Gideon Lichfield recently finished a stint as Jerusalem correspondent for The Economist, following postings to Moscow and Mexico City, and early in 2009 he will move to the magazine's New York bureau. He somewhat irregularly maintains a blog, Fugitive Peace, about covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and is currently writing a book. In this post Gideon discusses David Grossman's The Yellow Wind.
Gideon Lichfield on The Yellow Wind by David Grossman
So very many books have been written about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And yet - or perhaps precisely because it is a topic already over-burdened with partisans and pre-cooked opinions - very few of them have that disturbing feel of true intellectual and emotional honesty.
The Yellow Wind by the Israeli novelist David Grossman is one of those rarities. Grossman had campaigned against the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza for years and had written a novel about it, The Smile of the Lamb. When the first intifada erupted in 1987, he turned to journalism in an attempt to understand afresh the simmering tensions that had set it off, and spent seven weeks interviewing Palestinians and Jewish West Bank settlers.
A collection of 18 essays and reporting pieces, The Yellow Wind ranges from the refugee camps of the West Bank to the squalid room above an Israeli factory where illegal Palestinian workers sleep; from the Kafkaesque proceedings of a military court to an edgy late-night debate with settlers; and from the rivalry between Palestinians with Israeli citizenship and their West Bank brethren to a psychologist's academic study of Israeli and Palestinian children's dreams. There is also a short story in which Grossman imagines the internal monologue of a young officer in Israel's military administration for the West Bank strolling around 'his' Palestinian village.
When the book came out the intifada was only just shaking most Israelis awake from the pleasant illusion that the occupation was more or less indefinitely sustainable. The issues Grossman covered, however, were already well known to those who cared to look, and in the 20 years since, both the Israeli and the international media have probed them all in mind-numbing detail. And yet, save for some things that have changed (such as the fact that the Palestinians now have partial self-rule), The Yellow Wind still feels as fresh as if it had been written last week.
One reason could be that history has now spiralled around to a similar point in the cycle. With their economy strong, and with fences and walls around Gaza and the West Bank protecting the mainland from suicide bombings, a lot of Israelis have become habituated to the notion that if the current peace process fails, as most assume it will, they can keep the Palestinians seething but contained until times somehow become more propitious again. Many of the book's warnings are once more highly relevant.
But what makes the book so good is Grossman's ability to write about a topic he already knew intimately as if seeing it for the first time. It shows in his sensitivity as an observer - unpicking the emotions that wash across the faces of old Palestinian refugee women, noticing the unconscious kneading motion that one of them makes as she remembers baking bread as a girl in her ancestral village, catching the moment when their air of polite welcome vanishes and 'the wires suddenly go taut'.
He is just as clear-eyed a witness to his own prejudices and fears, such as when he has to interview the father of a Palestinian terrorist or encounters an anti-Israel rally at a West Bank university. To this he adds deep insight of the way the conflict was already then eating away at Israeli society - seeping into its structures, corrupting its institutions and morals, distorting its language Newspeak-style, forcing every reserve soldier who serves in the occupied territories to adopt 'an unconscious detachment of the man from himself'. Nor does he dish out easy blame: he recognizes how the systematization of the conflict often robs ordinary people, even the settlers of whom he is sharply critical, of their freedom of action, turning them into players in a pre-scripted drama.
And then, of course, there is his writing, luminous even through the shroud of translation. When he talks to the Palestinian migrant workers late at night, he records that their 'yawns dance like black flames in an endless chain across the room'.
Interestingly, what most struck me when I first read The Yellow Wind - and the reason I originally chose it for this piece - turned out to be a trick of my memory. I had recalled Grossman as being remarkably willing to listen to and transmit what all his interviewees were saying, non-judgementally and even with empathy. When I started covering the conflict myself a few years later I decided this had to be a model to follow (though in practice The Economist's pared-down, analytical style rarely permitted that unrefracted connection between my interviewees and readers). In fact, on re-reading the book, I discovered that Grossman had reserved this open-mindedness for Palestinians; he was much less sympathetic to the settlers, his fellow Jews, seeing them in many ways as the greater enemy to peace.
But even if he lacks the 'balance' that we journalists - what Grossman in an aside calls 'the merchants of tragedy' - purport to strive for, he possesses an ability to connect his readers to the people he meets more directly and on many more levels than most journalists can. This, ultimately, is what gives the book its power and timelessness.
It comes about partly because ordinary journalists are under constant pressure to abbreviate - to present short, clear stories and identify the guilty for each individual catastrophe. The tired phrases that dog coverage of the conflict, like 'militant' and 'cycle of violence' and 'simmering tensions' (see my second paragraph above) are a product of this: they look like mere clichés, but in fact they are terms of art denoting entire histories, which we use to signal to ourselves and each other that we know the nuances but just don't have room to spell them out.
Grossman has the room. But he also knows the nuances better than most, brings a novelist's eye to the reporter's craft and seems physically incapable of writing a cliché. The Yellow Wind shows that any old newspaper article can explain a country to the world, but it takes a book, and an exceptional one at that, to explain one human being to another.