The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date: June 20, 2003
Reviewed by NEVE GORDON
Even though people often strive to suppress it, the past, as William Faulkner once wrote, is not dead, it is not even past. Surely, many of us frequently attempt to stifle, elide or erase certain elements in our past, yet ultimately the thorny business called history comes back to haunt us, demanding that we confront it.
Picnic Grounds, Oz Shelachs first book of short stories, is in many respects an attempt to address some of the hidden aspects of Israels past, disclosing certain facets of the Israeli landscape and culture that for years have been buried in some dark corner. It is an archaeological excavation of sorts, an excavation into the heart and soul of Israeli society. Shelach digs in cautiously and skillfully, using irony, wit and humor to lure his readers into the mysterious and, at times, sinister attributes that have, for the most part, been concealed from the publics eye.
In the books first story, One Afternoon, a history professor takes his family on a picnic in a pine forest near Givat Shaul, a Jerusalem neighborhood. The professor teaches his son some of the camping skills he learned while serving in the Israeli military, using old stones to block the wind and to protect the newly-lit fire. The stones, we are told, are the remains of homes of a village known as Deir Yassin.
Although Shelach does not say as much, Deir Yassin was a Palestinian village located on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The Jewish neighborhood which now stands in its place was built not long after Israeli paramilitary forces evicted its Palestinian residents by carrying out a massacre, killing an estimated 100 men, women and children out of a total population of 750.
Shelach does not recount this history; he simply describes how the father uses the old stones to teach his son how to build a fire. The story ends with an ironic, perhaps tragic, twist that underscores Shelachs concern with the past and, more precisely, the trepidation and ultimate denial of many Israelis when confronting their past. The final sentence reads, [The history professor] imagined that he and his family were having a picnic, unrelated to the village, enjoying its grounds, outside history.
There is something striking about the books pithy style. Using a small number of words, Shelach manages to describe events that reveal hidden truths about Israeli society, truths that are seldom discussed. A story called Complaint is one example.
The proprietor of a bar in the Russian Compound received complaints from patrons about sounds that filtered into his bar at night and tainted the drinking pleasure. He sent numerous letters to the police, pointing out that these unsettling voices, as he called them, came from the jail across the street, traveling from the interrogation rooms deep under the police station -- four, some said six floors underground -- all the way up to his bar on the street level. He even visited the police headquarters in person to make his case heard, but the voices persisted. Finally, the bar owner had no choice but to increase the volume of the music playing in his bar during quieter hours.
Many a young Jerusalemite has visited the bars located outside the Russian Compound, where the Israeli secret services continue to interrogate Palestinian detainees. Shelach captures the surreal reality of cocktails, music and torture.
The somewhat quirky ending -- His hearing deteriorated -- only serves to highlight that the atrophy of human senses has become the condition of possibility for many Israelis, who could not otherwise cope with the fierce reality of the Middle East.
Complaint also draws attention to the idiosyncratic way Shelach uses the English language. It is almost as if he is speaking Hebrew, but in English. Indeed, the author is very conscious of the words he employs, attempting to give the English reader a taste of the Hebrew, while simultaneously exposing some of the peculiar characteristics of Hebrew terms. In this sense, and not only due to the distinctive plots, Shelachs collection of short stories is much more Israeli than most Hebrew books that are translated into English. There is something about the sound, tempo and rhythm of these stories that gives them a uniquely Israeli flavor.
Language, as feminist author bell hooks once said, is a place of struggle. Shelach, so it seems, has adopted this view and is interested in using English -- the language in which he still feels uncomfortable despite his taking up residence in the United States -- to expose Hebrew, the language in which he is at home. Home and the well-known, he appears to sense, can also come to mean mediocrity, the existential condition of becoming comfortably numb. In one story he translates Misrad HaMishpatim as the Ministry of Trial, exposing, as it were, to the English reader the literal meaning of the ministrys name (in English newspapers it is translated as the Israeli Ministry of Justice). Simultaneously, this literal translation in and of itself suggests to the reader that this ministry deals more with trials than with justice.
I met Shelach in 1990 in the dark labyrinths of the Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. We were both undergraduates, both active in the liberal left party Ratz. The first intifada was underway, and yet most students and faculty at the university continued their daily routine as if life outside the university walls was in some sense normal; they were living, in Shelachs words, outside history. In the story called A Reflection this so-called unbearable lightness of being forcefully comes across.
Each Tuesday afternoon throughout the fall semester the student was lulled to sleep by her professors lectures on epistemology. ... When she woke up and saw, in the single window, a shining object sticking up into the sky, no other student, nor their professor, was looking out the window. She could not tell it was the setting sun reflected by a minaret-top golden crescent, on the next mountain peak to the east. The sound of shots drifted into the classroom window. Beyond the narrow view, in the fold of the valley, our soldiers were mowing down protesters. Then the shining crescent disappeared into the long shadow cast by the university tower.
Shelach has produced an enticing little book that is both luring and unsettling, but most of all helps one understand some of the major undercurrents informing modern day Israeli society and culture. It is a fascinating read.
Neve Gordon teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University in Israel and is a contributor to The Other Israel: Voices of Refusal and Dissent (New Press 2002). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
National Catholic Reporter, June 20, 2003
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