Society

Black Moccasins And Truck Driver Dreams - Up Close With Amos Oz

Perhaps the most acclaimed Israeli writer of his generation, and a fixture of the peace movement, Oz continues to surprise at the age of 73.

"Make peace, not love..." says Amos Oz
"Make peace, not love..." says Amos Oz
Florence Noiville

PARIS - What could be more natural for a writer than talking about his latest work in the comfort of the publisher of his books? But Amos Oz finds it strange, incongruous.

“Look at me," he says. "I am sitting in front of you, in this room, surrounded by all of these books, but talking only about mine. It’s ironic when I think about it. I mean, this is so much the opposite of…”

Of what? Of his long ago dreams. In a year, Amos Oz will have lived three-quarters of a century. At nearly 75 years old, he is unanimously considered the most important Israeli writer of his generation. Both for his fiction and memoirsMy Michael; Touch the Water, Touch the Wind; A Tale of Love and Darkness – as well as his essays committed to peace, How to Cure a Fanatic and Help Us to Divorce.

Perhaps, it is this feeling of achievement that drives him to look back to the past. It turns out that since his youth, Amos Oz would have given anything to become anything… but a writer!

“It’s even worse than this," he says. "Suddenly I left my house to join a kibbutz. I was rebelling against my father, since I hated everything he represented. For a long time I wanted to be his exact opposite. He voted conservative, I was a socialist. He thought that the land of Israel belonged only to the Jews, while I fought to share it with the Palestinians. He was small, and I wanted to be tall – as you can see this didn’t work out! My father was an intellectual, therefore I decided to become… a truck driver.”

Truck driver? Seriously? With his blue eyes, Oz studies his interviewer over a cup of coffee. “Yes, seriously… but after some time, I became disillusioned. The men of the kibbutz were tanned and strong. I was the one from the city, the pale and skinny one, I wasn’t good for that.”

An endless solitude

But, he admits that he gained the girls attention rather quickly. “To impress them, I started to make up stories, and also to write them.”

To lead or to seduce, sometimes we must choose. This is how fiction would take the place of trucks. This is how Amos Oz became a writer.

From this episode, this great Israeli author learned two lessons. The first is that “all rebellions are destined to failure.” The second, that the confinement of the kibbutz is a great laboratory for studying passion, weakness and human desire.

“Of course I used my experience at the kibbutz to write Between Friends," he said. "But the kibbutz is only a pretext. What interests me about this book, and in general in most of my writings, are very complex and very simple things. The feeling of emptiness, loss, fear of death, isolation and loneliness.”

It is a mistake to say that Amos Oz is a writer. He is in fact, like Janus, two writers at once. There is first the committed intellectual, the one whose essays and articles – including Black Box – confront the issue of Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the fight against extremisms. But there is also – less visible perhaps? – a poetic Amos Oz, observer of the intimate and everyday life.

This is same one who is sitting in front of us, in the sitting room at the Parisian offices of his French publisher Gallimard, recounting his youth, those unlikely dreams of being a truck driver, troubles with girls… the one who constantly returns to this “incurable loneliness” that haunts his heroes in their kibbutz from Lands Jackal, to Between Friends, through Elsewhere Perhaps. “Think about Michelangelo’s painting on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. This is what I see in my characters. They reach out to one another. Their fingers get so close, but never touch.”

A slight disappointment

Just millimeters away, these characters of Amos Oz, so beautifully close, and yet they never quite find each other. But doesn't he believe in this other “very simple and very complicated” thing that we call love?

"You're right," he says. "I write a lot about love, but in a non-sentimental way. Because love, you see, is not always a gift. It is sometimes an obstacle in life. "

What does he mean by that? He means we are seriously mistaken about love. "One of my illustrious compatriots, Jesus, believed in universal love. As David Dagan, one of my characters, he thought that everyone, with some effort, must be able to love his neighbor. He was wrong. Love is a rare commodity. I explain that in many of my books because none of us can truly love more than five or six people. On this subject, Jesus is asking way too much!”

An amused silence hangs, before Oz goes further inside the thread of his thought. "Again, Jesus doesn’t say: be fair to each other. Or: be respectful of each other. He says that you must love one another. Well, I do not need to love my enemy. What I want is to live in peace with him, that's all. Do you remember the old slogan of the 1960s, "Make love, not war”? Well, I have invented another one: "Make peace, not love."

Peace. Peace now. Isn’t it the name of the movement in favor of the creation of two states - Palestine and Israel – that Amos Oz helped to create in 1978? And what has become of it? Is he disappointed? "Obviously..." But he still believes that peace is possible. "Unlike universal love, peace, remains a reasonable goal. It just needs a little bit of patience...”

As for Israel, it is another matter of "slight disappointment." Because Israel, he said, is the “culmination of a dream. And all dreams once turned into reality become inherently disappointing. The same happens in other fields: a journey abroad, a novel or even, why not, a sexual fantasy. The only way to keep a dream intact, is never trying to make it come true... ".

We would like to know how he sees the political future, but Oz politely ends the parenthesis: "Shall we get back to literature?"

It's the shoes

That's where we return. To his books. To his memories. Once again, the conversation turns to childhood. About his father, who left Lithuania in 1933 and spoke 11 languages. About his mother, who refused in the 1940s to let her son learn a language other than Hebrew - "because, she said, if I learned a European language, I would be attracted to Europe and trapped in the deadly snares of this continent."

Finally, we go back to him, to the small Amos, an only child who was often forced to follow his parents to the countless cafes of Jerusalem. If he was patient, they would promise him an ice cream. "While they were talking between adults, I developed a strategy so that I would not die of boredom," he recalls. Again his eyes are shining. "I observed the expressions, the body language, the clothes, and even the shoes of these great people. Especially the shoes. It's crazy how much they tell us about their owner. If he is showy or discrete, poor or smug."

Oz recommends this game to all, and continues to play it to this day. "It is a very funny exercise, very informative, and can help you earn an ice cream! Today, rather than reading some bad newspaper, I practice it at the dentist or at the airport. Anyway, by dint of observing everything, I turned into a real little spy. You see, this is how I became a writer!"

From looking at shoes to writing books, is the path really so short? Discretely, we take a quick look down at what Oz is wearing. But on this day at least, his black moccasins stay desperately silent.

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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.

[*Danish]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

98

For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.

🇮🇷🎓  IN OTHER NEWS

Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Thoughts on Facebook's new name? Zuckerverse? Tell us how the news look in your corner of the world: Drop us a note at info@worldcrunch.com!

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Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
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