Can writers put an end to war, or at least lessen ethnic and international strife?
Perhaps, answers Norwegian novelist and journalist Isaksen, adding, “Should this even be their task?” Following the lead of South African novelist André Brink, who averred that his fellow South African writers contributed to the collapse of the apartheid system merely by reading each other’s works, Isaksen takes the question to 15 Palestinian and Israeli writers. Depressingly, many of them answer to the effect that if it weren’t for the other guys then there would be no problem, as when novelist and Palestinian Minister of Culture Yahya Yakhlif declares, “The Israelis are our enemy!...But we don’t write about the Israelis as animals, in the way that the Israelis write about others.” Some of young writer Ghassan Zaqtan’s best friends are Jews, and he takes pains to acknowledge “the depth of Jewish culture,” adding, “but Israeli culture is completely different.” Poet Zakariyya Muhammad takes a broader view, remarking that fundamentalists cannot be good writers, at least about modern society—but again there are finger-pointing qualifications, as when he remarks, “I firmly believe that this insane version of Islam that we’re experiencing now is a product of the US and its allies.” On the Israeli side, many writers are battling among themselves, with Dorit Rabinyan protesting that she is not perceived as a real Israeli because she is a Mizrahi, “an Israeli of Iranian descent” whose Iranian component is an essential part of her self-identity. Yoram Kaniuk, an elderly novelist, is pessimistic about Israel’s chances against Islam, and unhappy that Israeli society is so oppressed by fundamentalists too. “We started out as a nation, then we were a religion, and now we’re a nation again,” he says. “And we still haven’t managed to resolve the relationship between the religious and the secular.” Other contributors include Etgar Keret, David Grossman, Amos Oz and Meir Shalev.
Can literature make peace? Judging by this book of interviews and profiles, it’s not likely, at least not in that region.