In his book “A Tale of Love and Darkness”, which has been translated from the original Hebrew into many different languages, Israeli writer Amos Oz tells of his youth and his relationship with Jerusalem, where he was born.

amosoztaleoflove

What has changed since the nineteen-forties and nineteen-fifties – the period you describe in your book?

Jerusalem has changed completely. It was a small town with many neighbourhoods and each neighbourhood had its personality and its life cycle. Today it is a metropolis, a city of more than seven-hundred-and-fifty-thousand inhabitants, and it is much more lively though it is still full of tensions like when I was a child.

Jewish_Quarter_(Jerusalem,_bef_1948)

Jewish Quarter, Jerusalem, before 1948.

What kind of relationship do Israelis have with Jerusalem?

It is impossible to answer that because every Israeli has his own Jerusalem. There’s the Jerusalem of the religious and of the secular, the Jerusalem of the new settlers and of those who have been there for many generations. The Jerusalem of the Jews and the Arabs….

Kibbutz Hulda

Kibbutz Hulda. Amos Oz lived here when he first left home.

So why did you go to live elsewhere?

At age fourteen, I rebelled against my father’s world. He was an academic, and I became a tractor driver. He was on the right, and I became a socialist. He was an intellectual, and I wanted to be a farmer. So, at age fourteen, I moved to a kibbutz, and I later moved to another kibbutz in the desert. Since then I’ve been back to Jerusalem many times, but I’ve never been a resident since. It is the city where I was born and where many of my books take place.

Do you set them there because a writer needs to know the places he describes?

I need some distance, however. I can’t paint with my nose pressed to the canvas. I also kept my distance because the city is full of all kinds of extremists – Muslims, religious Jews, and nationalists. The whole city is like a big question mark.

Sacred Desert Well in Kibbutz Ketura

Sacred Desert Well in Kibbutz Ketura

You saw the birth of the state of Israel, which is now sixty years old. What has changed? Is the country stronger or weaker since then?

Israel was born out of dreams, not because of geography or demography. There were many different dreams. The dreams of the fathers and mothers of Israel. Some dreamed of recreating the days of the Bible. Others dreamed of creating a replica of the Jewish cities of Eastern Europe. Others dreamed of copying Austria/Hungary in the Middle East. Others wanted a social-democratic Scandinavia. Still others aimed to create a Marxist country. Those dreams cancelled each other out and couldn’t be achieved. After sixty years, Israel has a sense of disappointment precisely because it was born of a dream. But it isn’t disappointment about the nature of Israel as much as the nature of dreams. The only way to maintain the sense of a wonderful, perfect dream is to never try to fulfil it. The moment in which you fulfil it, the disappointment starts. Israel is a dream fulfilled and thus there’s disappointment.

Does that mean it is a failure?

No. It isn’t a failure.

Could there be other dreams?

Yes, always. But then if they are fulfilled, there’s disappointment.

Haifa, on the Mediterranean Coast.

Haifa, Israel’s Third Largest City, on the Mediterranean Coast.

What about the reality of it?

The reality is that it is a very Mediterranean country much like Greece, Italy, and Spain. It is a loud, passionate, materialistic, and generous country with a warm heart, and it creates a lot of noise about it. I can say that Israel belongs more in a Fellini film than in a Bergman film.

What about the war aspect, the conflict with Palestinians?

War is the greatest tragedy of Arabs and Israelis. Peace is the greatest dream of Israelis, and I think it will come. I don’t know how soon. I can’t give you a date. It is difficult to be a prophet in the land of prophets, but I know that one day there will be a Palestinian embassy in Israel and an Israeli embassy in Palestine. These two embassies will be just a few kilometres away because there will be a Jerusalem West and a Jerusalem East.

Are you saying Jerusalem will be divided in two?

I think Jerusalem West will be the capital of Israel and Jerusalem East will be the capital of the Palestinian state.

The Western or Wailing Wall, Jerusalem

The Western or Wailing Wall, Jerusalem

 

Who will get the Wailing Wall?

I don’t know what the exact borders will be, but I think the holy places need to remain outside the territories and open to all believers.

Do you think Israel will exist in one-hundred years or do you agree with others that think it won’t survive?

I believe it will still exist. I see no reason why it won’t be that way. I think that one day, as has happened in Europe, there will be peace. But it won’t take one-thousand years, and much less blood will be spilled.

 

Iran reportedly tested a Shahab-4 missile designed to have a range of 4,000 kilometers in January 2006.

Iran reportedly tested a Shahab-4 missile designed to have a range of 4,000 kilometers in January 2006.

What about Iran, enemies from outside, and the threat of the atomic bomb?

I fear that within about fifteen years, all countries will have the atomic bomb, and there will be the same precarious balance that existed between the United States and the Soviet Union, or that exists now between India and Pakistan.

Do you think there could be new world wars?

It is difficult to predict.

What about literature?

It is blossoming on the slopes of an active volcano. Even when the world is dangerous and uncertain, people go on with their daily lives. They dream, plant gardens, work the land, and read and produce literature. In Israel, it’s a golden age for literature today. Israelis read and write many books. And, most of all, they discuss many books. Occasionally a taxi driver will recognize me when I get in and will start talking. Not with me or about me but about the characters in my books.

klausner2

Amos Oz (Klausner) with his parents. Klausner family archive.

Haven’t you chosen the wrong line of work? Aren’t you actually a failed farmer?

I wanted to be a farmer, but, in the end, the rebellion against my father took an almost three-hundred-and-sixty-degree turn, and now I am talking to you sitting in a room full of books, and I’m writing even more books. It is exactly what my father wanted me to do, and I didn’t last many years as a tractor driver.

Was your father able to see your success?

He saw my first three books published.

And what did he think about them?

He was happy about my writings, but he was against my political ideas. He died forty years ago, and I still have political discussions with him. I have the habit of inviting the dead into my home every once in a while. I ask them to sit down and have a coffee and talk about the things we never talked about when they were still alive. After coffee, I send them away because I don’t want the dead living in my house. But occasionally I invite them in for a coffee or a conversation. I think this is the right way to live with the dead, and with our dreams, we invite the dead to return.

View of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives.

View of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives.

21st August, 2009

The Paris Review, Fall 1996: The Art of Fiction No. 148