Coping with Conflict: Israeli Author Amos Oz
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Amos Oz, who was born in Jerusalem in 1939, has published 18 books and hundreds of essays in Israeli and in international magazines and newspapers.
His most recent novel, The Same Sea, was published in United States last year. Oz’s works have been translated into 30 languages in over 35 countries. Since 1967, he has also been involved with various groups within the Israeli peace movement.
Amos Oz, thanks for being with us.
AMOS OZ: It’s good to be with you.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You once said that you hoped that the tragedy of the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians would be Chekhovian and not a Shakespearean tragedy. What did you mean, and is it becoming more Shakespearean?
AMOS OZ: Well, my definition of a tragedy is a clash between right and right. And in this respect, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a tragedy, a clash between one very powerful, very convincing, very painful claim over this land and another no less powerful, no less convincing claim.
Now such a clash between right claims can be revolved in one of two manners. There’s the Shakespeare tradition of resolving a tragedy with the stage hewed with dead bodies and justice of sorts prevails. But there is also the Chekhov tradition. In the conclusion of the tragedy by Chekhov, everyone is disappointed, disillusioned, embittered, heartbroken, but alive. And my colleagues and I have been working, trying…not to find the sentimental happy ending, a brotherly love, a sudden honeymoon to the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy, but a Chekhovian ending, which means clenched teeth compromise.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you had some hope over recent years that you were on your way to that. In your writings you expressed that hope. Do you still have that hope?
AMOS OZ: More than ever. We all know the bad news. Let me share some of the good news with you for a change.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: That would be great.
AMOS OZ: I have seen for the first time in 100 years of conflict, the two peoples — the Israeli people and the Palestinian people — are ahead of their leaderships. The two peoples know now that in the end of the day, there will be a two-state solution. They don’t like the solution. You will find thousands and thousands of heartbroken people on both sides, but they know it. If you passed a survey asking every Israeli Jew and every Palestinian Arab, “What would you regard as a just solution?” Not “what would you regard as a fair solution,” but, “what do you think is going to happen at the end of day?” I suppose the vast majority would say a compromise and a two-state solution. Now that’s a step forward.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you make of this current situation? Are you more worried now that you have been for many years?
AMOS OZ: I am more angry with both leaderships than I have been for many years. I think Arafat and Sharon are almost handcuffed to one another in the sense of being the slaves of the past, of the traumatized past — lack of trust, lack of goodwill, lack of vision, lack of imagination and lack of political courage. In many ways, I regard Sharon and Arafat as birds of a feather.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you see them… I mean, as a writer they are fabulous literary characters, these people, each carrying, each haunted by their own past and confronting each another now. Do you see them that way?
AMOS OZ: Well, the two — not just the two leaders, the two nations — are haunted by their pasts. It may be interesting to point out that both the Israeli Jew and Palestinian Arab are in victims of Europe in two different ways. The Arabs were victimized by Europe through colonialism, imperialism, oppression and exploitation; the Jews through suppression, discrimination and, finally, mass murder in the Nazi period.
Now, two victims of the same oppressor do not necessarily become brothers. Two children of the same cruel parent do not necessarily hug one another. Sometimes the worst rivalries, in private life as well as in communal life, are precisely the conflict between two victims of the same oppressor. Two children of same cruel parent look at one another and see in each other the image of the cruel parent or the image of their past oppressor. This is very much the case between Jew and Arab: It’s a conflict between two victims.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And how do you think that September 11 affected this conflict you have written so much about over all these years, been so much a part of?
AMOS OZ: In a strange sense, I felt it was a sobering lesson for everybody. If we don’t stop somewhere, if we don’t accept an unhappy compromise, unhappy for both sides, if we don’t learn how to unhappily coexist and contain our burned sense of injustice — if we don’t learn how to do that, we end up in a doomed state.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In the context of everything that has happened since you started writing this new novel, why did you write a novel that, to somebody who reads it only once and superficially, might feel it’s an unpolitical novel? It’s about a very small little slice of life, very private, haunted in its own way by everything that has happened to Israel, but nonetheless not grappling with the political issues of the time?
AMOS OZ: The Same Sea is the crux of the matter. It’s a novel about, precisely about every day life, about normalcy in times of madness, or to paraphrase Garcia Marquez, it’s about love in times of cholera. Israel of the coastal plain, where eight out of ten Israeli Jews live far removed from the occupied territories, from the fiery Jerusalem, from the religious and nationalistic conflicts, is unknown to the outside world, almost unknown to itself. But The Same Sea is set precisely in this Israel, which never makes it to the news headlines anywhere. It is a novel about everyday people far removed from fundamentalism, fanaticism nationalism, or militancy of any sort.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: An accountant who lost his wife, his son who’s a little lost.
AMOS OZ: Yes, a prodigal son, a bereaved father, a dead mother, a raving young lover woman…a fraud, film script; it has a solid plot, all right. One of the things I wanted to introduce in The Same Sea beyond transcending the conflict, is the fact that deep down below all our secrets are the same. The fact that somewhere beyond race and religion and ideology and all other great dividers, the insecure, timid, hoping, craving and trembling self is very often very close to the next insecure, timid, craving, hoping, fearing, terrified self. In a sense, all our secrets are the same. That’s what I wanted to convey through The Same Sea in a playful way.
I wrote it, by the way — and this what I am going to say now may have a sort of meta-political significance. It is a novel that erases, deliberately, every boundary. It erases the line between prose and poetry. It erases the line between storytelling, fiction and confession, because much of it is very personal, extremely autobiographical, directly without any disguise.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You appear in it?
AMOS OZ: I appear in it. It erases the line between literature and music because this book aspires to sing and dance, not just to tell a story. It is meant a work of music no less than it is a work of literature. And it erases the line between the living and the dead. You have Nadia, the dead mother, who is … alive and active. It even erases the line between here and there. The prodigal son takes a prostitute to bed with him in Nepal somewhere. The father in Israel, thousands of miles away, gives him a thundering Old Testamental dressing down in real-time and the dead mother defends him from the father. Of course, she is dead, but since when is being dead a problem for the Jewish mother defending their boy?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: (Laughs)
AMOS OZ: So it’s about erasing the lines.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you see out of these ordinary people that you say have gone ahead of their leaders and that we read about the in book, do you see a solution for, first this more immediate crisis, and in the long term do you see some kind of a peace agreement that will work out? I mean, one could… Looking at the situation right now, one could lose hope. You could understand why some people are despairing.
AMOS OZ: If you read The Same Sea very carefully, you will find out that most conflicts — individual as well as international or intercommunal — those conflicts, most conflicts do not resolve; they fade through fatigue and exhaustion — not when one party suddenly opened his or her eyes to see how wrong he was and hug the other saying, “oh brother, oh sister, what have I done to you? Will you ever forgive me? Take the land, who cares about the land. Give me your love.” Not like this.
Fatigue, exhaustion, each one of the conflicted parties still maintains that he or she was right the other was wrong, and yet they have had it up to here and they learn how to unhappily coexist. I wrote The Same Sea not as a political allegory about Israelis and Palestinians. I wrote it about something much more gutsy and immediate. I wrote it as a piece of chamber music. It’s about the cast of six or seven or eight very different people who learn not only to live together, but almost to conduct a mystical communion between them, to penetrate each other in every way.
Ideally, those people in The Same Sea are not only in the same room together all the time even when they are far away, they are in the same bed together most of the time in their minds. So I haven’t written a novel, I wrote an orgy. But it is set in a way that should remind us all that even on the slopes of an erupting volcano, there still may be everyday life. There still may be desire and loneliness and longing and death and desolation. These are the everlasting materials of life and they will be with us, I assure you, long after both Sharon and Arafat and Bush and bin Laden are forgotten histories.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Amos Oz, thanks very much for being with us.
AMOS OZ: Thank you for having me.