Posted by: sean | March 20, 2008

Seeing Israel in Paris

I’m in Paris this week to surprise my good friend for his birthday and see others whom I’ve been missing lately,  the city herself my friend’s unborn baby girl. I was glad to see that while I was going to be here, I could see Amos Oz and David Grossman at the Centre Pompidou.

It wasn’t until I arrived that I realized that the reason Grossman and Oz were in Paris in the first place was the Salon du Livre and the fact that this year, Israel was showcased as the guest of honor. I then found out from some Franco-Algerian friends, who accompanied me to the Pompidou event, that there had been a bomb threat and a boycott. (For a good summary in English of the whole thing, check out Lauren Elkin’s account.)

The Oz and Grossman event wasn’t at all what I was expecting. I knew that it was ostensibly about their literature but assumed that since both authors are politically active, there would be a fair amount of politics involved also. I was looking forward to this, not least because the only books I’ve read by either author are political non-fiction. There was a fog of politics that floated above the evening but never settled. Since there was no opportunity for questions, the young swooning moderator, who sounded more like a groupie than a literary critic or writer, and the writers themselves were able to keep to the topic of writing and literature.

One effect of this was that the Holocaust was very much present in the talk, but the Palestinians almost not at all. This was a little disappointing to me, because it’s hard for me to imagine Palestinian writing (and this may be the fault of wonderful Mourid Barghouti and Mahmoud Darwish) without a heavy Israeli presence. Also, Oz and Grossman seemed very distant and foreign to me, because of the linguistic barrier. For some reason, I was expecting them to speak in English, but instead they spoke in Hebrew, which was translated into French by one of the best interpreters I’ve had the pleasure of listening to. His voice was soft and exact, and I felt cradled by his cadence. David Grossman was fairly spontaneous but sometimes a little rambling, whereas Oz spoke like a robot but had more interesting things to say. (It’s only fair to mention that a lot of Oz’s discourse was canned, as I’d already read close to a third of it in various of his books, interviews and articles.)

It was interesting for me to see Israel in this light: as a state like another. Because in Lebanon, Israel is not only not like other states, it’s violent and dangerous. We’re waiting for the next war, which will likely be even worse than the last one, so it’s difficult to empathize with Israel and its people, even if many of them (like Grossman and Oz) have opinions similar to mine. This reminds me of my trip to the West Bank at the end of the war in 2006. Only rarely did I cross over to Jewish Jerusalem or interact with Israelis. I felt shaken by the bombing of Lebanon and almost afraid to see where those bombs were coming from. I now regret not exploring Tel Aviv or visiting Yad Vashem, which I’ve wanted to see for a long time. But July 2006 was not the time for that kind of a trip; hopefully I’ll have another occasion to go in the not-so-distant future. Or even better, perhaps one day I’ll be able to make the short drive to the beach in Tel Aviv from Beirut.

Otherwise, and as per usual, I’ve taken advantage of Paris to do some book shopping. It seems that Avraham Burg’s book, which won’t be out in English until October, has been released in French already. I’d like to be able to share it with my Anglophone friends in Beirut, but when I saw it used at Gilbert Joseph, I couldn’t pass it up. Otherwise, I also found a used copy of Avi Shlaim’s The Iron Wall at my favorite English book store here. Other, non-Israel-related, books include Nerval’s Voyage en Orient, Paul Morand’s New York (a present from Sebastien) and George Corm’s L’Europe et l’Orient. I won’t be happy until I find used copies of Samir Kassir’s Histoire de Beyrouth and Jean Hatzfeld’s Stratégie des Antilopes.



  1. Oh it’s funny Sean, I thought that the paul morand was the present i gave you before you leave Paris…

  2. You’re right, Sebby, it wasn’t actually an achat. I’ll make a change to make sure the correction is duly noted. Vous me manquez déjà, tous les deux. Je te dirai ce que je pense du Morand dès que je le termine.

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