I’m living in Israel again after seventeen years, which is a bit of a shock. The political discourse has always been ugly here, but it seems to be getting uglier, to the point that you might not want to open your mouth publicly about it. seventeen years after I left, an 18-year-old with a passion for beaches, science fiction and smoking things that were not strictly legal anywhere but the Netherlands, it’s surprising how little has changed.
There is still an occupation, of course. Still half-hearted peace talks designed to fail, still an unwillingness to understand what it is that is so wrong at the heart of the Jewish state. An unwillingness to acknowledge anything can even be wrong. It occurs to me that we, Israelis, have forgotten what it means to be a Jew. I do not mean putting on tefillin, or going to shul, or knowing our Moses from our Abraham (or our Absalom from our David). As Jews we were never very good at being observant, we were merely good at being Jews. It is partly things like the erasure of Yiddish for Hebrew, the writing of a victorious, patriotic, often vitriolic official history, the changing of our names (my family was Heisikovitz before it was Tidhar), the very re-writing of what it means to be a Jew. We are not diaspora Jews, we were told. We are a new brand of Jew. A sabra. Prickly on the outside, sweet on the inside, yaddy yaddy yadda.
We were the few against the many. We were Masada come again. It didn’t
even occur to us that taking as our emblem the small, fanatic cult of suicides that was Masada said more about us than we could understand. We worked so hard at being Israelis that we forgot to be Jews. We forgot, in other words, that Jews had learned, for hundreds and hundreds of years, to live amongst other people.
A people who knew prosecution but did not themselves prosecute. Being a Jew is being a wanderer, travelling light, recognising the folly of possession, of permanence. The Zionist dream of a national home was a glorious dream, and a practical one, and Herzl looked hard for options, from British East Africa to Cyprus and parts of Egypt. It just didn’t work out that way.
I grew up on the lands of an Arab village which is no longer there. It was erased, not even a well remaining, in 1948. Its people are still around, somewhere, perhaps in permanent refugee camps beyond the border, unable to return. To be an Israeli is to be defined against the people whose ghosts are still here, whose children are pressing against the windows and kicking at the doors and asking why.
It is as if, in this new Middle East, the Palestinians have become the true Jews – landless, unwanted, subject to discriminatory laws and checkpoints and young men in uniforms and guns. And the Israelis have become what my grandfather would have called the paritz, the goy lord of the manor with the power over us.
I think we forgot that part of being a Jew is compassion, and a part of it is
humility. And we lost both those things. We try so hard to hold on to a small piece of land that we do not think of the people who lived on it, whose trees we uprooted, whose ID documents we now mark with a different colour to ours, whose houses we erased with bulldozers.
We forgot, which is the worst thing of all for a Jew, our history. And without
our history, we are nothing.
Seventeen years after I last lived here, I’m back here again. My dreadlocks are gone, and now I look like any other Arab or Jew. I still like beaches, and science fiction, but I don’t really do that other stuff any more, unless someone might pass it to me at a party. Or there’s always Amsterdam.
I’m still not a very good Jew…
But I’d like to be a better Israeli.
Lavie Tidhar’s HebrewPunk and An Occupation of Angels are now available. His first novel, The Bookman, is out now, and will be followed next year by Camera Obscura.He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog series.
It can be terribly frustrating, writing a book no one wants to buy.
At the same time, it can be a good indication you’re doing something right.
I wrote a book called Osama. It will be out next year – but only in a limited-edition format, from a specialist press in the UK called PS Publishing. It’s a prestigious publisher – they also publish Ray Bradbury, and Stephen King, and they seem to like my stuff. But 20 other publishers have so far rejected Osama for publication.
My favourite rejection said, “What a great book! However, at my previous employer we got bomb threats in the post, and I don’t want that to repeat here, so…” “However” is the one word you don’t want to hear when you send out a book.
A lot of publishers liked the book. But no one wants to buy it.
Osama is the story of Joe, a private detective living in Vientiane, Laos, a place as far from anything as you can get. His world is… different to ours, we find out. Simpler, possibly. Joe just gets by, but then he is hired by a mysterious woman –- who asks him to find a marginal writer, Mike Longshott, the author of a series of pulp novels about one “Osama Bin Laden: Vigilante”…
To find Longshott, Joe has to leave Vientiane, travelling to Paris, London, New York and Kabul on the trail of the elusive writer, who seems to write about mass terrorist attacks, about a war no one seems to understand. And Joe gradually finds out he, too, is in the midst of a secret war, with people after him, and the border between the two worlds blurring… until he has to face who he himself really is.
I can see why publishers are uncomfortable with this book. It is not only the subject matter – the “War on Terror”, or the war in Iraq and Afghanistan – not just Longshott’s detailed, almost-clinical passages about attacks in Nairobi or Ras-al-Shaitan or the London Underground. It is not just the title, Osama, which makes grown publishers run screaming. We never see Osama bin Laden in the book. We only ever see his shadow. What I think the problem – one of the problems – publishers have is that the book takes place in a shadowy place. Is it real? It is fantasy? One editor went over the manuscript line by line, highlighting changes he would like. Everywhere the book whispers, suggests, hints, the editor wanted the book to shout. To point and say, This is what I mean!
It is a book that mixes pulp, and the formula story, with bits of old black and white films, and alternative history, and the ghost story, and a very real, very immediate war and its impact on people’s lives.
And no one’s sure, I think, exactly what to do with it.
At least one editor who loved the book had to reject it because the people from Marketing didn’t know how to market it. Others didn’t understand what was happening in the book. Others still were afraid of bomb threats (I’m not sure from whom). It’s a book that gets praises, but not a contract. Which is fine…
Because I couldn’t not write Osama. As it happens, I have a very personal history with that loose, and little understood, network of operatives that uses the collective name Al-Qaeda. I was in Dar-es-Salaam, in Tanzania, recovering from Malaria in a small hotel room in 1998, when the American embassy was attacked. I was in Nairobi a week later, watching the remains of the embassy there, surrounded by soldiers after-the-fact. And my wife, who was with me there, was in the Sinai in 2004 when a set of bomb attacks rocked the tourist coast of the Red Sea. A car bomb exploded less than a kilometre away from where she was, and I remember that night vividly, trying to establish contact, find out that she was alive, with the phone lines jammed and people passing on messages to each other, reassurances that such-and-such is fine, that they’re alive.
Just as I remember being in London in 2005 when four suicide bombers blew themselves up, spreading out of King’s Cross Station, where my wife travelled every day on her way to work (she was out of London that day, and had to travel back through the scene of chaos).
So I feel a certain intimacy with Al-Qaeda. We’ve certainly been through a few things together! I think the real tragedy of this war is that no one seems to understand it. The Americans seem genuinely baffled by the attacks, by the power of anger and resentment directed at them across a large part of the world. Al-Qaeda hasn’t come out of nothing. Nor did the American invasions of first Afghanistan and then Iraq. Most recently, a colleague of my wife’s, an aid worker like herself, was kidnapped in Afghanistan and later killed in a failed rescue attempt by a US soldier’s grenade. This is a war that we need to understand.
It is a war my hero, Joe, most certainly doesn’t. He just wants to get by, in his very carefully-constructed world. He’s escaped these things he doesn’t understand, has created for himself a simpler world, a black-and-white world that resembles an old noir picture.
But, like Joe, we can’t live in black-and-white. We have to understand the shades of grey.
I think, ultimately, that’s what Osama is about. Maybe, when it comes out next year, no matter how small the print-run is, other people will agree. Maybe they’ll hate it. I wish it would find a bigger publisher, but I am happy either way. Happy that I wrote it, happy that I got to say something important, and happy that one publisher, at least, believes in the book enough to take a chance with it. I think they’re a bit scared about it, too…
But we need to stop being scared, and start understanding instead.
I’ve got a feeling that, in years from now, with many novels, novellas, and collections all out (I’ll have 3 novels out just next year, if it’s an indication), when oil becomes scarce and there’ll be a Chinese colony on the moon, I’ll still be that HebrewPunk guy.
I should probably explain…
A few years ago, I became irritated enough with fantasy fiction to do something about it. When I get asked about it, I normally say it was the vampires what did it. It used to drive me insane that the underlying assumption of – well, pretty much all – vampire novels and movies, was that Christianity worked.
After all, we all know what vampires are afraid of. Crosses and holy water, right?
Which is strange, and a little uncomfortable, if you happen to be Jewish.
Because, like the Aryan elves of fantasy literature, there is a whole planetary mass of underlying assumptions of cultural dominance behind those “silly stories about unreal things”. And Jews don’t belong, they seem to say, in fantasy.
This goes back a long way, of course. The most important editor of American science fiction was John W. Campbell, revered to this day, with a bunch of awards named after him. By all accounts he was a lovely, if somewhat eccentric, guy (he launched L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics – later Scientology – in a 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, after all). There was only one thing about Campbell – he thought the best people were white, western European people, and he felt that the “readers” wouldn’t appreciate Jewish names in his magazine. Isaac Asimov, the most famous Jewish SF writer to this day, writes about it in his autobiography – and how lucky he was to get published under his own name – but at least one other writer wasn’t so lucky. Jews could write this kind of stuff, as long as they weren’t too Jewish.
I mean, no one wants that, right?
And so, back to vampires, afraid of Christian symbols, afraid of water blessed by a priest.
What if, I thought, you had a Jewish vampire? He wouldn’t be afraid of this stuff, surely?
‘That sounds awfully racist!’ my mother told me when I happened to mention it to her. ‘Like the worst blood libels, all the things that were attributed to Jews throughout the years!’
Which was partly the point, of course. I wanted to re-claim fantasy. I wanted to play with the idea of the Jew-as-blood-drinker, the awful racial stereotypes, and at the same time with the underlying assumptions of white, Christian superiority in generic fantasy fiction at the same time.
A few years ago, too, I ran into Neil Gaiman at the time of his American Gods launch. Every kind of fantasy archetype is in there, but for one. ‘Where are the Jews?’ I asked, and watched him squirm a little and finally say, ‘Well, there’s a golem in it. What else is there?’
So I wanted to answer that question, too. What else is there? And I didn’t want to write a mainstream, literary novel. I wanted to write pulp. I wanted to re-imagine pulp fantasy in a different universe. As one reviewer said on reading the eventual product, my mini-collection HebrewPunk, the stories read as though they had appeared in the 1940s in magazines such as Yiddish Excitement Quarterly and Thrilling Hebrew Tales!
But of course, we didn’t have those magazines. The Yiddish pulps had all but disappeared, and Jewish literature became concerned with heavy matters, with the realistic approach, with issues. The issues I was interested in were those that came into your post box every month with a picture of a monster on the cover.
So I set out to write what would become HebrewPunk.
I only slipped once. I ended up going literary with the last story. At least, I think I did.
The first story came seemingly complete. It was called “The Heist.” It was, as the title suggests, a heist story (I wanted each story to fit a very specific genre). It was pulp, almost comics-like, almost drawn rather than written. It introduced a gang of immoral, underworld figures: the Rabbi, who had the power to make golems; the Rat, my Jewish vampire (and we all remember the rats in Fritz Hippler’s Nazi “masterpiece” The Eternal Jew, right?); and the Tzaddik, a renegade from the Lamed-Vav, the 36 righteous men of Jewish legend.
Three anti-heroes, hired for a job no one else wanted to do. It didn’t have much of a plot. I had fun devising a blood bank guarded with holy water sprinklers and crosses cut into the walls (no match for my guy!), assembling my team, and sending them off on one last mission, and, o course, nothing quite works out as it’s supposed to. And once I had finished it, I knew – at that very moment – that each of these characters required their own story.
I next took the Rat back to his earlier days in “Transylvanian Mission” – a World War II story with Jewish partisans, an elite Nazi commando unit made of werewolves (naturally!), and the Nazi quest to awaken Vlad Tepes, AKA Dracula, from slumber. It was easy to write – my family comes from Transylvania, and in the mountains one might still see the name Heisikovitz on a tombstone (my original family name). And the Nazis notoriously did hunt for mythical objects and were obsessed with the occult. So I got to have fun with that.
“My Tzaddik” ended up in 1920 London, a time of Jewish gangsters, of a roaring drug trade… and of rampant racism. As it happened, it was also my breakthrough story, since it sold – rather to my amazement – to Sci Fiction, at the time the highest-paying, highest-profile genre magazine in existence (it was sponsored by the SyFy Channel). I got a big check for that one…but then the corporate bosses pulled the plug, and “The Dope Fiend” was the last story ever published there. Make of that what you will.
The stories were published individually, but I always knew they were meant to be gathered together. I finally pitched the idea to Jason Sizemore, head of a small publishing house in the U.S., Apex Books, and he thought it was worth giving it a shot. I sat down and wrote the final story, “Uganda,” which follows my rabbi in 1904, following a visit from Herzl himself, and joining the Zionist Expedition to British East Africa to decide on the suitability of that area for possible Jewish colonization…
And here, I think, I sinned. Because, while it is pulp, glorious pulp, it also became something of a statement, an examination of Jewish states, and a comparison of sorts with the one we did end up with in British Mandate Palestine instead…
I was able to view – and later, incorporate into the text – the actual expedition report, a story far stranger, and more fascinating, than anything I could devise. In fact, with each of the stories, I delved deep into the actual history – whether it was the desperate war against the Nazis in ’43, or the hidden world of Jewish gangsters in 1920, or the strange, forgotten expedition to Africa on behalf of the Zionist Congress in 1904. Because being Jewish is being a part of history – a secret history, a forgotten history, a lot of the time – as though Jews were the notes scribbled on the margins of history, faint but always there when everything else passes and is gone forever.
The book, at last, was published. It had a suitably garish, pulpy cover (by the awesome Melissa Gay) which truly belonged on the cover of Thrilling Hebrew Tales. We weren’t sure about the title – HebrewPunk was meant tongue-in-cheek, but I saw several people miss out on the irony – but we went for it nevertheless. It sold – moderately – and continues to sell (moderately). And it made its way into the pages of none other than the Encyclopaedia Judaica (if only in passing mention). You know you’ve made it when you’re in that book!
And if I get to be remembered for anything, and it just happens to be for HebrewPunk, I don’t think I’d mind too much.
Lavie Tidhar’s HebrewPunk and An Occupation of Angels are now available. His first novel, The Bookman, is out now, and will be followed next year by Camera Obscura.He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog series.