Columns

SECOND THOUGHTS – THE HINDU
Storyteller sublime
BY NAVTEJ SARNA

Eli Amir's novels examine issues of identity and the true meaning of exile.

It is the best hour of the day in Jerusalem. The 500-years-old stone walls of the Old City are bathed in the soft warm light of the sinking sun and the evening breeze is a heady mix of the scents of olive, rosemary, sage and lavender. At this hour, Eli Amir, one of Israel's most popular novelists, makes a particularly enchanting raconteur with whom to watch the gently fading light and the emerging silhouettes of domes, towers and steeples.

At 75, but possessed of an enthusiasm and charm that belies his age, he certainly has stories to tell: In 1950, as a boy of 13, he fled Baghdad with his Iraqi-Jewish family to the newly formed state of Israel, leaving behind the smells and sounds of what had been home for generations for an uncertain future. His family struggled in the difficult conditions of an immigrant camp while he bruised his knees in a kibbutz, struggling to break through the racial and ethnic stereotypes in a racial melting pot. Fortunate enough to get a job as a messenger boy he ferried privileged correspondence in his haversack back and forth from Prime Minister Ben Gurion and often he stood in for the receptionist at the Prime Minister's house to eavesdrop on history being made in the fledgling state. Schooling himself in Arabic literature and music, he sought to become a bridge between his past and his present, a man with one leg in the East and the other in the West. This Baghdadi Jew, who often refers to himself as ibn Arab (son of an Arab) fulfilled several civil service roles, rising from messenger boy to Director General of one of the Ministries and had offers of even higher office. Such was his empathetic ability to talk across communities that he was appointed advisor to the Prime Minister on Arab issues in East Jerusalem in the wake of the Six Day War in 1967.

The preoccupation of making two ends for his immigrant family kept Eli Amir at the bureaucratic desk. But the writer in him had to emerge, the stories had to come bubbling through. So at 44, he published his first novel The Scapegoat, the story of a new immigrant teenager from a conservative Middle Eastern background who enters a kibbutz dominated by those who had earlier come from European backgrounds. The clash between new immigrants and old, between two divergent cultures, between the religious and the secular, seen through the eyes of the sensitive young narrator keen to break his shackles but unwilling to deny his roots, spoke to the entire country with immediacy making Eli Amir became a household name overnight. The novel quickly entered the mainstream canon and became a fixture on the school curriculum.

If The Scapegoat was based on Eli Amir's teenage years, the highly accomplished The Dove Flyer brings to life the Baghdad of his childhood. Reading the book, it's easy to believe what Eli Amir's sibling said of him, that young Eli is best recalled as a child sitting at his father's or grandfather's knee, absorbing the stories they had to tell. The novel's thickly populated landscape is layered with stories lived out in the crowded lanes of that once fabled city, where men in navy blue serge suits sat and played backgammon, smoked hookahs and sipped cardamom-laced coffee. The book depicts the tearing pain of people having to leave the only home they have known in the face of religious discord and politics. But they find that “running away is no solution. A homeland isn't a hotel that you leave because it's uncomfortable.”

Using straightforward storytelling and eschewing all pedantic pretensions, Amir examines closely issues of identity and the true meaning of exile. We meet people, not unlike the older generation of our own partition-afflicted Punjabi refugees, who spend their lives yearning for the homes they will never see again, that exist only in their dreams. “There wasn't a day that he didn't go back to Baghdad. This time it was to the oily taste of winter lettuce, the smell of limes, the fresh dates that had melted in his mouth…….Who was it who had once told him that a native land was not a home to be razed, or a rotten tooth to be pulled out? As if you could extract the earth, the river, the palm trees, the graveyards from a man's heart…”

But when we begin to talk of the third book, Yasmine, Eli Amir's eyes look away into the far distance and his mind seems even further. It took him five years to finish the novel and even then he lingered over it, not wanting to let go off it, because once the book is handed over to editors and publishers, it no longer belongs to the author. Drawing heavily on his own experience, Yasmine is set in East Jerusalem in the immediate aftermath of the 1967 Six Day war. The sensitive Arabic speaking, sympathetic, Jewish advisor, a new immigrant from Iraq — an obvious autobiographical narrator — meets and falls in love with Yasmine, an accomplished, beautiful Palestinian widow who comes back from France, only to go away again. This lyrically depicted love story is at the core of a novel that examines knotty political issues with understanding and sensitivity.

“Is Yasmine true?” I ask him, encouraged by the fact that the book is dedicated at least partially to “…Yasmine, wherever you are.”

Eli Amir looks away from the now firm silhouettes of the Old City walls and smiles an inscrutable smile. “It is all true and it is not true.”

And we leave it at that.

navtej.sarna@gmail.com