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Transformations: Photo-essay by Ricki Rosen; Homefront Sayed Kashua in conversation with Matt Rees 

Sunday 2nd March 

These two talks were, for me, exercises in stripping away naivety. In the first, most of the stripping was left to me in what was presented as above all a great success story. In Israel’s 1991 “Operation Solomon”, 15,000 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted from Addis Ababa to Israel in a space of 33 hours, crammed into 38 aeroplanes. They were escaping a situation of great danger and potential persecution, but they arrived in one where the dangers were more insidious.

Ricki Rosen talked us through a series of her own photographs, mostly in before-and-after pairs, switching or fading decoratively between the days of the airlift and her discovery of some of the same families living in Israel today. We saw Ethiopian families crouched in their single-room mud huts, followed by shots of them looking better fed, if not significantly better housed. Often younger children had become adolescents and embraced the world of fashion, hanging out in malls or even more often snapped in army uniform.

Rosen told us heart-warming stories about each family, about the babies born in mid-air, the new influx of superb Ethiopian sportsmen in the Israeli teams, about new inter-ethnic marriages between Ethiopian Israelis and Israelis from elsewhere. She only occasionally reflected on the dark side to this second ‘Escape from Egypt’, as she and others characterised it. She didn’t stop to ask how it must have felt to give birth in an aeroplane carrying more than twice the 500 people that was its designated maximum, except to repeat a quip about the pilot setting a new record. Towards the end of her talk, she did comment that malls and restaurants feature frequently in the ‘after’ images, partly because they employ many of the Ethiopian immigrants as security guards. This puts them on another front line as well as that in the army, that of terrorism.

I couldn’t escape the feeling that far bigger questions went entirely unexplored, in this undeniably fascinating talk: to what extent were the Ethiopian immigrants agents of or willing and informed participants in their own rescue? Would they have done it had they know they would encounter racism, unthinking ethnic and religious discrimination, a shocking fast-forward to life in a high-tech society and concomitant ruptures in their families and communities? Wasn’t this a mission every bit as crude as that attempted by earlier Christian missionaries in Africa, only disguised by the use of such shiny, persuasive equipment as aeroplanes? I left feeling educated and unsettled.

Sayed Kashua was, paradoxically, a more reassuring speaker. An Arab and a Muslim, Kashua lives in Jerusalem, writing novels and columns for popular newspaper Ha’aretz in Hebrew, and writing and producing a comedy series for national news channel TV2 – partly in subtitled Arabic. He was born in a Palestinian village in the Galilee region of Israel; he still has family in the West Bank and says that all his fiction so far takes place in that Palestinian village setting that is his enduring idea of home.

Fighting his way through a thicket of more-or-less inane labels (eg “Israel’s only great Jewish humourist”), Kashua was determined to handle the unavoidable questions about identity with down-to-earth logic. He explained that as a member of a minority, one doesn’t have the privilege of defining oneself – it’s done for you. More forthrightly, he rejected any claim that he should define himself – he is sufficiently under attack as a Muslim, a Palestinian and an Arab that there is no purpose in attacking him in addition as a confusing, border-blind anomaly. He joked bitterly that, in Israel, any Arab without a moustache and not carrying a bomb is called “an Arab with an identity crisis”. Yet he suggests that Israelis have a worse underlying identity crisis than he.

Kashua was also illuminating on the subject of working in Hebrew: he says many Israelis feel attacked by this. For them it is tantamount to an Arab invasion of their literary territory. He added, sadly, that he feels sorry for what both sides have done to their languages, that language was never meant to bear arms. For him, it is simply the language of his living, the one in which he is most expressive and the one in which he can get published. Yet  many Israelis have suspected him of working for Mossad, the Israeli security service – so rare is his accomplishment in Israeli daily life.

There were the usual questions about Kashua’s practice as a writer but the most moving moments came as bookends to the main talk. Before Kashua had said a word, his most recent column for Ha’aretz was read aloud by Matt Rees (http://www.mywire.com/pubs/HaaretzIsrael/%202008/02/29/5797961). This was charming and shocking, a potent illustration of why Israel still has far to go. Then, at the very end, came the question “Why are you not proud to be a citizen of Israel? What should Israel look like that would make you content to live there?”  – this in tones of outrage that Israel should be slighted by this privileged young Arab. At this there were mutterings in the audience, divisions became tangible, someone called out ‘you don’t have to answer’ but it became clear that Kashua was working out what to reply. After a long, tense hush, he responded: “What should Israel look like? … A little bit smaller”, to delighted applause and laughter. But he left the room, after this stroke of genius, looking pretty wiped out. If Israel has a way to go, so do we.

Sophie Lewis is the first UK director of American publishing house Dalkey Archive Press, seeking out great literature to publish from all over the world. She also translates French literary fiction and prose into English.



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