Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Keret's Handbook for Success in Death

Etgar Keret's collection The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God & Other Stories is a delightful assortment of experimental vignettes that resonate deeply on a number of levels. Overtly, the pieces are blackly hilarious, sinister in the disturbing scenes we are asked to imagine, audacious in that we must suspend disbelief at all costs and put trust in twisted narrators who force us to navigate the darkness of the human psyche. When taken in kind with the novella that appears at the end of the collection, "Kneller's Happy Campers," these pieces force us to question the validity and quality of life on Earth. Keret confronts that classic and singular existential question, What's the point of all this? His unique take on this age-old query leads us to the afterlife. What is Heaven like? Hell? What actually transpires once someone takes her own life? Though clearly indebted to the tradition of magical realism, once we allow ourselves to believe in these places beyond the grave, Keret's work reveals provocative truths derivative of the basic problem of existence.

The very premise of "Kneller's Happy Campers" is beyond hilarious. Imagine the scenario. A dejected, misunderstood human being reaches the proverbial end of his rope and desires nothing more than the comfort of oblivion, freedom from the suffering that is everyday life. Where does he go once he leaves this world? A place that resembles the planet whence he came, just a little bit crappier. The concept is brilliant. Is this a punishment for suicide? A reward? The characters, once they reach this bizarre purgatory, can still eat, sleep, work, have sex. How bad could it be? Once through the gateway of death, these characters are thrust back into life, thus obliterating the very point of their self-destruction. Perhaps that, in itself, constitutes punishment.

Though Keret's prose is indeed interesting enough in its own right to be discussed more explicitly, I want to take a chance in this venue to muse upon some broader, more philosophical questions; for what is the point of literature if not to encourage the reader to ponder the big questions in life? I wonder if this special afterlife that Keret portrays is like one of Dante's levels of Hell. I am reminded of the film Fried Green Tomatoes in which Ruth insists that there is a separate God for children. Is there a separate Hell for rapists? Abusers? Murderers? Kickers of cats and dogs and children? Keret positions himself precariously in reference to religion as nearly every tradition classifies suicide as one of the worst offenses. It would make sense, then, that these most blasphemous criminals should be sent to an awful, unbearable place. Ironically, the setting in this novella doesn't actually seem too bad at all. Perhaps, at least in the Judeo-Christian tradition, off-ers are pardoned to some extent because Jesus himself could be considered a suicide. At least, Keret implies as much near the end of the novella.

The "Messiah King," conveniently named "J," could easily serve as a Christ figure. Near the end of his earthly life, Jesus was aware that he was to be betrayed and killed. He could have split town and avoided his own martyrdom. His death, then, registers as suicide in the same way that Lihi's does. Lihi used heroin, fully aware that it could kill her. However, she feels that she is in the wrong place because she didn't want to die. In Christian mythology, Jesus was willing to sacrifice himself for the good of mankind; therefore, his agency in his own demise could be interepreted as suicide. Interestingly enough, this type of sacrifice recalls any suicide mission, most poignantly that of the suicide bomber who is represented in Keret's imagined landscape as the bartender at Djin. Here, Keret really strikes a blow to traditional Judeo-Christian values.

"Say," Uzi pressed on, "is it true that when you people go out on a job they promise you seventy nymphomaniac virgins in Kingdom Come? All for you, solico?" "Sure they promise," Nasser said, "and look what it got me. Lukewarm vodka." "So you're just a sucker in the end, eh, ya Nasser," Uzi gloated. "Sure thing," Nasser nodded. "And you, what did they promise you?" (Keret 106)

Both perspectives in this scene, that of an assumed Arab religious fanatic and an Israeli Jew who is suspicious of Arabs and never actually served in the IDF, support Freud's assertion that religion is, above all, a palliative measure for human beings. For centuries, people have used religion as justification for acts ranging from feeding the hungry to committing genocide against entire groups. In addition to the power religious ideology to compel action, faith and belief in an afterlife work together to ease the pain of death's inevitability. The notion of seventy willing virgins awaiting heroic Muslim males in the afterlife is absurd on its own, but when fortified with religious doctrine, it becomes viable. Uzi feels that he has conquered the moral high ground when he casts Nasser as a fool, after which, Nasser strikes back. Though we know nothing of Uzi's personal relationship to religion, we might assume that he belongs to the Jewish tradition that condemns suicide. With his powerful last words in this scene, Nasser unveils Uzi as a hypocrite, and worse, as a cowardly traitor to his own faith. Uzi committed suicide without expectation of reward. He was simply unable to cope with existence any longer. Who, then, is the is the winner of this morbid battle -- one who dies for a cause or one who runs away from life?

I am not necessarily picking a winner here. I simply delight in Keret's ability to pull the rug out from under us, for creating a text that asks us to make decisions about what sort of death is most acceptable, most glorious, most preferable.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Turkey -- Land of Mosaic and Mosque

Some of my favorite art is derivative in some way of Turkey. The era in which Istanbul was known as Constantinople produced some of the most stunning, provocative iconography, most notably in the form of mosaic. Below are some links to general information on Emperor Justinian and his role as patron to the arts.

The Hagia Sophia (Istanbul, Turkey)

Justinian I (This link discusses the superlative mosaics of Justinian and Theodora at San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Get behind me now, any way

Beaufort is an Israeli film that delves into the psyche of the IDF soldier -- his quotidienne existence, his desires, his relation (or lack there of) to the Israeli cause. Most of the young men depicted in this film, it seems, are completing their service as required of them by the state of Israel. That said, their situations are much different from the religious, Zionist oriented characters in Time of Favor. Lofty ideals, religious extremism, heroic glorification, all of this seems beside the point in this gritty examination of the mundane terror that is war. Stationed inside a moutain fortress in Lebanese territory, Beaufort Castle, the characters are mostly concerned with their proximity to discharge. They long for home. This desire somes as no shock, for who, in their right mind, feels comfortable on the battlefield? However, the coneptual reasons for the soldiers' disenchantment are more complex and speak not only to the contemporary conflict in Palestine/Israel, but also to the US presence in the Middle East.

Early in the film, we get a sense that none of the characters have a vested interest in any sort of cause. They are jaded, cynical, and unsentimental regarding their allegiance to the state of Israel. Such ennui, I woul argue, stems from their participation in a conflict that seems indefinite; the fighting has been going on for generations, and these men see no end in sight. At the beginning, while keeping watch, one soldier says to another that their children will one day occupy the same post at this very same castle when they grow up. Another chimes in with the naive notion that their children will visit Beaufort as tourists, not as occupiers. No one is convinced, least of all the viewer. In addition to the agony of not knowing how long a war may last, some of the soldiers in Beaufort lament the fact that they have no concept of a specific enemy. One young man suggests that there may be an order from higher up not to conquer. Listlessness ensues. The men want for purpose.

The parallel between such conditions and our current conflict in Iraq are evident. Weren't we supposed to be in and out like Desert Storm? Have we, too, learned to accept "at war" as our nation's natural and indefinite state? It's been so long, some probably don't even think about it. I don't wake up and think, here we are, at war another day. I have to watch TV or look at a newspaper to remember. These confused, embittered characters in Beaufort can serve as warnings, reflections of American soldiers. Do we deploy troops who know nothing of their cause? Worse, do we deploy troops equipped with no more than the knowledge available to the average American; that poor, uninformed, reactionary soul who believes we are over there fighting some conglomerate bogey man of Saddam-bin-Laden-Al Qaeda proportion? All wars are too complicated, too political and bureaucratic to be grasped in full by just anyone. It's easier, I suppose, to use fear and sensationalism to create a facile conflict that everyone can understand and jump behind.

**Image: Beaufort Castle, 2007.

The heart is in Jerusalem

Time of Favor is an Israeli film that explores the politics within a particular Zionist settlement or "Yeshiva" run by the conservative, charismatic Rabbi Meltzer. There is a certain hierarchy in place within the community as demonstrated in the relationship between two friends, Menachem and Pini. In a rivalry that recalls the classic play, Cyrano de Bergerac, both compete for the affection of Michal, the lovely daughter of the powerful Rabbi Meltzer. Though Pini is respected as the most intelligent, promising member of the Yeshiva, and favored by the rabbi himself as a match for his daughter, his friend Menachem, a brawny commander in the IDF, steals Michal's heart. The emergent feud between these men escalates until Pini, in an attempt to prove that he too possesses bravery and physical strength, attempts a suicide bombing on a mosque in Jerusalem that results in his death, sans victory. That the lives of these three young people are placed in jeopardy over the lofty idealism of Rabbi Meltzer's radical, Zionist leanings is a testament to a recurring theme that we have discussed from literature and film in this part of the world -- namely, the unwavering willingness of the older generation to sacrifice its youth in the name of an ancient and incendiary cause.

Michal, with much disdain, repeats her father's mantra to Menachem, "The land of Israel is bought with pain." She goes on to say that the more pain her father experiences and witnesses, the more worth he assigns to this mission. Throughout the film, we witness, along with members of the IDF and other residents of the Yeshiva, the rabbi's impassioned speeches in the name of the cause. "We abhor the word 'war,'" he says. "Killing is not our job." Yet, the purpose of his boisterous sermons is to instill pride and a sense of duty in his followers. He encourages them to remember, "The dead lion is more alive than the living dog." Much like the leaders of the suicide bombing operation that we viewed in Paradise Now, Rabbi Meltzer encourages his soldiers and students with great fervor from within a fortress built of words and shiny ideas. He succeeds his father who waxed poetic on the notion of "The Third Temple." In a conflict as lengthy and convoluted as that between Palestine and Israel has become, ideology as high-minded as Rabbi Meltzer's seems inevitable. How else can generation after defeated generation justify the hopeless situation which they offer their children as inheritance? It is the young and strong who must sacrifice their lives while their superiors in religion and politics make the decisions. Subtly, Time of Favor makes light of this injustice. Near the end of the film, after Pini's death in his failed suicide bombing attempt, Rabbi Meltzer is escorted away from the scene. He protests, insisting that his presence is necessary as the soldiers' spiritual leader. Ultimately, however, words and ideas are of no use. What's done is done, and the defeated rabbi must step aside so that others may clean up the mess left behind by the mis-execution of his very vision.

**Image: An artist's depiction of the sacred Third Temple.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Woman's Lament

"As for the rest of the world, it sees women's stories as effusive writings, not novels. In other words, they are seen as memoirs, confessions, scraps, a woman's way of unburdening herself and telling the world: This is all I've got; this is my pain; this is who I am, a victim" (Khalifeh 156).

The Image, the Icon, and the Covenant by Sahar Khalifeh unfolds from the first person perspective of Ibrahim, a Palestinian, Muslim writer. Consequently, this novel is as much about the creation of art itself as it is about the political, social, and cultural setting. Authorship implies a position of power, authority over information, ideas, and, ultimately, over the inner lives of the audience reading your work. For Ibrahim, writing is an act of self-affirmation, an endeavor that ebbs and flows in corresponadance with his general vitatlity. Once stricken lovesick, his artistic impetus dwindles. Furthermore, once devastated by the disappearance of his true love, he loses all creative drive and faith in humanity. "I am not sure anymore if I believe in people...I did not know if we were the soul, and if not, who was the soul?" (Khalifeh 96). Ibrahim settles for life as an entrepreneur, capitalizing on U.S. demands in the Middle East. Is there a profession greater removed from artistic ambition? He resigns himself to a life of misery, wallowing in old age and malcontent. Finally, after years of unsuccessful romances, Ibrahim decides to re-embark on his lifelong search for his lost love, Marian.

What he finds of Marian comes as a shock. Rummaging around in an attic containing remnants of her life, he stumbles upon her writings. Are these pages part of a novel? A memoir? He is deeply disturbed that she never revealed to him her writerly alter-ego. He is puzzled by the fact that this connection between them was never uncovered, that this additional aspect of their relationship never came to fruition. Once recovered from the initial surprise, Ibrahim, it seems turns bitter and egomaniacal. "...wasn't she mesmerized by my writing?" he asks (Khalifeh156). His reaction is both self-centered and misogynistic. He implies that it should have been enough for Marian to experience a writer's life vicariously through him. He is infuriated by the fact that she kept this aspect of her person concealed. As promised by the title of the first section, Marian was nothing more than an image to him. He, as he admits repeatedly near the beginning of the novel, created in his mind the Marian that he wanted to love, a facade of a human that fulfilled his every desire. That she too is an artist undermines Ibrahim's conception while also encroaching upon his writerly space in the universe.

Why didn't Marian reveal to Ibrahim her secret writerly ambitions? I wonder if she wanted to seem non-threatening to Ibrahim to aid in the process of seduction. Her behavior during their brief love affair -- her feigned weakness, the red dress, the perfect performance of the feminine ideal -- demonstrates that she knew exactly what Ibrahim desired of her. She had never planned to marry him or engage in any type of conventional relationship. Ibrahim, in the end, is betrayed, and all of his anger and resentment becomes clear when he uncovers Marian's writings. He is unable to accept the fact of a woman's creativity. Furthermore, the subtext of this scene reveals that he may even find her particular writings to be dangerously subversive.

Marian is responding to a tradition of subdued women -- quiet mothers and obedient housekeepers. Ibrahim characterizes women's literature as victim's literature. The plight, it seems, is the curse of Eve; the burden: motherhood. Ibrahim does not sympathize, for men can only consider birth a vehicle for male heirs. Women lament their existence because they are doomed to do so, and the fact that Ibrahim cannot fathom a woman's literature that expresses something other than pain and self-pity is a testament to his self-centeredness and bigotry. He cannot believe that Marian, a woman who has borne children, left a husband, and seduced a priest, would have anything to express aside from regret. To Ibrahim, if he is too miserable to create, then everyone in this world should share in his grief.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Acts of Faith in Paradise Now

Newman and Falah's scholarly article outlining the Palestinian-Israeli conflict informs intellectually the emotionally charged film Paradise Now. The explication of terms including top-down v. bottom-up organization, autonomy v. self-determination, and nation-state v. nation is vital to our conversation on this topic since we want to be as precise and sophisticated as possible. In this article, we are given the conceptual underpinning for the sentiments expressed in the film, particularly those demonstrated by Said. Near the end of the film, he says that he feels trapped as a Palestinian who is hardly ever authorized to leave the West Bank. In addition, he must contend with the legacy of his father who was executed as a collaborator. In essence, he feels that he must pay penance for his father's betrayal of the Palestinian nation. This burden weighs heavy and oppressive on him, emphaizing the extent of his entrapment. Furthermore, he feels rendered powerless in his position as victim, emphasizing that Israel, as the "occupier" defies victimization. This prospect runs deep among the men comprising the resistence. Says Jamal, "Death is better than inferiority." He puts faith in the power of the individual to enact change.

Due to its topic, suicide bombing, this film raises the question; is the ultimate sacrifice possible without faith in a higher power? To be sure, I am not speaking about Islam in particular here, for there are fundamentalists in all religions. Both Said and Khaled feel that they are pleasing their god through their actions. Jamal continually reminds them of the glory awaiting them in heaven, in addition to the status as heroes that they will assume posthumously. Is the concept of a reward beyond this life the driving force behind this sort of sacrifice? Despite their devout faith, when the time comes for Khaled and Said to carry out their mission, they begin to ask a series of unanswerable questions directed at no one in particular. Are you sure God will be pleased? Are you sure the angels will take us away immediately? Are you sure we will be remembered? The sense of desperation that pevades this moment in the film is overwhleming. It is at once disturbing and deeply moving that there are people in this world willing to die for a given cause. What's more, the notion of religious fervor passionate enough to incite the ultimate sacrifice is both beautiful and incredibly frightening.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Remembering Nuha Al-Radi

By the end of her brilliant, provocative diary chronicling both US invasions in Iraq, Nuha Al-Radi's prose takes on a new tone. Her entries become much more topical, political, taking on a sense of urgency that her previous journaling on quotidienne life did not possess. Al-Radi has become a nomad, an expatriate wandering the globe exhibiting her visual and literary arts. At once, she ponders her place in the world, with the help of a lecture given by Edward Said, as an aging artist. The morbidity of this thought is overwhelming for any being invested in the creation of art. As a writer, I find it unbearable that my time on this earth is limited, that my perspective will dwell only within this small cubicle of history that I am destined to inhabit. I feel reflective in this way after having learned that Al-Radi is no longer with us. She succombed to leukemia in 2004, a self-fulfilling prophecy that she predicted throughout her writing on the war. Though I have been intimate with her for only these past few weeks through her diary, I feel deeply the space she leaves behind.

As the author became more aware of her own mortality, she invigorated her prose. The end of the diary offers a wealth of wisdom on the general horrors of war augmented by a studious attention to world affairs. She also becomes more overtly angry with the nation of Israel. I find myself equally livid. It is unfathomable to me that we share this earth with human beings who say things like, "The 'missiles will destroy everything that makes life in Baghdad liveable...We want them to quit; we want them not to fight...You take the city down...You have the simultaneous effect, rather like the nuclear weapons at Hiroshima -- not taking days or weeks, but minutes'"(407). Thus spoke Harlan Ullman in regards to the technique of "shock and awe" employed in our current conflict. The overt comparison to Hiroshima is what disturbs me most deeply. Imagine a leader proposing some other grand concept and prefacing it with, "rather like the Jewish Holocaust" or "rather like the Salem Witch Trials." Perhaps Al-Radi is right when she claims that no one has learned anything from history.

Hiroshima in mind, I feel that many, myself included, are ignorant to the environmental effects of the bombs dropped on Iraq during the two US invasions. Al-Radi speaks often of depleted uranium, cancer on the rise, innumerable children born with defects. Her own demise came at the hand of these contaminants left behind, the detritus of war. What have we gained from such destruction? What do we, as a nation, have to show for our arrogant escapades in the Middle East? Rubble. Murdered civilians. Entire landscapes, water sources poisoned. A slew of young American boys crippled and disfigured. I mourn for our brave and determined troops abroad. I mourn for the fate of our nation caught in deceit.

**Image excerpted from an artwork by Al-Radi.