CULTURE

Greek and Israeli writers meet

Billed as the first meeting of Greek and Israeli writers, a three-day event held in Kalamata January 16-18 ranged wide and deep. Shunning the safe shores of academic discourse, the participants sailed directly into vigorous debate on tough topics. Heated discussion was occasionally led by questions that would have been more appropriate for a group of visiting politicians, but the writers effortlessly fielded all topics thrown at them. Historical tensions, the vexed issue of Israeli identity, and Israeli responses to the Intifada, Palestinians and Arabs in general, were recurring themes. According to Israeli Ambassador Ram Aviram, the soul of the venture, and an active participant throughout, the purpose of the meeting was to «demolish stereotypes and bring people closer together,» and indeed a mutual willingness to explore sensitive themes during the three days spent in one another’s company forged precisely the kind of links that foster understanding. A fiery start The first session, on «History, Collective Identity and the Concept of the ‘Other’ in Greek and Israeli Literature» got off to a fiery start with an address by acclaimed novelist A.B. Jehoshuah that sparked spirited responses from the audience and fellow speakers who took issue with his concepts of identity. The Greeks and the Jews were rivals in antiquity, and in modern times relations between Greeks and Israelis have always been «ambivalent and difficult,» said Jehoshuah. «Both sides claim to be different, but how we see and grasp our identity is very different.» He emphasized that writers, whose sole interest is «to search for the truth,» should «touch on the essentials of identity.» The solution to identity for Greeks and Israelis, he claimed, lies in the Mediterranean: «Even with globalization, we must develop the identity of the Mediterranean as our place in the orchestra of Europe and the world.» Israeli writers have been active in bringing what he called the «sleeping beauty» of the Hebrew language to life. And, he added, «they are at the forefront of opposition to the fatal, amoral failures of our government.» Novelist Rea Galanaki noted how modern Greek writers’ treatment of the «other» has been conditioned by history. Once Turks, Franks or Jews, the «others» are now more likely to be Kurds or Sudanese, refugees and migrants performing menial labor. While she knew of no «negative examples» in recent literature, Galanaki observed that there is also «no sign of how Greek identity has been infused with the ‘others’ who live here.» Saturday morning’s session on «The Present and Past as Sources of Inspiration» was notable for Israeli writer Dorit Rabinyan’s account of the moment of inspiration and how fiction transforms material from the past. «The first encounter between a writer and a story he’s going to write,» she said, «can be a question, an experience, a person, something striking another thought in his mind. This, whatever it is, generates fiction. It might take years for the penny to drop, or it might spark immediately, but it will always be seen as a miracle. The writer sees a reflection of the self in a mirror. It’s like falling in love. Usually nothing is written, but if it is, it will contain the self – even if it’s about a 70-year-old woman at the beginning of last century and a culture that died 1,000 years ago, it will still include mental ingredients of the present – otherwise it is not fiction. All stories are self-portraits. The best story is one in which we are reflected, not in the most flattering way, but most precisely.» Poet Amir Or touched on the loaded issue of heritage and how it affects his work: «Greeks and Israelis are rich with, maybe even burdened with, heritage,» he said. «There are not many words in Hebrew and every word has to carry many meanings. Hebrew poetry goes back 4,000 years. Biblical Hebrew has to be modified to speak of our life in a lively way. I feel free to move between archaic and spoken forms. This is the job of the writer – to bridge these gaps.» Writer Takis Theodoropoulos, moderating the session, commented on how the past weighed on Greek writers: «Unlike other European writers we always have to talk about tradition and identity and not go beyond it. But we’re frightened that we’ll lose our jobs if we stop talking about it.» Israeli writer Batya Gur agreed on the burden «of carrying a glorified past. Greeks and Israelis are lucky to have such strong traditions to draw on, but the past can sit on your shoulder like a mountain.» Gur also observed similarities between Greece and Israel, which she described as «two conservative societies,» where women’s writing has only recently gained prominence. She saw this as a contrast to the tendency of male writers to be treated and behave as prophets. Identity a construction Theodoropoulos had the last word on whether identity is created: «Every identity is a construction; it’s not a matter of DNA. Identity is a question of being able to promote oneself on an imaginary horizon. You couldn’t engage in the unnatural act of writing if you didn’t have a problem with identity.» Translators were next to hold the floor. Chryssa Papadopoulou talked about presenting unfamiliar cultural material in Israeli literature to Greeks; Maggie Cohen extolled the «intoxication of translation»; and Rami Saar illustrated the challenges of his craft with examples from his own translations into Hebrew. The final session, officially on «The Young Generation,» focused on the writer’s task, whether literature can change lives, as Lena Divani saw it. Theodoropoulos rejected the idea of the writer as «social reformer. Imagine a world run by Proust, Kafka and Flaubert!» «Writing is a last defense against reality,» for Etfar Keret, who saw the writer as «a court jester – not moralistic but moral. Literature makes us see our life in a different way, not how to live.» The meeting, intended as the first in a series, was run by the National Book Center (EKEBI), the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature (ITHL) and publishers Kastaniotis and Psychoyios, with the support of the city of Kalamata. Nilli Cohen of ITHL told Kathimerini English Edition that the institute is very keen to host the next event in Israel and hopes that funding will be available.