Monday, May 06, 2013

William Sutcliffe & John McCarthy discuss their books on Palestine-Israel issue

At an event held in the gallery of  Notting Hill Community Church in West London, last Tuesday evening novelist William Sutcliffe and writer, broadcaster and one-time Beirut hostage John McCarthy discussed their latest books, both on Israeli-Palestinian themes. In the chair was William Sieghart, chairman and founder of the conflict resolution NGO Forward Thinking which works with the leaderships of the different sides in the Israel/Palestine conflict.

The event, 'Two Sides of the Wall: Untold Stories from Israel/Palestine', was organised by Lutyens and Rubinstein Bookshop located opposite the church in Kensington Park Road. The bookshop was founded in 2009 by literary agents and former publishers Sarah Lutyens and Felicity Rubinstein, who in 1993 started the Lutyens and Rubinstein literary agency.

display of the books by William Sutcliffe and John McCarthy at the event

Introducing the evening Felicity Rubinstein recalled that Sutcliffe was "practically my very first client when we started the agency nearly 20 years ago. He'd written an incredibly funny first novel about being in the sixth form at Haberdashers' Aske's, called New Boy and he then went on to publish four more hilarious bestsellers including Are You Experienced which to this day is mandatory gap-year reading.

“Nothing about his career suggested that he would write a book that would be a cornerstone for a serious literary event about the Palestine-Israel debate." But he then produced The Wall (Bloomsbury), “a heartbreaking novel about a teenage boy living in an imaginary community with unmissable similarities to the West Bank - and so the idea for tonight's event started to germinate."

The Wall is a political fable whose 13-year-old first-person narrator Joshua lives in the isolated hilltop town of Amarias. Although the setting is not named, Amarias is clearly an Israeli Jewish settlement of new houses in the West Bank. At its edge it has a high wall to keep out the enemy, and a checkpoint manned  by soldiers. While looking for a lost football Joshua discovers a tunnel under the Wall and cannot resist passing through. On the other side of the Wall he gets to know teenage Leila, and through her and her family he learns about the harsh realities of life for his supposed enemies. Bloomsbury has published the novel in Adult and Young Adult versions with different covers.  

 adult version of The Wall 

Young Adult cover

Lutyens and Rubinstein were keen to have John McCarthy on the platform with Sutcliffe. "John's career as a TV journalist, which in 1986 led him to be captured and held hostage for five years in Lebanon, and the books he has written since his release, have made him a national figure," Rubinstein said. "His most recent book You Can't Hide The Sun: A Journey Through Israel and Palestine (Bantam Press) weaves the testimonies of Palestinians who remained in Israel after its formation in 1948 with John's experience of living under constant threat." [McCarthy's new series on the Middle East, In a Prince's Footsteps, began on BBC Radio 4 on 6 May]

William Sieghart points to the dramatic shrinkage of Palestinian areas since 1947/48

As a prelude to the discussion Sieghart pointed to a series of four maps illustrating the dramatic shrinkage of Palestine since 1947/48 and the establishment of Israel, followed by the 1967 war, and occupation and the settlement process. The Palestinian area is now reduced to “the Gaza Strip and the archipelago of Palestinian islands in which the Palestinians live in the West Bank.” 

Sieghart described McCarthy's You Can't Hide the Sun as a really intriguing book about the story of Israel seen through the eyes of the Arabs who live within its borders. He asked McCarthy about what had drawn him back to the Middle East even after being held hostage in Lebanon. McCarthy said he had not revisited the area for some time after being freed in 1991. His trip to Lebanon in 1986 had been his first-ever trip outside Europe and “I think I got very caught up with the atmosphere of the Middle East and the people in Lebanon that I met and indeed some of the Palestinians I met there. I was very intrigued by this new culture.” In addition his father had served with the British Army at the end of the Second World War in Palestine and had spoken very fondly of the experience. "So when I got the opportunity to revisit the Middle East, in particular Israel and the Palestinian territories, I wanted to go and learn more about the area and got very excited about that."

In 2006 while in Israel on a TV project McCarthy visited a Bedouin Arab family in Lod. They were Israeli citizens and had lived in that place for generations but “the story they told me was very distressing. Half of their neighbourhood was flattened, demolished, it looked like something from a war zone.” And yet this was in the heart of Israel, in a secure area surrounded by Israeli citizens.

“Their story was that these homes of their neighbours and family members, had been demolished. The family were a pharmacist and his wife, who was a nurse, and their three little children. They explained that they had a demolition order against their house. The reason they had a demolition order they explained to me was that they were Arab and the Jewish community wanted them to move. And this continuing threat was extremely difficult for them to live with.” McCarthy found this very interesting: he had not known this was going on in Israel. “And furthermore I hadn't realised how many Palestinian citizens in Israel there were - one in five Israelis is an Arab. That was a surprise to me: although I had visited Israel on many occasions I hadn't realised there was that size of community.”

He worked on his book to understand more about the Palestinian community in Israel and to discover whether the experience of that family in Lod was a general one. He decided to see what had happened from 1947 up to the present day. He met many Palestinian families "who were teenagers at the time and who can speak about the experience of what it was like to be a Palestinian during that civil war period - the fear they experienced, the loss and breakup of communities."

Under the UN partition plan the idea had been that Israel would have about 50 per cent of the land of old Palestine but it ended up with 70 per cent.“The original population should have been about 50-50, there were about half a million Jewish people there at that point and slightly fewer Arabs in what was designated by the UN to be the Israeli state. But by the end of that onflict not only had Israel ended up with about 70 per cent of the land but the vast majority of the Arab population were gone. They'd 'd been forced out or fled during the fighting and they were in the West Bank, in Gaza and further afield in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.” Around 150,000 remained in Israel while 700,000 became refugees in exile.

Israel declared that the Arabs would be full Israeli citizens with all rights as good citizens but tragically the reality became that the Arab citizens were put under what was effectively martial law for the next 20 years, the "military period". This meant that people even living in a village where they might have lived all their lives, and generations before that, were not allowed to move around freely, or to conduct business, without permission from the local military commander. "So this community which had been fractured, and devastated by the civil war, very frightened and demoralised - they had been expecting at least a Palestinian state but they'd been broken up - were trying to basically survive. It was a very difficult period for them.

The most common statement he heard them make about their predicament was that they are "made to feel like strangers in their own home. They see themselves as the remainder of the indigenous population, but they're not allowed to feel that this is their homeland: it is the Jewish homeland and they are guests as it were."

With the discrimination against the Palestinian community in Israel they find it very difficult to see themselves as full citizens. "They recognise that that's on their passports because they can travel with them but it's a kind of internal conflict to say yes I'm an Israeli but I'm also something else. It's a difficult conundrum."

William Sieghart observed that in chronicling the birth of a new state, McCarthy chronicled the destruction of an old way of existing.

McCarthy spoke of the Palestinians, who were a predominantly agricultural community, having a sense that their land was taken away from them. "Their villages, which had thousands of acres around ,them began shrinking and shrinking. because so much land was taken." Those who moved from or fled their homes villagess because of fighting between Jews and Arabs during the civil war period were not allowed to return to their own villages. "They were only allowed to go and stay in another Arab village which had been vacated by people now in exile. So there was this deliberate attempt to sever people from connecting with their home place, as if breaking the spirit as well as breaking the connection with its lands. Which clearly is a terribly important motif for both parties in the conflict."

Turning to William Sutcliffe and The Wall Sieghart asked how he had moved to this subject from writing his comic novels such as Are You Experienced . Sutcliffe said that as a novelist, with every novel you write you are always looking for the big subject. "And I've been thinking for a long time that the big subject of our time is the gap between the haves and the have nots”, which is getting bigger.

At the same time in our culture the "have nots" are increasingly visible. “We know that some of the phones we use and clothes we wear are made by people on a dollar a day but we don't know who they are, we don't know where they are. We've this weird kind of intimate contact with them, yet they are completely invisible.”

Sutcliffe saw some connection between this and the construction of the Wall in the West Bank which began in 2002. He described himself as a secular Jew who keeps one eye on Israel but is not a Zionist. “I thought on the one hand it's a very specific thing in a specific place for a special reason, a concrete structure to stop people moving from place to place , but also a psychological structure, to stop Israelis thinking about what's happening beyond the wall. I thought the wall is this very real concrete thing but it is also on some level a metaphor.

The second main thing that attracted Sutcliffe to the Wall as a subject was that a close friend he really liked, a fellow Jew, an intelligent funny guy with whom he been at school and university, and played with in a band, “suddenly became very religious and spent years in some Yeshiva in the West Bank completely absorbed in Aramaic texts and subsequently became a rabbi got married, had lots of children, but very religious, very orthodox.

“We had both had this very broad liberal education and then he just turned his back on it all. If  you become that religious you're effectively rejecting everything you've learned up to the age of 20, everything you've learnt in your Western liberal education, rejecting every post-enlightenment thought, and devoting yourself to either ancient texts or medieval commentaries on ancient texts.

"I thought that he had made this choice that I couldn't really relate to of just turning his back on the culture he and I grew up with, and chose this completely different path I found unfathomable. And then I felt very sorry for his children and I thought these children are just going to learn this really hardcore religion and for them it's not a choice, they are just not going to see anything else. And I began to think what happens when they're teenagers, when they begin to think for themselves."

Sutcliffe had felt there were two elements of a story taking shape, with a setting and character. "But what you need is a narrative, and there was a third thing that happened... I began to think there's an interesting trope that comes up again and again in children's fiction - which is a character, person, child living a very humdrum existence who discovers a portal to another world of fantasy and wonder - it's Alice in Wonderland.

"Thinking about this religious friend of mine I thought it seemed to me that he's bringing up his child in a world of complete fantasy." With regard to the Wall "I thought here’s an interesting story, an ultra-religious person being brought up next to the Wall, a child in that circumstance brought up in a world of fantasy discovers a sort of portal to reality. You inject a tunnel into that: he can go through this tunnel and suddenly discover for the first time how Palestinians live." He discovers "the sort of real lives he has been brought up to have no idea of: the Wall is a psychological barrier."

Sutcliffe carried two research trips to the West Bank while writing The Wall. He first went there with  the annual Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest). He witnessed how the Israeli occupation affects every aspect of Palestinian lives. "Even though I had done a lot of research and thought I knew the subject, going there was a huge shock - it was a real sort of kick in the stomach." For the PalFest trip he flew first to Amman and then travelled up and down the West Bank on Palestinian roads. On his second trip he travelled with Green Olive Tours - the only Israeli company that takes tourists to the West Ban -  and stayed with families in three West Bank settlements. He found it extraordinary that although his itineraries on  his two research trips overlapped, they never intersected. This was due to the completely separate road systems in the West Bank. The Wall is hidden from the roads and tunnels for cars with yellow Israeli number plates, with earthbanks in some places used to reduce its height from seen from the perspective of the roads for Israelis.

Sieghart read out a passage from The Wall in which Joshua remarks to Leila “You must be very angry” and she responds “if you were angry all the time it would kill you." Sutcliffe said this was the gist of many conversations he had with Palestinians in the West Bank. "Again and again I felt an incredible admiration for what they had to cope with. If you’re under that kind of pressure for decade after decade you find resources that the rest of us don’t have to find. And again and again I felt it came back to that: 'Yes I’m angry but it’s no good being angry all the time, so you have to be able to do something else'...  I felt full of admiration for that mental capacity."
Report and photographs by Susannah Tarbush

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