Uri, the brother of a friend of mine: On a tour of concentration camps in Poland, he dropped his cellphone into a hole that had served as one of Auschwitz's toilets. The brother and his pals, crafty sabras, quickly recovered the phone, using the pole of an Israeli flag. Sixty years too late.

I don't share this story with Hindi. Our friendship is not a pillar supporting the peace process, perhaps because it is not an illusion, but rather made of flesh and blood. But it is also founded on faith in the power of art, and also - if one can take the liberty of saying so - on cautious optimism regarding human relations.

Moshe Sakal was born in Tel Aviv in 1976. His novel "Yolanda" will be published in France in 2012 by the Stock publishing house. His participation in the IWP is made possible by the Fulbright Foundation of Israel.

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