When you sit on a stage to do a book reading or to discuss writing with other authors, you might think it natural to slip into a script. Improvisation might make you look hesitant in comparison with the polished stories you’ve told many times before. But you’d be surprised – well, I’m surprised – at how often I find myself receiving the gift of insight from readers in the audience or other participants in a panel discussion.
That’s what happened this week when I was invited to the Goethe-Institut in Jerusalem’s Talbiyeh neighborhood to talk about writing in the city with two other locally based writers.
I realized why I don’t write about Jerusalem. Even though I live there. Live here, I mean.
Ann-Kathrin Seidel, the German journalist who organized the evening, asked the other two participants why they write about Jerusalem, though they don’t live there. Both of them have lived long periods of time in Jerusalem, but now live in Tel Aviv. Both said that life in Jerusalem was so intense, they needed just a little space in order to have the energy to write about the place. (Tel Aviv is only one hour’s drive away, so it is, truly, just a little space.)
Gil Yaron, a doctor and a journalist who has authored an excellent book called “Jerusalem: a Political-Historical City Guide,” writes about Israel and the Palestinians from his home in Tel Aviv. Miriam Woelke writes from there no less then five blogs about life in the ultra-Orthodox community – she’s ultra-Orthodox herself though, unlike almost every other woman in that world, she wasn’t wearing a puffy shirt and voluminous skirt. She had on an orange t-shirt and baggy Capri pants. Both write in English and German, having grown up in Germany.
At first I thought Ann-Kathrin’s question didn’t apply to me. After all, I live in Jerusalem. I have long resisted the temptation to trundle down to the coast to where the restaurants are better and the people less aggressive. I’ve thought about living there, but I admit that as a native of a hilly country, I can’t live anywhere completely flat. I’m always lost in Tel Aviv, even though there’s barely a street there I haven’t been down over the years. No slopes from which to orient myself. (It could be that’s why I always know where I am in Dehaisha Refugee Camp, which is on a hill so steep that it almost seems upside down…Maybe there’s another reason why it seems upside down, but that’s for another blog post…)
I thought there were many reasons I haven’t written a novel about Jerusalem. That I see the place every day and it becomes harder truly to see it, for example. But Gil and Miriam made me see something deeper.
People often ask me if I live in a Palestinian neighborhood of Jerusalem, or one of the Palestinian towns where my books are set (Nablus, Bethlehem, Gaza). I tell them that I find it too exhausting to be in those places for very long, and so I don’t live there. Exhausting because my senses are so creatively active the whole time I’m there. The smell of spices and donkey crap, the light that reflects so brightly off the limestone, the dusty wind, the sense of history in the old casbah and the ancient churches.
When I return to the West Jerusalem neighborhood where I live, it’s as though I’ve visited another continent. I can allow my creativity to stabilize, let myself make some sense of what I’ve seen and felt. Only then can I write about it.
It may sound like going to a Metallica gig to get some peace and quiet, but it’s true: Jerusalem is my refuge.