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Yael Lerer: The Word in Times of Crisis

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  • World View
    Here a worthwhile piece by Yael Lerer, who is proactively engaged in cultural bridging in her unique initiative Andalus: http://www.oznik.com/words/041116.html
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 5, 2004
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      Here a worthwhile piece by Yael Lerer, who is proactively engaged in
      cultural bridging in her unique initiative Andalus:

      http://www.oznik.com/words/041116.html

      The Word in Times of Crisis
      Given at Mare Nostrum III:
      The Mediterranean: Dividing Waters or Common Ground?
      The role of literature and writers in a world in conflict,
      Cyprus – Nov.5th-7th 2004,
      The European Writers' Congress (EWC) and the Cyprus Writers Union
      (CWU).
      Yael Lerer
      16 Nov. 2004

      The title of this session is "The Word in Times of Crisis," and I
      was invited here to speak as an Israeli who translates Arabic
      literature into Hebrew. My assumption, later confirmed by the
      organizers of this event, was that I has been invited to talk about
      OUR times of crisis—that of Israelis and Palestinians. But before I
      address THE WORD in times of crisis, I would like to say a few words
      about THE CRISIS ITSELF. There is no "time of crisis" in
      Israel/Palestine. There is a permanent state of conflict between
      colonizer and colonized, occupier and occupied, the privileged and
      the disenfranchised.

      This conflict is rooted in the Zionist enterprise, in the very idea
      of a "land without people for a people without a land." It
      intensified after the Nakba—the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948 in
      which some 3/4 of a million Palestinians were expelled from their
      homeland—and continued with the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza
      in 1967, which has now entered its 38th year. Today, one can say
      that this conflict is "stabilizing" (if one can use such a term in
      the context of ongoing horror), in the form of an Apartheid-like
      regime. I use Apartheid-like because there is no other term at my
      disposal to describe the policy of unequal separation unilaterally
      enforced by Israel, beginning with "roads for Jews" and "roads for
      Arabs"—if the latter are lucky enough to have a functional road at
      all—and on to separate tracks for almost every other function or
      facet of daily life.

      Thus, it is very difficult for me to relate to the current reality
      as a "time of crisis," an anomalous epoch disrupting the would-be
      normalcy of the times.

      Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the current situation is
      particularly harsh. In the past month alone, some 430 Palestinians
      were injured, 140 Palestinians were killed—including 25 children
      under the age of 18. The Israeli army damaged at least 230 homes in
      the northern Gaza Strip, including 85 housing units ground to dust.
      The Israelis called this operation, or 2 weeks of wanton
      destruction "The Days of Repentance."

      In Judaism, the "Days of Repentance" mark the 10 days between the
      Jewish New Year—Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement.
      These are the days during which every Jewish man and woman should be
      soul-searching, and asking for forgiveness from friends and foes
      alike, as well as from God. Days of good deeds, prayers, and
      appeals. The Day of Atonement is the climax in a process of
      expressing regret, begging for mercy, and demonstrating kindness. On
      Yom Kippur 2004, the Israeli army destroyed 45 houses in Gaza.
      The operation "Days of Repentance" was launched four days later, on
      the eve of Sukkoth, the holiday of harvest, of reaping what you sow.
      A seven-day holiday during which most Israelis are on vacation,
      public festivities are held around the country, attended by hundreds
      of thousands of people. The Hebrew media were full of images of
      Israelis at leisure, at play, celebrating in the traditional
      makeshift tabernacle known as the sukka. Almost nonexistent were
      images of the Palestinians forced into makeshift huts FOR REAL
      because their homes, and their lives, were being systematically
      destroyed.

      As a Jew, this reality is unbearable, and calls my work, if not my
      life in this country, into question. How can one hear such news, and
      then pick up the phone to call the literary supplements to find out
      if this or that book is going to be reviewed? How can one get angry
      at the fact that nobody has noticed that Andalus—the publishing
      house I founded and run—has printed a new title, when nobody notices
      what's taking place next door. As a private person, and an Israeli
      citizen, it is more important that I pick up the phone to call the
      editors of the daily papers to find out why they are omitting news
      of the ongoing massacre in Gaza. Before Israeli readers should get
      to know Arabic literature, they should know AND CARE about the
      crimes that are being perpetrated in their name. At times like
      these, it seems that to do anything other than to struggle against
      the occupation is to normalize an unbearable situation. By
      normalize, I mean treat the abnormal, the intolerable, as if it were
      routine.

      Indeed, OUR "Time of Crisis," has being going on for over 100 years,
      though, as I noted earlier, since the Nakba of 1948, it has become a
      permanent state of expulsion, dispossession, oppression, and
      occupation. I was born into this conflict, it wasn't a matter of
      choice. I was also born into the Hebrew language, my mother tongue
      as well as that of both my parents. Since I became a conscious
      adult, I have found this reality intolerable, but more importantly,
      I have tried to assume responsibility for it. I am the expeller, the
      dispossessor, the oppressor, the occupier. It was I who riddled the
      tender 13-year-old body of Iman al-Hams of Rafah with 20 live
      bullets; it is I who holds the key to the locked gate in the wall
      that separates Palestinian schoolchildren from their school.
      Yet in any other country, and any other tongue, I would feel myself
      a stranger, an immigrant. My fierce criticism of Zionism
      notwithstanding, it created me, along with several million other
      native Hebrew speakers whose only homeland was established upon the
      ruins of another. Knowing this, it is my responsibility to fight for
      national and civic equality between Arabs and Jews; to work for
      historic reconciliation based on the Israeli recognition of the
      Palestinian Right of Return; for a life of partnership, justice, and
      equality. The only framework in which I can envision realizing these
      values, is a bi-national one. To quote Israeli historian Amnon Raz-
      Krakotzkin, who proposes bi-nationalism as the basis for rethinking
      a political alternative.

      Bi-national is first of all a description of the existing reality.
      And since the national distinction—Jews vs. Arabs—is the basis for
      the definition of this reality, the bi-national position is the only
      one which embodies the demand to dismantle the mechanisms by which
      the Jewish collective asserts control over the Arab collective. The
      bi-national position launches a discussion that integrates the
      various aspects of the so-called "Palestinian question"—usually
      discussed separately: the occupied territories, the refugees, the
      Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the future of the Jewish
      collective in Israel and its surrounding Arab environment.
      In Raz-Krakotzkin's words:

      "The discussion is a single discussion: the question of the Jews and
      the question of the Arabs. One can not speak of Jewish rights
      without speaking about Palestinian rights. Similarly, one cannot
      accept a separation between the discussion on the occupation and the
      discussion on the Jewish character of the State of Israel, as though
      they were separate issues. Only by combining these discussions, is
      change likely to occur."

      Raz-Krakotzkin evokes the term bi-nationalism not as an alternative
      to a Palestinian state in the form of a single state, but rather as
      an alternative to the principle of "separation," a precept that has
      informed Zionism from the outset. It was Labor's last Prime
      Minister, Ehud Barak, who put it to cynical use in his electoral
      campaign with the barefaced slogan (borrowed from the extreme
      right!): "We are Here and They are There!" WE being the Jews and
      THEY being the Arabs. Adopting separation as THE precondition
      for "peace," as THE necessary requirement for Israeli recognition of
      a Palestinian state, has meant that under the guise of Israeli
      withdrawal, Israel has in fact intensified the occupation by
      expanding settlements, paving bypass roads, and confiscating great
      amounts of land in order to orchestrate separation upon separation.
      The massive wall under construction deep inside the West Bank, is
      but this precept's most recent and blatant physical example.
      To quote Raz-Krakotzkin again:

      "Bi-nationalism, in the broad sense, is the question of the Arab-
      Jew, and its aim is to counter the Orientalist paradigm that pits
      one of these identities against the other—in all the senses that
      paradigm functions as a basis for the definition of Israeli culture…
      The category Arab-Jew isn't merely marking an identity that was and
      still is the basis for the consciousness of Arab Jews [i.e., Jews
      who originated in Arab lands]: it is meant to constitute a basis for
      defining the consciousness of every Israeli, the new basis for
      Israeli identity, whose existence and right to do so, must be
      premised on their existence in the Arab world. As long as Israeli
      discourse is premised on the dichotomy Arab vs. Jew, it will be
      impossible to frame an alternative. Arab-Jew is, thus, a call for
      partnership based on the decolonization of Jewish identity in all
      senses and contexts."

      Andalus Publishing is guided by such a bi-national conception, by
      the assumption that the only life possible is a life together, in
      Israel-Palestine and in our larger Arab surroundings. Of course,
      this should include cultural partnership, literary partnership.
      Andalus seeks to foster points of contact between Hebrew and Arabic
      literature, the Hebrew and Arabic languages, and the worlds (and
      words) they convey; to imbed Arabic literature into the Hebrew
      experience; to create a textual middle ground, an intermediate
      cultural space that blurs borders but avoids the pitfalls of
      Orientalism, which distances rather than draws closer. Blurring
      borders means resisting the hegemonic dictate to separate and
      refusing to accept the false binary Arab vs. Jew.
      Andalus Publishing seeks to evoke a shared Arab-Jewish past.
      Andalus, the site of the "golden age" of Islamic and Jewish thought,
      where Arabic and Jewish cultures fed and fertilized one another, was
      also an epoch known for its literary and intellectual output by some
      of the greatest Muslim and Jewish philosophers, theologians, and
      poets. It was a period during which texts were translated and ideas
      exchanged freely from Arabic to Hebrew and vice versa.
      Andalus was established a few months BEFORE the outbreak of the
      current Intifada. Here I must admit that, despite my clarification
      at the outset, the feeling of crisis we have been in since October
      2000: the daily killings, the spiraling Israeli descent into
      fascism, would have precluded Andalus' establishment a few months
      AFTER the outbreak of the current Intifada. That is to say, I had
      yet to learn (!) to accept horror as a fixed situation—which it
      isn't, it only gets worse by the year.

      Between 1932—when Menahem Kapeliuk's Hebrew translation of Taha
      Hussein's Al-Ayyam (The Days) was published in Tel Aviv—and 2000,
      less than 40 Arabic language fiction titles were translated from
      Arabic into Hebrew. Most of these were authored by Egyptians and
      Palestinians (before Andalus Publishing began operating, not a
      single Syrian, Iraqi, or North African writer was translated to
      Hebrew from Arabic—the Moroccan Taher Ben Jaloun was translated from
      French as were a number of others). Of these, only three are women:
      the Palestinians Sahar Khalife and Fadwa Tuqan, and the Egyptian
      Nawal al-Sa'adawi.
      Contemporary Arabic writers who have been translated into many
      languages, and, needless to say, are well known to every literate
      Arab, remain unknown to the Hebrew reader, save for the Egyptian
      Nobel laureate Nagib Mahfouz. The names of authors such as the
      Egyptian Sunallah Ibrahim, the Syrian Zakaria Tamer, the Lebanese
      Hanan al-Sheikh and Elias Khoury, not to mention the late Iraqi Jew
      Samir Naqash who wrote in Arabic and published from his home in
      Petach Tiqva, Israel are not familiar to the Israeli public, nor is
      their extensive body of literary work.

      Despite Israel's location in the heart of the Arab world, Hebrew-
      reading Israelis remain, for the most part, unexposed to Arabic
      culture in general, and Arabic literature and thought in particular.
      Until recently it was nearly impossible to find translations of
      narratives that might enable the Hebrew reader to understand Arab
      societies and the various, complex experiences that shape the lives
      of the people who comprise them.

      What could be more normal than translating Hanan al-Sheikh or Hoda
      Barakat into Hebrew? And here we arrive at the greatest paradox of
      all. While at Andalus we are guided by a conception that seeks to
      normalize Jewish existence in the Arab world, we must ask ourselves
      day in and day out whether or not acting "normal" also normalizes
      the current situation, which, as I noted before is not only
      abnormal, but intolerable.

      Questions of normalization preoccupy not only us. In may 2001,
      following Andalus' appeal to several Arab writers to grant us
      permission to translate and publish their works, an intensive debate
      broke out among Arab writers and intellectuals over the pages of the
      Arabic press on the pros and cons of translating Arabic literature
      into Hebrew, re-examining the question of cultural normalization.
      The late Edward Said was fierce in his attack on those Arab writers
      who oppose having their works translated into Hebrew. Over the pages
      of Al-Hayat he wrote:

      "Take the recent campaign against the translation of Arabic books
      into Hebrew. One would have thought that the more Arabic literature
      is available in Israel, the better able Israelis are to understand
      us as a people, and to stop treating us as animals or less-than-
      human. Instead we have the sorry spectacle of serious Arab writers
      actually denouncing their colleagues for "allowing" themselves
      to "normalize" with Israel, which is the idiotic phrase used as an
      accusation for collaborating with the enemy. Isn't it the case, as
      Julien Benda was the first to say, that intellectuals are supposed
      to go against collective passions instead of trading in them
      demagogically? How on earth is a Hebrew translation an act of
      collaboration? Getting into a foreign language is always a victory
      for the writer. Always and in each case. Isn't it a far more
      intelligent and useful thing than the craven "normalization" of the
      various countries that have trade and diplomatic relationships with
      the enemy even as Palestinians are being killed like so many flies
      by the Israeli army and air force? Aren't Hebrew translations of
      Arabic literature a way of entering Israeli life culturally, making
      a positive effect in it, changing people's mind from bloody passion
      to reasonable understanding of Israel's Arab Others, especially when
      it is Israeli publishers who have gone and published the
      translations as a sign of cultural protest against Israel's
      barbarous Arab policy?"

      Although I agree with Said's every word, I must say that as time
      (that of crisis and that of heightened crisis) goes by, my pessimism
      only grows deeper, and the answers to these question appear ever-
      less clear.

      Yael Lerer is the founder of Andalus Publishing, publisher of Arabic
      Literature in Hebrew translation.

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