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

The Week In Books
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"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".