The Colombian Writer With Jewish Roots Who Became a Muslim Before Moving to Israel

Antonio Ungar met his Palestinian wife, writer Zahiye Kundos, in Iowa. To be with her in Israel, he first had to prove he had Jewish relatives who perished in the Holocaust. His next task was to adopt her religion – Islam.

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A bird's eye view of Jaffa.
A bird's eye view of Jaffa.Credit: Tal Cohen
Neri Livneh
Neri Livneh
Neri Livneh
Neri Livneh

The same story repeats itself every time Antonio Ungar flies into Ben-Gurion International Airport. “The security people just can’t figure out my story,” he tells me. “How can it be that I have an Israeli passport and I don’t speak Hebrew? And then they also see the Arabic names of my children. So I’m taken aside every time and searched. If Zahiye, my partner, is nearby, she starts shouting and it all works out in the end, but it has definitely become annoying.”

Ungar’s story, and the twists in his life that led him to be living in Israel, are indeed too complex for the airport’s security guards.

Ungar has Jewish grandparents and a Christian mother; he himself is a Muslim. He was born in Bogota to a distinguished family. His grandparents, Hans and Lilly Ungar, owned the largest bookstore in the city, where leading South American writers met for intellectual encounters. Many of them, including Gabriel Garcia Marquez, are also said to have stolen books from the store.

Gabriel García Márquez.Credit: AP

Hans and Lilly arrived in Bogota, separately, from Austria to escape Nazism. “Because he was a Jew in Bogota and she also was a Jew in Bogota, they had no choice but to marry,” Ungar says, jokingly. The two, who also managed an important gallery, became figures of such surpassing importance in the Colombian cultural milieu that references to them can be found in novels and short stories. Their grandson did not benefit from their prominence in that milieu as a boy, however.

“Many of the writers had already died when I was growing up, and the majority of the others left Colombia. Famous writers don’t stay in Colombia,” he says.

Six years ago, when he was 35, Ungar won the most coveted prize in Spanish literature, the Premio Herralde de Novela. He was the first non-Spanish author to win the prize, which he received for his novel “Tres atáudes blancos” (“Three White Coffins,” also recently published in Hebrew translation).

Ungar is very well known among readers of Spanish. At age 23, he published a highly successful book of short stories, followed by three novels. He and his wife, the Palestinian writer Zahiye Kundos, live in Jaffa but travel frequently to Colombia.

“Three White Coffins,” which is suspenseful and funny, on the brink of the fantastic, contains a love story, but in the main tells of corruption and violence that take place in a South American country called Miranda. Miranda lies at the foot of the Andes and is remarkably similar to the Colombia in which Ungar himself grew up: Corruption is rife, the gaps between rich and poor are intolerable; private armies, death squads and drug dealers terrorize the populace and kill at will.

Antonio Ungar.Credit: Yanai Yechiel

The president, whose name is Tomás del Pito (the surname slang for “the cock”), a diminutive and scary person and talented spin doctor, liquidates people so that he can transfer state land to his own private ownership, and it looks as though he will rule for all time. When, for the first time, the opposition party seems to have a chance to win an election, its leader is assassinated while gorging on cannelloni.

Enter the novel’s protagonist and narrator, Lorenzo Cantona, a kind of corpulent, Oblomov-like ne’er do well, and a slothful contrabass player, who is a perpetual source of disappointment to his father. Cantona, who bears a close resemblance to the murdered opposition leader, wants to impersonate him, in order to topple the del Pito regime at the polls.

Famous writers don’t stay in Colombia.

Of course, the opposition party, whose declared goal is to protect the poor, turns out to be no less corrupt than the ruling party, and its leaders are equally clever, shifty types who are also rolling in money. The hero’s fate as an impostor places him in constant danger, but in return he’s thrust into an impossible love story.

Transcending genres

Ungar’s novel is a new type, transcending genres, post-realistic but also surrealistic at times. I asked him whether Miranda is Colombia.

“Obviously,” he replied. “People in Colombia who read the book immediately identified the politicians I depicted.”

Aren’t you afraid of the Colombian authorities? If I understood the book, opponents of the regime tend to get liquidated there, no?

“No. Colombia is a very rough place, but not for everyone and certainly not in the capital. It’s a very tough place for the poor – not only do they suffer from grinding poverty, they are also killed in large numbers – but it’s a very comfortable place for the middle class. Besides which, I have maybe 2,000 readers in Colombia – most of my readers are outside Colombia.

Is your family from the middle class?

“Yes, my father was an architect and my mother was engaged in art and afterward in education.”

We are joined by Ungar’s wife, Zahiye Kundos. “What kind of middle class do you have in mind?” she asks him. “Your family is from a very high class in Bogota. Everyone knows them. I know this,” she tells me, “because we lived there for two years, and my status was like that of my husband. It was very pleasant, but on the other hand, the very class-based society there upset me, and so did the huge social disparities.”

Ungar and the Jaffa-born Kundos met in 2005, at an international program run by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop: He represented Colombia; she, Israel. She had by then published short stories, mostly about Jaffa, which she wrote in Arabic and then had translated into Hebrew. At the time she was 25 and had a degree in comparative literature; he was 28 and had published two short-story collections to great critical acclaim.

Antonio Ungar and Zahiye Kundos.Credit: Yanai Yechiel

“We met on the first day,” she says, “and fell immediately in love.”

“I was in a six-year relationship,” he recalls, “but the moment I met Zahiye, I knew that this was it, I’d found exactly what I wanted.”

After the workshop was over, the two returned to their respective homes. Driven by his love for Zahiye, Ungar undertook two complicated missions. One was to prove his eligibility for an Israeli passport. That was tricky, because his father, an only child who “was considered a genius,” committed suicide when he was 35. “I don’t know whether he was depressive or bipolar, I only remember that sometimes he would somehow disappear,” says Ungar, adding that he was 10 at the time and was told nothing about the circumstances. “But I felt that there was something strange about the death. I later learned that he shot himself.”

To get the passport, he thus had to produce documents attesting to his grandparents’ Jewishness. “Even though it was obvious that they were Jewish,” he says, “they had no documentation or anything characteristic of the religion or its customs – and of course there was nothing [related to Judaism] in the home of my mother and her second husband, who are non-Jews.

“We are a very secular family,” he continues. “My grandfather also chose to go to Colombia rather than Israel because he was absolutely not a Zionist. I also had to prove that all of my grandfather’s relatives had perished in the Holocaust, which was quite complicated to do.”

The second task he faced was conversion to Islam. As they had decided to be married, and as Zahiye is a believing Muslim who wanted to raise her children in her faith, it was clear that Ungar had to convert.

“I had no emotional problem with that,” he says. “I had never defined myself as a Jew and I don’t define myself as a Muslim now. I am secular, and it makes no difference which religion is ascribed to me. Also, the conversion process is very simple and short – you only have to utter the Testimony of Faith. I did that in a mosque in Bogota and I was converted.”

While Antonio is not a practicing Muslim, Zahiye prays every day.

“What I liked immediately about Antonio is that he let me be what I am,” she says now. “He didn’t ask why, if I prayed, I didn’t wear traditional clothing, for example. It also didn’t bother him that I pray or that I believe, even though he is very secular.”

The couple married in Bogota and then lived there for two years, near Ungar’s mother. Their first child, Karim, was born there, while Ithana and Khalif were born in Jaffa. Since then the family has divided their time between Colombia and Israel.

I had no emotional problem with converting to Islam. I had never defined myself as a Jew and I don’t define myself as a Muslim now.

Ungar worked in other fields before becoming a full-time writer. He studied architecture – “Maybe I had some sort of not fully conscious desire to continue what my father did not have time to accomplish.” But, unlike his father, who he says built magnificent structures, Ungar began working on a project aimed at improving the living conditions of the country’s indigenous population.

Ungar: “I liked that [work] very much. It makes you feel that culture isn’t really important, that everything is relative and that what is most important is to survive.”

While working as an architect, he started to write short stories. “I always liked to tell stories,” he recalls now. “I remember telling stories to my cousin. When I was 16, I spent a year in England on a scholarship. It was a conservative British school. I remember listening to music and writing, but only plots, without real stories.”

Although he enjoyed working as an architect, particularly when it came to design, “there was a big crisis in the construction industry later and I started to write more and more. At some point I decided to choose writing as my main occupation.” A natural enough choice, given the fact that his first book, published when he was just 23, garnered high critical praise.

Ungar says his favorite writers and sources of inspiration are mainly great American authors like William Faulkner. He went to Barcelona to pursue a master’s degree. “However,” he says, “I discovered that it was all theory about theory about theory, and I hardly had time left over to read. I wanted to read Faulkner, but instead I learned about his literary status.” Disappointed, he left the program midway through. “I started to work as a translator and I was also a journalist for several newspapers. So it happened that, without planning to, I stayed in Barcelona for six years.”

It was during that period that he met the Chilean writer Roberto Bolano (“2666”), who more or less became Ungar’s patron: “Generally, my friends are not writers. I believe that in general we writers tend to be full of ourselves and emotionally greedy, at least the Latino-American and Spanish ones. I sometimes prefer people who didn’t study anything, or perhaps studied a little architecture, because they don’t care whether I am a writer or not. The only Spanish-language author who is a friend of mine is Sergio Alvarez. He’s almost a brother, he’s Colombian and an amazing writer. I met him a few times with Roberto Bolano, we were both living in Catalonia, and we really liked each other.”

Roberto Bolano.Credit: Mathieu Bourgois/ FSG / Bloomberg News

No connection to Israel

As a journalist in Barcelona, Ungar harbored clear left-wing views. He himself was raised without any connection to Israel or Zionism, and probably would never have come here if he hadn’t fallen in love with Zahiye.

It’s hard to say that he’s happy with his life in this country, outside the private bubble that includes his family, Zahiye’s family and a few good friends. One apparently doesn’t have to be from Colombia to realize that Israel is not the best place to raise children, certainly if their identity is Palestinian-Colombian.

“It’s true. Both the Jews here are sad and the Palestinians under the occupation are sad, too,” Ungar observes, “It’s not a happy place with a great deal of hope. The only happy people are the Jewish nationalists and the settlers. My mother, of course, very much enjoyed meeting Zahiye’s family, and felt good with them. But Israel is a sad place, and clearly the situation of the occupation is immoral and intolerable.”

Antonio Ungar and Zahiye Kundos with two of their children. Credit: Yanai Yechiel

After six years of living in Jaffa, Ungar speaks neither Hebrew nor Arabic. Zahiye, who spoke English with him when they met, learned Spanish during their stay in Colombia. “People there really want to help you learn,” she says. “Not like here. We Arabs and Jews have no patience for those who do not speak our languages.”

Ungar speaks Spanish with her and with the children; Zahiye speaks Arabic to the children. The two older children attend a French school, where they also speak Hebrew, and Karim will start learning English next year.

I ask Zahiye where her fine Hebrew is from.

“First of all, the Arabs of Jaffa generally know Hebrew,” she replies. “But we didn’t speak Hebrew at home. In fact, the politicization of a Palestinian is measured in inverse proportion to the number of words he says in Hebrew. I went to a really bad high school in Jaffa, and to this day I feel I am missing things I didn’t learn. I only started to speak Hebrew in 12th grade, and after that I worked at a McDonald’s for two years and then went to university in Jerusalem and wrote papers in Hebrew. But you should know that even when we Palestinians speak Hebrew among ourselves, it’s a different Hebrew, we invent words.”

As it happens, Zahiye’s father is a veteran and respected Arabic teacher, but Ungar, after taking a few lessons, decided that he is incapable of learning the language. But part of the problem is also apparently his unwillingness to acknowledge the fact that he lives in Jaffa, Israel.

Israel is not a good place to raise children, and an even worse place for Palestinian children.

“Antonio is a man of the world, he doesn’t care where he lives, as long as the place seems good for his children. I am very rooted and connected to this place,” Zahiye explains. “Don’t talk to him about the possibility of leaving.” Indeed, that subject – whether to stay or to go – is a permanent source of disagreement between them.

“Israel is not a good place to raise children, and an even worse place for Palestinian children,” Ungar asserts.

As far as I understand, Bogota isn’t such a great place, either.

“It depends for whom. For the well-established people, in the city, it is very comfortable. But I don’t insist on [living in] Colombia. I am thinking more of the United States.”

A desire to ‘secularize’

Jaffa's Ajami neighborhood. Credit: Moshe Gilad

Zahiye’s family has lived in Jaffa for many generations (“You don’t ask Palestinians how many generations they have been in Jaffa, because the answer can serve as a basis for dispossessing them,” she explains). Besides being a teacher, her father is a well-known religious educator. The home she was raised in was highly unusual: very observant but at the same time very liberal. “I am the firstborn and I always had my freedom,” she says, adding that she also grew up with an awareness of her Palestinian identity.

“The Palestinian issue was always present at home,” she recalls. “We have family in Gaza – two of my cousins were killed in the last Gaza war [in 2014]. We always talked about Palestine at home. We never considered ourselves Israeli Arabs. I think that today most of the Arabs here think of themselves as Palestinians. When I was a child, my father was regularly interrogated by the Shin Bet security service, because he was a Nasserist. In high school, he wrote Nasser’s slogans on the blackboard. He is very political and very religious, a combination that doesn’t usually go hand in hand with us. The nationalist agenda is to shunt religion aside. But he is both religious and modern – and he also likes to watch belly-dancing.

“My political consciousness developed at a very young age,” Zahiye continues. “For my father, almost everything was an example of oppression by a political mechanism, part of the tendency to turn us into Israelis and make the distinctiveness of Palestinian society disappear. At university, too, I felt the desire to secularize us. I studied comparative literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and of course I couldn’t pray there, because in the university you have to harbor a rational outlook that is ostensibly the opposite of religiosity.”

How do your children identify themselves?

“Well, they are young, but they know, for example, that they live in Palestine. They haven’t heard of Israel.”

Do you have Israeli friends?

“I have many, but the barrier is always political, and the balance of power can’t be changed. Before I speak to someone, I always have to find out what his political outlook is. In Colombia I can connect this political place to the local culture, which is Western, without this mediation. In fact, Colombia also made it possible for me to understand the Holocaust. The Palestinians don’t relate to the Holocaust, because you say that the Holocaust caused the War of Independence, meaning the Nakba.

“Here in Israel, it’s a political story. But in Colombia I learned about the Holocaust through the eyes of Antonio’s grandmother, and I saw the Holocaust with eyes of tremendous human suffering, Jewish suffering. But when I get back here, suddenly the Holocaust becomes an Israeli matter.”

Zahiye was socially and politically active from an early age. She took part in campaigns against the gentrification of Jaffa, specifically against Jewish-owned construction projects in the Ajami neighborhood, and also on behalf of establishment of a local bilingual school. Her children don’t go there, though, because of the uncertainty about where the Ungar-Kundos family will end up living.

“I haven’t been very active for a few years now,” she admits. “There’s the doctorate, and then having three children. But I do want to go back to activity, maybe in Zochrot” – a group of Israeli activists that seeks to expand awareness of the Nakba.

Her Ph.D. thesis, which she is undertaking at Tel Aviv University’s School of Cultural Studies, deals with “Islam’s confrontation with modernity and modernity’s confrontation with Islam” – a subject that, she says, is actually the story of her life. “I refer to a 19th-century magazine that tried to expose the fact that colonialism is bad for the local inhabitants,” she notes. “Because some of the people believed that colonialism in the Middle East was beneficial to them. It amazes me, but there are Palestinians who think it’s preferable to remain under Israeli rule. I know that I enjoy privileges as a citizen – I go to Ramallah and I see that I am privileged. I know that my living conditions are far better than in the West Bank, that things are better for my children, but I don’t think I have to be grateful to the State of Israel for that.”

What happens when there’s a terrorist attack, such as the one in Jaffa a few months ago? [The March 8 stabbing attack by a 22-year-old Palestinian refugee killed one and wounded another eight. The stabber was shot dead too.]

“That’s what we talk about these days at home, and it’s not an easy discussion. I am referring to my parents’ home, not my home with Antonio, who wants us to leave anyway. I think that terrorist acts have not proved themselves in the sense of achieving a Palestinian position of strength. In the past I thought it was right to use force against colonialism, but it hasn’t proved itself. It’s a huge dilemma. Because, on the one hand, I can’t condemn a domestic terrorist attack – that is, from the standpoint of Palestinian society.

“I hear ‘terrorist attack’ and immediately think about that boy who effectively committed suicide and how much harder his life was than mine. And my sister, who is far more political than I am, says: He lived under a different burden from what you experience. On the other hand, like everyone else, I am afraid for my children. I live here, too. It’s a subject of big arguments between me and Antonio, who sees no future for this place at all.”

Zahiye says that only someone who comes from the outside, like Antonio, can understand and accept the apparent contradictions in local society. “Antonio doesn’t see the contradictions that we see here,” she explains. “He doesn’t see a contradiction between the fact that I dress like a secular person and also pray, because here either you are religious or national or modern, and I am all of them together. Antonio’s whole family is very free in its soul, and Antonio possesses a great inner freedom, which is why he can accommodate everyone in his heart. That is the kind of inner freedom I would like to have. It’s also consistent with the values I was raised in, and Antonio is helping me to be more free.”

Ungar: “Even before I got here, I had a very clear opinion, opposing the prolonged occupation. I am against all forms of colonialism and oppression everywhere. But to see things close-up and through the Palestinian eyes of my family makes it far more difficult. Especially because we also have other possibilities, and in any event, Zahiye is about to finish her doctorate and then we will undoubtedly go abroad for a few years of postdoctoral studies.”



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