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".

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions