Found in Translation

Francophone Moshe Sakal, whose fourth book has just come out, finds satisfaction in building bridges to world cultures in an era of separatism.

Moshe Sakal lived for six years in France, where he learned to speak fluent French with a Parisian accent, but when he talked to his Egyptian-born, French-speaking grandmother back home in Israel - she would give him a haughty look.

"She spoke like Dalida," he said, referring to the popular multilingual Egyptian singer. "For her, an Egyptian accent was the real thing, authentic and beautiful, while my Parisian accent was a sort of jargon, a contemptible dialect. Not only did she look down on it, she also corrected me, and at some stage stopped understanding: I would be speaking the fluent French of someone who lived for years in Paris and she would just look at me, roll her eyes and say, 'I don't know what you're saying.'"

Daniel Tchetchik

In his new book "Yolanda" (published by Keter in Hebrew ), which is autobiographical in a sort of misleading way, Sakal depicts the protagonist's Egyptian-born grandmother, who immigrated to Israel in 1948, but preserves Cairo within her; a Zionist, she speaks basic Hebrew, reads only in French, and never leaves Israel's borders.

"By going to Paris, perhaps I experienced the life she should have lived," Sakal observes. "Instead of learning a new language and immigrating to Palestine, she could have traveled to France. For Zionist reasons, she came to Israel a few months before the state was declared. She settled in Tel Aviv and announced to all her brothers and sisters that she would remain here, and if they wanted to see her, they should come."

"Yolanda" is 35-year-old Sakal's fourth book, preceded by a volume of short stories, "Scenario" and the novels "The Island" and "A Mother's Case." He completed his bachelor's degree in Hebrew literature and translation in Paris, and upon his return earned a master's degree in philosophy at Tel Aviv University. He now works as director of the Israeli Center for Libraries' literary division and heads its translation unit; he also writes reviews and articles for Haaretz.

Sakal says that since "Yolanda" was released, he is often asked which elements are authentic and which are not. As is their wont, readers want to know the so-called "truth," to shatter illusions he created when he wrote the book. As he says: "I wrote in a purposefully misleading genre, highly intimate, but every time a reader thinks he's getting close to the truth, it eludes him. Everything in it is real, but also fiction."

Until now, Sakal says he didn't dare write about his family. "Only now I understand, for example, why the protagonist in my preceding book was an adopted child. Not only because of my own preoccupation with genetics and fertility, but because I felt that our story was not part of this country. In this book I simply legitimize it, and give it a place within the Israeli identity. I was always raised in the awareness that we were Sephardi, that there is no shame in this, that it is also a matter of pride, but also something that is not significant. Once I was asked if I suffered from discrimination because of my ethnicity, and I said yes, because one day a driver at my army base called me 'dirty Ashkenazi,'" Sakal laughs.

"Did I show her [my grandmother] to you in a bathing suit?" he asks, showing me a photograph taken on a beach in Tel Aviv. "She was a beauty, a strong woman, a woman who never left the borders of this country, but knew much more about the world than many Israelis who travel abroad."

Sakal had relationships with two grandmothers - the Cairene one and, on the other side, one from Damascus. He is troubled by the way Israeli culture robbed immigrants of their identity, which is the reason, he contends, that he does not know Arabic today. He learned French at high school.

"At 13 I started to study at Alliance Francaise. At home my family didn't speak French or Arabic to me, something that is impossible to grasp. Just think, I could know how to read Arabic today. What saved me was attending Alliance. I had wonderful teachers in French who not only gave me a great desire to learn the language, but also its culture and literature. It had an exceptional effect on the person I would become and strengthened my connection to my grandmother. I would visit her at home and we would sit in her kitchen and read French literature together for hours."

Sakal says that his Egyptian grandmother's entire family eventually followed her to Israel - except for her oldest brother. "He was a Mossad agent," he explains, "upon whom I based the character of Uncle Edmond. He was a man of the world who lived in London and Paris, and was never forgiven for this. I seem to have followed in his footsteps and not hers. I have gone and done what she should have done, but didn't."

Why do you think this is what she should have done? Why does it seem more logical to have traveled to France and not Israel?

Sakal: "When you are a French speaker and come from a bourgeois Jewish family in Cairo, which was a cosmopolitan city, it is more logical. My grandmother lived on Pasha Suleiman Square in Cairo; I visited there after her death. It looks like a street in a bourgeois neighborhood of Paris. She was very proud that she did not speak Arabic, which caused friction with the Syrian side of her family. That side was highly involved in Arabic culture. I'd be happy to visit Damascus, but it doesn't look like that will happen soon."

There are actually two Yolandas in Sakal's novel. One is the Cairene grandmother who spends her days in bed - a sort of exile inside an exile inside an exile - and the second is a mysterious beauty about whom the narrator's grandfather is writing. Sakal dwells on exile, mother tongues and other language, about the silence of years and what is permitted to be spoken. Plus, there is more than a little humor in the way he presents the large Cairene family. Sakal adds that the Sephardi identity he embodies is complex. "They sat in Cairo and learned about freedom, equality and brotherhood, but what freedom, equality and brotherhood? What they had was King Farouk."

He says his family also experienced exile in Israel: "In essence [my grandmother] clung to Egypt, and when she was in Egypt she clung to France. And at the same time she boycotted Egypt and would not agree to let me go there. I did not disobey her."

Only a year ago, after her death, did Sakal dare to travel there.

"Cairo is an electrifying city," he explains. "My soul is linked to it, although I did not find the cosmopolitan place my grandmother told me about. Things have changed."

'There is an alternative'

Two weeks after Sakal arrived in Paris, he met editor and translator Dory Manor; they have been together ever since. "I had a lot of plans for France, but falling in love was not one of them - and with an Israeli yet." His Zionist grandmother did not like the fact that he was not living in Israel. "From her point of view it was a failure. They immigrated for Zionist reasons, they left behind all they had - but if I left for France, I was essentially telling my grandmother that she had failed and that something here hadn't worked out."

We have deeply disappointed our ancestors. It seems we're carrying a lot on our shoulders but we refuse to bear it.

"It's their fault. If they had raised us without shame and without rejecting the places they came from, there wouldn't be this desire and need to know these things. That's aside from the fact that something has gone wrong here. We understand where we live. I read the headlines today about the things that [the new national security adviser] Yaakov Amidror said ['A soldier who refuses to charge should be shot in the head.'] People in our generation need to come to a decision, or they'll become addicted to paranoia, racism, xenophobia and this madness that the whole world is against us and Israel is our home. There is an alternative."

The alternative according to Sakal will emerge out of a place of strength here, "and out of our disgust and concern for the place where we live. There are two groups here. There are the separatists, the nationalists, Yisrael Beitenu [the right-wing party] and all its metastases - and the group of people who, out of modesty first of all, but also out of openness, conduct a dialogue with other cultures in the world, with the places from which they came. I would call this 'the world is our home.' This doesn't make me less Israeli. I'm not ready to accept a situation in which we are dragged against our will, that we're hostages to this separatism."

Sakal says that when his Syrian grandmother told him stories about Damascus, he was ashamed: "I spent years in Europe and I am very familiar with Ashkenazi Jewish culture. I have a degree in Jewish studies, which was mostly Ashkenazi Judaism. I have worked with Holocaust survivors, but I don't know anything about the place my family comes from. I sat facing her and felt terrible. And there was no reason, there's no Holocaust story here, there is nothing to repress. On the other hand, she gets angry with me [when I speak of this.] 'Ya ibni,' she says, 'What do you need this for?'"

Asked if he returned to Israel because he missed life here, Sakal says: "I left France because, among other things, you have to strip yourself completely of all Israeli identity to be accepted there," he explains, but stresses that he did not encounter anti-Semitism. "The only time people spoke to me rudely was when I was promoted at work and a colleague of mine, a French Jew, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, said that I was a dirty foreigner who was taking bread out of their mouths."

His work for the Israeli Center for Libraries and its translation division reflects his worldview, and the reasons he returned to Israel.

"Paradoxically, these days, when the spirit of isolation and cultural paranoia prevails - in which separatism and extreme nationalism close in on us from all sides - the translation division is a protective barrier against all of that. It is a bridge to world cultures, and represents the desire for a cultural life and creativity that stems from a dialogue in space and time."

Sakal says in summary that we must decide "whether we long for a separatist culture, a kind of monolingual, mono-cultural autarchy which exists within a sterile, isolated and closed circle, which will necessarily lead to xenophobic art, crazed by persecution. Or whether we seek to have a proud culture that preserves its uniqueness, but also knows to look directly at what goes on around it and is not afraid to look up at the lofty peaks of the cultures of the world."