March 18, 2006

Linda Grant's bubble-wrapped war criminals

Here's a Guardian review of Linda Grant's latest offering for Israel. Written by Karma Nabulsi, it's not scathing all the way through but it is pretty damning:
Like the colonial narrative tradition from which one can trace its genealogy, sentence after sentence, page after page, it relentlessly stitches a sentimental noose of absolute dominance: the violence has been done elsewhere, the reader becomes a ghost. The dissociation is wordless, for the words are all Linda Grant's, and she has used them well.
And the words she doesn't use?
Millions remain invisible and dispossessed in order to make this charming story possible - this endearing and fey world of a few streets in Tel Aviv. Here, all the Israelis are quirky, amusing, intelligent, terribly winsome, politically aware (or if not, then possessed, like the landlady, the café owner, the shop-keeper, by a sort of madcap ingenuity). There is a mythic quality to this fairytale book, set in an ersatz metaphysical Mitteleuropa on the shores of the Arab Mediterranean. Of course the people on these streets need to be pretty marvellous, as the price for their cosy, closed world is being extracted daily in the refugee camps not too far away.
But there is a glimpse of the price paid for this curious place where racist war criminals dress like ballerinas.
"What was happening in Gaza or Nablus - the curfews, the checkpoints, the terrifying incursions of troops, the targeted assassinations, the collapse of the social infrastructure, the malnutrition, the cages in which Palestinians were fenced off, like zoo animals - could be happening in Bosnia, instead of a 25-minute drive away," she writes. As for Israel: it is "a society floating on boiling anger, fear, anxiety, posttraumatic shock, aversion, brutality. You saw it in the road rage, in the domestic violence, in the rape, the desire to build walls against not just suicide bombers but your own neighbours ... Suspicion, fear, exploding psychodramas detonating whole families. I would be woken in the night by terrible screams, the raised voices of husbands and wives, the sound of objects smashing against walls, the police sirens. Or on the street, screeching tyres, sickening metal collisions, tirades of fury between drivers."

The moment passes, and she returns to the bubble, yet something profound has shifted. There is a new "normalcy", which accepts and incorporates this fracture, and the violence that she has looked in the face. This narrative of internal rupture has been repeated among many Israeli intellectuals over the past five years, the tectonic plates shifting as the Israeli left lurched towards the right: "And so we may have to face the nightmare that the war between the two peoples cannot be concluded; there is no deal that can ever be signed that will not give way, almost at once, to the resumption of the struggle," she writes.

At the end of this story, back in Britain, Grant discovers a Palestinian chum, a writer living in London, who comes from a refugee camp in south Lebanon. They end up going back to his mother's village near Acre (which has become a moshav called Betzel) after attending a literary festival. Unlike Ghassan Kanafani's classic A'id ila Hayfa (Return to Haifa, published in 1967), which captures that electric moment between dispossessed and dispossessors with a savage and subtle beauty, this is a dull affair. He is mostly silent; she, on the other hand, compares it to her own experience of the eastern European village her parents came from. She felt she didn't belong there ("I came, I saw, I left"); she felt nothing. She checks with him - he too feels nothing, no attachment to the ruins of his mother's destroyed village, no desire to return. That's all right then. Let's order another slice of cake at the Café Mapu.
Look out for Linda Grant's letter to the Guardian soon complaining that she's been misrepresented.

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