Thursday, July 13, 2006

Mizrahi (02 November 2005)

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Last update - 00:54 11/02/2005
Trapped in a group photograph
Amir believes in the distinction between private and public worlds, between an insistence on a human, personal touch with the Palestinian populace and support for perpetuation of the occupation
By Yochai Oppenheimer
"Yasmin" ("Jasmine") by Eli Amir, Am Oved Publishers, 411 pages, NIS 84Several years ago, Ella Shohat wrote about the hybrid Jewish-Arab identity of Jews from Islamic countries and about the demand made of those Jews who immigrated to Israel soon after it was established - namely, for repression of that identity and for adoption of an Israeli identity free of Arab characteristics.This "Arabness" was generally limited to "folklore" and a nostalgia for Baghdad, for its coffee shops, for Arab music and Arabic language and, at the same time, for the life the Jews had led in a traditional, hierarchical society prior to their crisis of immigration.Writers like Sami Michael, Shimon Balas and Eli Amir represented this "Arabness" as a litmus test of Israeli society's liberalism and its capacity for enabling the presence of an ethnic culture. However, the new perspective created by these writers expressed no doubt as to the validity of nationalistic positions. The "agenda" of this ethnic writing left no room for political questions pertaining to the attitude toward Arabs in Israel or Palestinians, and instead focused solely on confronting social and cultural issues.In Eli Amir's "Jasmine," Arab-Jewish identity is translated for the first time into the political context that is part of today's headlines. The novel concentrates on the first year after the Six-Day War of June 1967 and surveys the perspectives of Arabs living in East Jerusalem - including those of Abu Nabil, the Muslim nationalist, versus Abu George, the realistic and pragmatic Christian; of radicals versus moderates; and especially of Jasmine, Abu George's daughter, a young widow who has spent five years studying in Paris and has now returned for a visit with her family that becomes a prolonged stay.On the other hand, the narrative also observes the perspectives of Nuri, a Jew who has immigrated to Israel from Iraq and is an adviser on Arab affairs; of a professor of Middle Eastern studies; of a cabinet minister; of an official whose father was killed right before his eyes many years earlier; and of Nuri's parents, brother and uncle.This is a sort of group photograph that primarily presents both the ideological boundaries within which the Israeli and Palestinian national psyches are trapped and the absence of a common denominator that could enable a dialogue beyond the military-power equation between Israelis and Palestinians. To describe the political discourse on both sides, the novel includes many essay-like passages that present disagreements among the Jews themselves, and among the Arabs themselves, as well as arguments between Jews and Arabs that repeat, ad nauseum, the same worn-out rhetoric: the Palestinians' demand concerning the right of return and their perception of what they call the Nakba ("catastrophe") of the creation of Israel in 1948, in contrast to the certainty among the Jews that the Arabs want to liquidate Israel. Readers interested in a depiction of the post-1967-war political mood in Israeli and Palestinian society will find considerable material in this novel.Hybrid identityAmir's book might never have been possible were it not for the intensive writing in recent years on Jewish-Arab relations (Yitzhak Laor, Ronit Matalon, Michal Govrin, etc.), and for the tradition of love stories that has always been a part of Israeli fiction, in which "enemy lines" are crossed and a romance between a Jewish woman and an Arab man, or between an Arab woman and a Jewish man, develops. However, unlike other Israeli writers, whose radical thinking and rejection of conventional Israeli narratives serve as the basis for their political identification with the Arab case, Amir prefers yet again to connect with his Arab-Jewish identity and to be a "member of the Arab world."Recognition of this hybrid identity enables the novel's hero to note the ever-increasing discrepancy between his human sensitivity to the suffering of the occupied, and his establishment role as a representative of the occupying power. He slowly becomes aware of his inability to provide the Israeli occupation with an enlightened tone of consideration for the personal needs of the occupied Palestinians - without, of course, jeopardizing "security" needs or the continuation of control of the Palestinians.This process of self-awareness ultimately leads the protagonist to submit his resignation. His emotional position does not stem from an identification with the "other" - as is the case with the above-mentioned authors - but rather from an identification with his own self - with the refugee inside him, whose Arabness was silenced and whose suffering as a Jewish refugee who lost his homeland is not much different from the suffering of the Palestinians.Amir believes in the distinction between private and public worlds, between an insistence on a human, personal touch with the Palestinian populace and support for perpetuation of the occupation - namely, for its transformation into an invisible occupation. However, this option of an enlightened occupation is doomed to failure: The personal search of Palestinians at checkpoints, the refusal to permit a husband, a refugee, to return home for the sake of family reunification, and the confiscation of assets and property of Palestinians - all these repeatedly articulate the nature of the occupation in the novel, just as such acts do in reality. Like the slogans granting Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern descent) the status of mediators in the peace process, the mottos spouted by the regime's spokespersons and agents about peaceful Jewish-Arab coexistence are intended to blur the occupation's concreteness. The hero learns to examine, in a critical manner, his self-image as a "member of the Histadrut labor federation" and as "someone who enjoys the intoxicating feeling that I represent the regime and that everyone accedes to my requests and greets me with a smile."Contact with Arabs also enables him to become someone who represents Palestinian political positions, with which he has not previously identified. Personal contact, which evolves into a romance, between Nuri and Jasmine, generates an unexpected metamorphosis in her as well: Once a young woman with a bitter animosity toward Israelis, Jasmine now becomes aware that "our occupiers walk about, like us, with wounded hearts" and she is even able to display an understanding of what she herself terms "your somod - your love for this land." Although the enemy has not become a friend, the goal is to offer both the possibilities for identification with the "other" and the limits of any nationalist position that claims to represent absolute justice.Doubtful achievementDespite these transformations, it seems that if the characters' private lives boil down only to this, the literary achievement made by this novel is doubtful. Amir also believes in the ability of his hero, whose mother tongue is Arabic, to create a closer dialogue with his Arab lover. This is also the mission his dispatchers assign him: to exploit the linguistic closeness to "explain our position." However, the novel fails to present a common language, a "discourse of love," that can break free from the political discourse around which all dialogue, even the "intimate" one being conducted here, revolves. Jasmine's decision to speak with Nuri only in English - rather than Arabic (the mother tongue of both) or Hebrew (in which they are both fluent) - points to the diplomatic nature of their relationship. A language of love is too intolerably close to the political language ("`My gentle occupier,' she whispered, her eyes brimming with tears") or it is absent, because it has no place in the dialogue that takes place between them ("I wanted to tell her, in Hebrew and Arabic and every language in the world, all the words of love I had dreamed an entire year of uttering, but the release and my dizziness made me forget everything") - a dialogue that is unable to conceal the poverty of the novel's private-linguistic space."Jasmine" is a story built in accordance with a pattern that is very common in Israeli fiction. What can we expect from yet another love story between a Jewish man and an Arab woman, who is Christian, well-educated - and, of course, beautiful - and free in her attitudes and behavior? This is, after all, the same fantasy so prevalent in Hebrew fiction since Moshe Smilansky's first short story, "The Loving Stroke" (1906): the attraction to an Arab woman that cannot be realized and which is connected to her desire to be free of her backward society. The price of this fantasy has not changed over the years: Smilansky describes the Jewish woman he marries only because she resembles the Arab woman he loves. Amir also describes his hero's inability to establish an emotional relationship with Israeli Jewish women, while his true love must remain forbidden and impossible. On the other hand, the lives of Arab women who have been unable to consummate their love for a Jewish man are fated to be horrible and suffocating. The heroes of these tales are continually compelled to admit the presence of national boundaries with which they cannot cope. These short stories are "moving," "touching," but also sterile, because their plots and endings are predictable. The only element that is open in such a structure is the setting of the private space, which is always tainted with verbal violence and nationalistic suspicions, and which displays an inability to handle the burden and to present a deep and powerful opposition to what is so familiar.Thus, Nuri, his father and uncle appear in this narrative as individuals who, in contrast with the victory-intoxicated Israeli public at the time, understand that the occupied territories must be immediately returned to their rightful owners, even without the booby-trapped formula of "land for peace." From this standpoint, the Mizrahi identity demonstrates its innocence and its distance from its stereotypical identification with chauvinism and hatred for Arabs.Mizrahi formulaIn this context of cleansing the Mizrahi identity, the author even tends to make the reader forget about the trauma of the banishment from Iraq and about the difficult experience of adjusting to a new country. The characters of Iraqi origin are assigned a formula, which they proclaim and which frees them from the feeling of personal failure that haunts them (for example, "We were refugees like them, but today, thank God, we have everything we need - hats off to the Mapai Party!"). Nonetheless, the fascinating emotional tensions characteristic of Amir's previous works, such as tensions within the family, are given no expression in this novel, which has no characters who inspire any rage or genuine pity in the reader's heart. Amir spares no effort to prove that his Mizrahi hero is another breed of Israeli man: one who is not a chauvinist, not indifferent to the suffering of the occupied, gentle in his relations with women, diffident, considerate of others to an admirable degree, and - this is most important - complex, displaying a double identity (he can quote both Haim Nahman Bialik and Umm Kulthum). This, so it seems to be, is the novel's chief goal.Connected to this goal is the role of the novel's "good Arabs." It is the purpose of Jasmin and her father to love Nuri, to give him the legitimacy that Israeli society, in its blindness, cannot grant him, for example, in the linguistic field. Unlike what we find in Amir's book, "Farewell, Baghdad," Nuri's language is meager, lacks any ethnic or cultural uniqueness and has no stylistic freshness. However, in Jasmine's eyes, his linguistic sensitivity is that of a poet. Despite this legitimization, Nuri cannot dispense with the bear hug of the state with which he identifies because of his job and, apparently, also because of his personality. Like a tour guide, he takes Jasmine to the cemetery on the shores of Lake Kinneret, where the members of the Second Aliyah (wave of immigration) are buried and where she finally understands what Zionism really is. The connection between Nuri and his Palestinian lover cannot disengage itself from the state or from the official rhetoric of its "founding fathers." Because he served them, he was chosen for his present job, and in gratitude, he brings his lover to the founding fathers' graves.Beyond the successful lesson it teaches regarding the relative justice of the "other's" case - a lesson that the book imparts with a sense of mission - where does "Jasmine" intend to throw these two lovers? Nuri knows that he cannot offer Jasmine marriage because of the anticipated opposition of his mother and family. Neither Jasmine nor Nuri can think of another option. The decision as to where to end the story (Jasmine's departure and the murder of Radid, who refuses to accede to her husband's demand that she immigrate to Jordan) reflects a certain melt-down stemming from a predictable failure, from the constantly repeated sense that reality "is not a partner" for those who love and suffer.How serious is the love affair between Nuri and Jasmine and how much does the author's flirtation with his Arab characters stem from narcissistic needs? Apparently this closely resembles the enlightened occupier's flirtation with the occupied, the sole purpose of it being to obtain the occupied's admission of both the occupying power's humanity and the good faith in which its hand is extended in peace. This commodity is supplied by the likable Abu George, who for a moment transcends his national-political standpoint: "Even your occupation has a positive element. We have brought Jasmine back. You will never know how grateful I am to you. You have rescued my daughter."In his latest novel, Amir graphically illustrates what Fredric Jameson terms the "prison-house of language." The enlightened occupier who proclaims words of "heresy" regarding the consensus is no different, in this respect, from the benighted occupier who proclaims messianic visions. The "prison-house" also relates to the selection of a shop-worn format that turns literary creations into a constant, harmless chaperon of the occupation, into a means of generating excitement that does not require any commitment and relates to the complexity of the conflict between two nations and to the human tragedy involved. Other authors who have chosen this format were aware of its limitations and thus felt compelled to find stratagems to save the story from its format. Generally, alternative formats appear, the story and the character are fragmented, or a variety of attempts are made to neutralize and distort the predictable outcome. In Amir's case, however, no alternative is offered, nor is he apparently seeking one. His clinging to the cliches of the political discourse and to the figures of the leaders of the period (Levi Eshkol, Moshe Dayan and Gamal Abdul Nasser), who mesmerize him, creates a "realistic" novel, as the back cover announces, but one that lacks a suitable independent artistic stance.Yochai Oppenheimer teaches Hebrew literature at Tel Aviv University. His book (in Hebrew), "Political Poetry in Israel," has been published by Magnes.

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