Boyd Tonkin: In Jerusalem, words reach out over the walls you can see, and those you can't

The Week In Books

"I couldn't accept that the writer within me could be beaten. It was like an internal uprising. The only freedom left for someone who has suffered such a tragedy is the freedom to describe it in their own words." Dusk had just fallen over Yemin Moshe, an absurdly pretty flower-strewn Victorian cluster of cottages and terraces that looks out over the old city of Jerusalem. The vista stretches along the Ottoman walls from Mount Zion to the Jaffa Gate.

On the terrace of Mishkenot Sha'ananim – the "dwellings of tranquillity", founded by Sir Moses Montefiore in 1859 and now a conference centre – the novelist David Grossman described his response to the death of his soldier son in the second Lebanon war of 2006. Two days before Uri died, Grossman had called for the war to end. He had yet to finish his magnificent novel of Israel in shock, in doubt: To the End of the Land. Later, in 2010, he was manhandled by police while protesting against the eviction of Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. Now, he told a rapt audience, grief has at last led to new words, a new work: Falling Out of Time. "Writing gave me the ability to take back the life that had been taken from me. This is where creation takes place: when life and death touch each other without any buffer zone between them."

At the third Jerusalem International Writers Festival, near the heart of a city afflicted by every sort of zone, wall and partition, only words might seek to cross those separation barriers of culture and of time. Alona Frankel – a survivor of the Lvov ghetto in Poland, children's author and autobiographer - recalled a visit to the apartment of her family, all murdered in the Holocaust. As she searched files of old photos, "I realised that I am the only person in the world who can name some of these people."

Words, stories, memories: can they truly pass through the zones of exclusion, of oblivion? Sayed Kashua, a Palestinian Israeli who writes his acclaimed novels and TV scripts in Hebrew, told of a childhood at boarding school in Jerusalem: "I was totally a stranger. I looked different, I talked different, to the other kids. But I knew that language was the key". With Aleksandar Hemon, himself a refugee from Bosnia to the US, Kashua explored the voicing of narratives of exile as a therapeutic "breaking of the borders". "Can you imagine," Kashua asked, "when a refugee tells a story of trauma, and someone says to him: 'You're lying?'" The question hung in the scented evening air.

Last time this festival took place, in 2010, the Israeli author Nir Baram – who hails from an old Jerusalem family – kicked it off with a denunciation of all Israel's "walls". I talked to him in the rooftop bookshop, those disputed golden stones aglow behind us. Now, Baram sounds weary of Israel's literature of anguished self-interrogation: "We expect too much of this culture of shooting and crying. I don't like it." He yearns for inventive genre fiction: fantasy, dystopia, history, SF. I hear an echo of that longing when I visit the breezy heights of Ramallah on the West Bank to see the Palestinian writer and lawyer Raja Shehadeh (about whom I'll write later). He has composed a speculative fiction set in a future, unified region: "I got so tired of living in the present."

Back in that stalled present, the festival setting was exquisite; the writers eloquent; the debate unconstrained; and the walls, visible and invisible, just heartbreaking. But you knew that. I have no smarter ideas than anyone else about how all Jerusalem might dwell in unwalled tranquillity. Or rather, only one: that David Grossman should win the Nobel Prize.

The chilled icon – and the cheesy chart-topper

David Grossman's session put us all through the wringer. Cleverly, he rounded it off with a short set of songs performed by Israeli rock star Yehudit Ravitz. Festival organisers take note: high-intensity events may benefit from a chilled acoustic coda. You couldn't get much cooler than Ravitz, I thought: evergreen musical heroine and, since her coming-out, gay icon as well. Then I checked her career and found that, in the Nineties, she duetted with none other than Esther Ofarim. Esther and Abi Ofarim! Readers of a certain age will now be cringing along with me in abject embarrassment. I really wish that I couldn't remember "Cinderella Rockefella". Alas, I all too clearly can.

Languages of love and enmity

One Palestinian, the other Jewish, two of the most fascinating Israeli authors at Mishkenot Sha'ananim write in Hebrew but have Arabic as their mother tongue. Sayed Kashua talked of his lingering unease about "the language of the enemy... I remember how scared I was when I finally had the chutzpah to write in Hebrew." Later, Eli Amir - raised in Baghdad when 20 per cent Iraq's capital was Jewish - said that in dreams he reverts to his Arabic name: Fouad, "dear heart". Amir's captivating novel Yasmine - recently published in English - records a love-affair between a young political officer in Jerusalem after the Israeli takeover in 1967 and a Palestinian Christian girl. His genial interlocutor Navtej Sarna, the Indian ambassador to Israel (and a novelist himself), teased Amir about its possible autobiographical roots. But this couple cannot live happily ever after. "Here it could not happen. I think that would be a cliché," Amir sadly concluded. "There is an enormous obstacle, and no way to overcome it".

Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'