Breakfast with the Dalai Lama
Israeli writer Meir Shalev tells unique about his Russian grandmother’s American vacuum cleaner, and why he doesn’t want to be a political novelist.
unique: Mr. Shalev, Ephraim Kishon once described Israel as “being threatened by deadly paralysis and yet full of life”. Would you agree?
Shalev: No. I agree that it’s full of life but I don’t see the “deadly paralysis”. We are threatened by Palestinians, by our own policy, by misunderstanding all over the world. But I don’t consider this to be deadly paralysis. The only paralysis is maybe the passivity of our present prime minister who wasn’t there when Ephraim Kishon was writing. He is not active enough, not original enough. Maybe he’s afraid to make big decisions.
You published a new novel: “My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner”. What were the motives for that book – and why, of all things, a vacuum cleaner?
Because it’s a true story; a memoir, not a work of fiction. It’s about my grandmother who was obsessed with cleaning the house – in a severe, but also in a funny way. She had fights with the family because of all the cleanliness and her brother-in-law who lived in America, sent her this huge American vacuum cleaner. I knew the story for many years since my childhood. Then, a few years ago, I was in America on a lecture tour and some people asked me about the history of my family. I told some stories and also this one about the vacuum cleaner. When I saw that everybody was listening and laughing, I eventually decided to write it down.
The tone of your book is humoristic, but also somewhat melancholic. Do you wish yourself back to these times?
Not really. My own childhood in the village was very good, but the whole atmosphere at this time is not something I would like to go through again. The society was very ideological, in a fanatic way, very socialist. My grandmother, a very individualistic person, really suffered from this situation. She was criticized all the time, a very controversial woman. I myself am also an individualistic person and I think I wouldn’t like to experience this spirit of time as a grown-up. It’s not something that I miss. But of course I miss the simple life of the family, which I liked a lot.
What are the impacts of your family’s Russian origin on your work? Is there a special status of Jewish-Russian culture in Israel?
Today we have a lot of Russian immigrants in Israel. Many of them came in the last 30 years which I am very happy about. Suddenly I heard my grandmother’s accent in the streets again. These immigrants gave a lot of power to the right parties, because many of them are right-wingers. This was their way of getting away from their communist heritage: they became nationalistic in a way. But they brought a lot of culture – music, literature, scholars, doctors, engineers. I am influenced by several Russian writers which I admire – Bulgakov, Gogol, Nabokov, and my grandmother. In her house, there was something Russian, which wasn’t defined as such, something very emotional. My grandmother was not an ideological person; she didn’t mind the Zionist dream or the socialist vision. But she had a special talent to tell great stories, which, I guess, influenced me.
How would the Israeli society react on the scheduled proclamation of a Palestinian national state?
More and more Israelis today realized, maybe too late, that there is no other choice and the Palestinian state should be
established. The alternatives would be either to keep oppressing the Palestinian people, which will have terrible results, or having a state which will be both Israeli and Palestinian and I think this will not work as a democratic state. Four million cannot oppress two millions. You know, since the Six Day War the Israeli state deals with occupation all the time: with the Palestinians, the settlement and this vision of the “greater Israel”. We invest all of our energy and time and resources in the occupied territories. We find ourselves in a trap that we dug ourselves and can not invest the time and the money that we should in education and learning.
In view of the recent turmoil in the Arab World, will there be realignments of Israeli foreign policy?
First we have to wait and see what is going to happen from this because nobody can tell what will be the final outcomes of these revolutions. There is no democratic tradition in the Middle East, where we still do not have a democratic Arab state. I would be very happy if the kings and dictators would fall down. First, because I believe in democracy and also because I think it will be easier for democratic countries to make an agreement. And of course the outcome of this is very meaningful to me and my family, to my country, and to the whole area.
How do you consider your role as an author and journalist in the inner-Israeli discourses?
My role as an author is just to make up stories and to write them down. I don’t believe in this mixture of literature and politics. You will not find politics in my novels. Everything happened in the reality of Israel, but I don’t focus on politics in my books at all. But I also have a weekly column in the press where I express myself politically very clearly. As you might have understood, I am a left winger in Israel. For many years I support the Israeli evacuation of the occupied territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state. But I also would like to see the Palestinians leaving their idea of returning all the refugees of 1948 to their places. There must be some kind of a compromise. So what I do is writing my opinion in the paper, sometimes I will join to a demonstration, but I don’t make politics in my novels. I want my artistic freedom. I don’t want to use my art as a political instrument. I don’t want to promote my books through politics and I don’t want to promote my politics through my books. I want to write my love-stories or my revenge-stories or whatever, like German or Canadian or American writers are allowed to write. The fact that I live in Israel cannot force me to become a political novelist.
How do you rate the impact of cultural projects for reconciliation, like the “Freedom Theatre” of murdered peace activist Juliano Mer-Khamis?
These activities are very positive in one way that if young people from both nations are working together, they get to know each other. And working together in any project, it could be in science, football, theatre, or anything, is very good. Because when people know each other and you know the other side doesn’t have horns on its head. This is very good. When I write novels I work alone. It is not that we meet ten authors and write a book together or something. But overall any kind of cooperation bet-ween people is very positive.
You and your family live in Jerusalem. How does this life in a “divided city” shape your work?
The city is divided mentally, but not physically. I don’t have any objection that the Palestinians will put their future state institutions in Jerusalem as well. I would like to see the holy parts of Jerusalem under some kind of international supervision. But I think the fanatics on both sides, the Muslim and the Jewish, maybe even the Christian, will not agree to that. Once I met the Dalai Lama in Jerusalem for breakfast. We talked about the city and I said: “I would like you to take commando over Jerusalem, because you don’t have any interests here. Your religion does not focus on Jerusalem.” He laughed and said he had enough troubles of his own (laughter). But I think basically religion brought only troubles to Jerusalem, which till today is like an open wound in the Middle East and it drives everybody crazy. So that city, which could have been a spiritual center for the whole world, is like a nuclear reactor: You cannot control it. This is something I have no solution for. I don’t know how to control religious feelings because in the Middle East religious thinking is so irrational.
What is your prospect for peace in the Middle East, after so many fruitless attempts?
We will have more attempts. There is some kind of impatience in Europe about our conflict in the Middle East. Up to the end of the Second World War, you in Europe had a thousand years of non-stop war: Spain with Holland and England, Germany with everybody, the Balkan conflicts all the time… Now for the last sixty years, Europe is relatively silent. You know, we don’t ask for 1.000 years, but I don’t think Europe has the right to push the Palestinians and the Israelis so quickly after you enjoyed your endless wars for 1.000 year. I would like to see peace in my own life, but I’m not sure it’s going to happen. These are slow processes. Today, you can go all over Europe, you don’t have to show your passport – it’s great. I would love to go like this from Jerusalem to Tehran, for example. It’s my dream, but you don’t do it by pushing us all the time. And right now, if you see how Europe is involved in Lybia, but is not involved in Syria, you may think that it’s not only moralistic thinking that’s behind the European involvement in the Middle East.
Thank you, Mr. Shalev.
Das Interview führte Stephan Strunz.
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