Tel Aviv Diary - February 11, 2003 Karen Alkalay-Gut

So maybe my pages about art and poetry are over.

I woke tonight in panic - it was similar to the panic i felt in 1973 when i heard tanks on the night of yom kippur, and not unlike the night of the first scud.

so it's real. i'll have to order some more food and arrange it in bags by the door for the first night in the shelter.

And yet, i plan for the writers association meeting at my house this afternoon, the poetry reading in the evening, lunch tomorrow, my son's rock appearance (first in years...) on Saturday night, a semester of studies...

But it's not the war with Iraq that poses the danger - as i keep reminding myself (being stuck in a 12 year old pattern). The real fear is a dirty bomb here - a handful of smallpox in the public market - a tower exploding from a car bomb.

And with all this hope for peace begins to return. Talks about secret talks and behind the scenes negotiations. So even though we cancelled our visit to the Jaffa Market tomorrow we think we'll be back soon...

At a wonderful poetry reading at the British Ambassador's this evening, someone mentioned the fact that there was an actress who entertained people during the blitz with her poetry readings - her name escapes me but when it was mentioned many old heads nodded in warm recognition. The people needed her, they said. Yes. I thought. We think we need wild raucous comedy now - but what we really need is a sense of the values that really form our society, that we must not lose what is left of our humanity.

I'm sure that's true for all of us in the middle east.

February 12, 2003

We have so few opportunities to talk with our neighbors - the ones next door and the ones in the next village. Today I was realizing how we are in the middle of all kinds of feast days - Eid al-Adha -the feast of remembrance and regeneration - slaughtering sheep in remembrance of Abraham's slaughtering of the sheep instead of Isaac, an incredibly symbolic holiday in the light of today's news.

And in some ways we jews have kept ourselves as ignorant as possible of the muslim holidays -(I didnt even know to Kul Am Wa Inta Bekher or Kul Sana Wa Inta Salem until Amal wrote it down for me just now)perhaps so that we will be able to remain seeing them as the 'other.' Oh, when will the days of peace come when we can share the holidays without feeling threatened by them?

Together with this, take this item into consideration: The maternity course today at ichilov hospital included instructions on how to breathe with a gas mask on, how to put a baby into the infant gas tent, where the sealed operating rooms in the hospital are. What's worse? to have a baby just before an attack, during, or after?

The questions about sacrificing children or sheep is an interesting one fo these women in particular.

February 13

For those who have asked me about writing to the government, you might want to explore these pages: Israel Government Lots of addresses. Will there be answers?

It was Dame Myra Hess who entertained the war-torn people of the Blitz with poetry. The Ambassador told me this evening as I raced around at a reception with a frenzy for poetry born of the need to sublimate the growing panic about war. And now we go to a rock concert - perhaps one of the last before the scuds start falling (save Saturday evening - Oren's concert - Bar Yochai 6 TA). We're going to see Sharon and Elanor Cantor at the Gada Hasmolit...

More of that perhaps later.

Yes. More. All afternoon I was considering whether i would attend the protest rally of writers, musicians, artists who are fighting the crippling budget cuts for the arts. That's tomorrow afternoon at 6:30. what makes me hesitate is the fact that we meet in one place and are bussed off to some other place to protest - and we do not know where we will be bussed.

I'm also a bit disturbed by the 'big budget' nature of this protest. While I agree of course that no where near enough money is being spent on culture, the kind of money i think we need to spend is peanuts. the opera, the theatre, etc. - while they are important - are not in the world of literature. literature needs peanuts to survive - and isnt going to get it no matter how many people rally around. Remember the little projects I've been talking about? video and film archives. supervision and funding of other literary archives like Shalom Aleichem's papers. workshops and school programs. school and university literary journals. peanuts.

The thing about literature, especially poetry, is that it is the perfect media for troubled times like these - cheap, flexible, transportable, ubiquitous, and uplifting.

Tonight in HaGada Hasmolit - the home of the Hadash movement - where we saw Spinster Sister, Eleanor and Sharon Cantor, I thought of the amazing power that can be generated from a low budget program. These incredibly talented and professional entertainers needed almost nothing to wow a packed audience. (How many fit in there? 70? 100?) We were going wild.

So the arts doesn't always depend on the amount of money put in, but where it goes.

Nevertheless i will probably go to the rally. We need any kind of art we can get.

And Gila Almagor, the cultural advisor to the mayor of tel aviv, is organizing it.

The former cultural advisor to the mayor, Shosh Avigail, passed away last friday. Old friends of mine will remember her as the mother of Yankele, the amazing persian cat who fathered our first litter of kittens. But anyone who knew her at all knew her as an amazing person. When I saw the notice in the paper of her funeral last Sunday, I remembered one night over 20 years ago when I saw her on television, and thought - "this must be filmed. i know for a fact that Shosh is getting chemo right now at Ichilov hospital." but it turned out it was a live show, and Shosh had insisted on leaving her bed for the tv station a few blocks away rather than miss her broadcast. she hid the iv behind her so the camera wouldn't pick it up.

Shosh was also heroized in my mind for the amazing biography she and her sister wrote about their father and his holocaust trauma. I don't know what the name will be in English - but I know she went to NY this September to see about its publication.

February 14, 2003

Yesterday half the people I know were in a panic to get their sealed rooms together or get out of the country before the war begins tomorrow and the other half were totally cool. Today Mufaz says that the war isn't going to start tomorrow and if it does it won't be here - probably. So half of the panicked half has calmed down. I escape into erotica, family matters, food.

Saw another apartment with my daughter - typically Tel Aviv - stoned real estate agent, upset that he was called out of bed at 10 in the morning. It was great apartment in a seedy neighborhood, near the market. And the market was as crowded as usual on a Friday morning, with no strange looks. The only panic I could see was in the eyes of a pigeon who flew into my windshield as I was parked by the market. It flew off stunned, after staring at me in shock, and I was left wondering what possessed a pigeon to screw up like that. A second later the rain came pouring down and I understood its mistake - panic for shelter before the flood. Let that be a lesson to you all , and me of course.

February 15, 2003


Laura Bush this week cancelled the poetry reading of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes in the White House because there were hints it was going to get seditious. But when you're making war that's what poets are supposed to do, raise suspicions, question confidence, reflect alternative ways of thinking.

Even though no government is going to be listening.

In times when we are victimized - however - the function of poetry is to remind people of a reason to live, of an alternative way of thinking, and of the great culture of which they are a part. I have no doubt that in the next few months I will be participating in a series of poetry readings with that in mind - Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, Haim Nachman Bialik, Nachum Alterman, Rachel Chalfi, Sabena Messag, Rony Sommeck, Asher Reich. Who wants to join me?


Of course I'm against the war in Iraq. But there is nothing easier than being against wars. The problem, as i see it, is that things are never that simple. One thin thread in the tangle: We like to think that George Bush wants to make war because of the oil. There's even a cute joke that was making the rounds way back in September: "We 'SHELL' not 'EXXON'erate Saddam Hussein for his actions. We will 'MOBIL'ize to meet this threat to vital interests in the Persian 'GULF' until an 'AMOCO'ble solution is reached. Our best strategy is to 'BP'repared. Failing that, we 'ARCO'ming to kick your ass."

However, it would be easier and cheaper for him to just ease up on Iraq and get their oil that way. And he doesnt talk about taking over Kuwait and its oil fields. (Oh, why doesn't Israel have oil? or Palestine? Imagine what Gaza would look like if they had one gusher! Or Ashdod for that matter.) So the issue isn't oil. So what is it? Not even the chemical and biological and nuclear weapons in Saddam's possession - but their INTENTIONS. How can you evaluate intentions? Yes, we read Hitler wrong - didn't think he would actually do what he said he would. We read a lot of other tyrants wrong too. But can you make war based on intentions? Well if we had to do it over again we would think Hitler's intentions sufficient reason for bombing the shit out of him. Right? So who was it that said that the problem with life is that we have to live it forward but can only understand it backward?

One other issue here - i believe that whether Bush makes war or not, any cooperation Saddam has shown with the UN has been because of the saber rattling of Bush and Blair. And the anti-war demonstrations just fuck up the effect of that. In fact, in the long run, it may well be that these demonstrations weaken the chances of solving the situation without war. So - to Chanita who asked me the question a few minutes ago - I will not be going to the anti-war demonstration in Tel Aviv tonight.

Anyway, I'm tired from the experience of this afternoon - an instance of guerilla culture in Tel Aviv. You go to a neighborhood that is so seedy it almost looks bombed out. On the whole street there's one storefront with a little light on. Outside there's a bouncer. In the window you can see two girls at a table with tickets. You go in. You go into a room, then another room - with some food on a counter, then another room where they're selling second hand clothes, artsy bags, hoemmade bracelets, etc. then a big room where a hundred people are sitting on tires or standing and someone is performing. When we walked in there was a stand-up comic who also danced and sang. I have no idea what her name was but she was great - and she talked about the 'situation' about language about love etc. Then Oren and his band went on - He sang his greatest hits, including "The Great State of Texas," I kvelled, and everyone went out for beer in the shopping room. If there's a war tonight no one know about it there.

Why is it guerilla? because it's cheap, flexible, movable, and not dependent on big machinery or money for the arts. That's what we need in times like this.

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