Monday, April 10, 2006

Tourists in Israel - Better Writing Subjects?

Writing fiction about Israel always presents issues, the most pressing being whether to mention or not to mention living with "the situation." Aaron Hamburger's essay in Zeek well demonstrates this dilemma. He talks about how in the summer of 2000 he set out to research a book about the gay community in Israel but he couldn't avoid talking about the conflict. So he ends up writing about the next most interesting phenomenon in Israel - the hordes of American tourists that populate Israel's streets year-round.

Hamburger writes:

My biggest problem, however, was that in the summer of 2000 the gay community, like everyone else in Israel, had much bigger fish to fry. A novel about gay life in Israel without mentioning the Palestinian issue would have meant writing science fiction.

So I gave up my idea of writing about Israel and became a tourist. I visited a friend staying at the Hilton while chaperoning a Singles’ Mission to Israel. I toured the City of David Archeological Park and got lost in Hezekiah’s water tunnel. I mingled with the teenagers wandering down the pedestrian mall of Ben Yehuda Street at night and overheard a young man in a backwards baseball cap express his desire for a hot Israeli girlfriend despite the fact that he didn’t speak Hebrew: “Sha-LOM! That’s all the Hebrew I need!” And one afternoon toward the end of my trip, I took a moment to sit near the Western Wall and reflect on the time and money I’d wasted. Beside me sat a middle-aged couple from America. The husband turned to his wife and asked, “So has this trip been a meaningful experience for you?”

This ties in nicely with Yehuda Amichai's poem "Tourists."

Visits of condolence is all we get from them.
They squat at the Holocaust Memorial,
They put on grave faces at the Wailing Wall
And they laugh behind heavy curtains
In their hotels.
They have their pictures taken
Together with our famous dead
At Rachel's Tomb and Herzl's Tomb
And on Ammunition Hill.
They weep over our sweet boys
And lust after our tough girls
And hang up their underwear
To dry quickly
In cool, blue bathrooms.
Once I sat on the steps by agate at David's Tower, I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. "You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there's an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head." "But he's moving, he's moving!" I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, "You see that arch from the Roman period? It's not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who's bought fruit and vegetables for his family."

Perhaps Hamburger's book will speak to some of the questions that Amichai opens up and addresses so beautifully in this poem.


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