Whatever it Takes
Or, How I Stopped Worrying and Wrote a Novel about Israel
“You want to write fiction about Israel? It will have to be fiction, because if you write the truth, no one would believe it.”
That was the advice from one of my Israeli friends that I didn’t take when in late June of 2000, I flew from New York to Tel Aviv to begin research for my second book. I traveled to Israel only a couple of weeks before the failed peace negotiations at Camp David II, and only a few months before Ariel Sharon’s stroll on the Temple Mount ignited the latest round of war between Israel and the Palestinians, now going on for five years with no sign of letting up.
I have always been a fan of expatriate fiction: Henry James’s innocent Americans abroad, Christopher Isherwood’s fortune-seekers in Berlin, E. M. Forster’s hapless British tourists in Italy and India, Paul Bowles’s lost souls in North Africa. And yet I’ve always found it strange that Israel, such a magnet for innocents, fortune-seekers, tourists, and lost souls, has never inspired a serious work of psychological fiction in the vein of these writers. Most books about contemporary Israel tend to be political thrillers like Robert Stone’s novel Damascus Gate, more invested in climaxes than feelings.
Back in 2000, I believed I was almost finished with a story collection about expatriates set in post-Cold War Prague and was looking for a new subject. After attending a presentation about Jerusalem’s new gay community center, the Open House, I thought I’d found what I was looking for and booked a ticket for Tel Aviv that summer. By the time I left for Israel, I’d already worked out my plot. The book would consist of two paired novellas, the first set in Jerusalem, the center of Israel’s religious and international culture, the other in Tel Aviv, the center of Israel’s secular and native culture. Each novella would represent the two poles of Israeli society. I imagined connecting the two parts by tracking the fortunes of a yeshiva student in Jerusalem who gradually realizes he’s gay, and then runs away to Tel Aviv to indulge in the city’s hedonistic gay life. Neat, clean, and simple.
However, as so often happens with writing, life got in my way.
I’d been to Israel several times before that summer, but never had the place felt like such a pressure cooker. The tension in the air came as a surprise to me, because I’d been to Israel just two years before and the country seemed its most optimistic. Business was booming. Internet cafes, espresso bars, and outposts of Western chains like Sbarro’s were sprouting up everywhere. The population was becoming diversified with immigrants from Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia. Tourists traveled freely between Israel, the West Bank, Egypt, and Jordan. The cars on the streets had a mix of Israeli and Palestinian Authority issued license plates. I went on a tour of Ein Gedi led by Palestinians and afterward we stopped to watch Palestinian police training in Jericho, where Israelis went for cheap shopping and gambling on weekends. Trips across the border to Petra in Jordan, once unthinkable, were common. A New Middle East seemed more than probable. It seemed at hand.
A lot can happen in two years.
I felt the tension right when I got off the plane. First there was the heat. I’ve been to Israel several times over the past twenty years, but I’ve never heard Israelis complain more about the heat than the tourists. The country was going through a Sharav (the Hebrew name) or a Hamsin (the Arabic name, which was what all the Israelis called it), a combination of climactic circumstances which produces an extreme heat wave. By all anecdotal accounts, this Hamsin was the hottest in fifty years. Going outside for a walk was a sweaty ordeal. People ducked into the refuge of air conditioned shops or cafes. No matter how much water you drank, it wasn’t enough to sate your thirst. It was just a miserable place to be.
Besides heat, the other theme on everyone’s mind was war. As I began talking to Israelis and American Israelis about gay life in Israel, the topic of our conversations kept changing to the inevitable war with the Palestinians. Flyers, banners, and bumper stickers in support of the hard-line opposition party, Likud were posted everywhere, while during my entire trip in Israel I only saw one lonely posting for Barak’s One Israel party in a used bookstore window. While touring a cruising park in Jerusalem, I was warned by Jews to stay away from Arabs. At the same time, I heard from an Israeli Arab that the only course available for Arabs in Israel was war. I heard gay Israelis tell gay Arabs to go back to Gaza and gay Arabs tell gay Israelis about their not very nice plans to do things to their mothers.
Even the water you drank was political. If you bought “Mei Eden” from Golan Heights, that meant you were supporting the settlement movement, whereas if you bought the pink labeled “Jericho Water,” you were putting money in the pocket of that terrorist Yasir Arafat. The only solution seemed to be to buy water from somewhere neutral, but what kind of water would that be? Evian?
In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart
Whatever it Takes
The Merchant of Venice and the New Ruling Class
James Lee Byars & the number Ten
Two Incidents at the Café Kamienica
Jacob said to an angel, Tell me your Name
Our 610 Back Pages
The I-Thou Circus
February 10, 2005
Zeek in Print
Fall/Winter 2004 issue now on sale
From previous issues:
Singing God's Praises: Psalms and Authenticity
Lag B'Omer: Sound and Vision