Tel Aviv Diary Jan 18, 2004 - Karen Alkalay-Gut

Tel Aviv Diary - from January 18, 2004 Karen Alkalay-Gut

January 18, 2004

i turned on the news while i was getting dressed - the bomb blast in baghdad - and i do the standard orientation - where is it? who was killed? in this country? anyone i know? and then i cool down - begin to treat it as foreign news - although i know there are people killed there just like me.

and i have to go to work - have to disengage.

this is another thing i hate about this situation - the technical process of disengagement. those decisions we have to make about what is allowed to disrupt our lives.

these decisions we make every minute. what will e allowed to be 'part' of us, and what will be perceived as 'notour business' or 'antithetical to us.' Even the news. Even the art that the Israeli ambassador in Stockholm destroyed is a measure of that distance. it is clear he was unable to see it as art, unable to see it as anything but a defamation of the memories of the victims. who is at fault, right, wrong - it is such a difficult issue to determine. especially with the way we blur the borders of art and self. look at this journal for goodness sake - i think of it as enforced honestry - but not art.

January 19, 2004

Yesterday during one of my many downloads i picked up some porno thing that took over my computer. it took hours to get rid of it - and i felt absolutely violated by it. it reminded me of the way Sharon took over my life - any action any thought i may have brings me to some filth. It is not evil but stupidity - a 'learning by doing' process on a grand scale. Remember that poem by Howard Nemerov, "Learning by Doing"? while they take down this tree in front of his house because they say it's sick, and then after it's in pieces they see they were wrong? Sharon himself wavers often because he's never thought through what he's going to do. But he still controls your life.

I don't think he's in control of my computer - but that's the only thing. When I see his silly representative, Uri Dan, sitting on the panel of TV news reporters, on making stupid comments and putting the evening news into 'proportion,' I want to strangle him - but the tv is not interactive yet.

And now Sharon has acknowledged that the fence - as he is building it - is harming the lives of palestinians. Maybe he should have made it of polystyrene first and seen how it goes.

January 20, 2004

Oren goes to bed after 6 a.m. after a night in mishmish. at 7 there are group of workers working next door with jackhammers - a team of arabs building a bomb shelter in his building. could it really be - he thinks he's still in a stupor.

but this is an a land of ironies and surprises. even when it isn't funny - take food shopping for example - a simple task. right? i used to go to the supermarket in syosset once a week and not only did i knew where everything was (and it always was there) but the prices were always the same. or comparatively the same. but in all the years i have been here, i have never been able to 'rely' on the fact that the supermarket will have the same products, and that their prices will be consistent. A place that today was cheap may be expensive tomorrow. and because the market is small and not necessarily stable, some things appear - you get used to them - then they disappear. So you're not only worried about getting blown up, getting ripped off, but you're also worried about keeping alert with every detail - the laundry detergent is the same price this week as last week, but they're suddenly making the package lighter...

I'm not complaining - actually i like shopping - when i have the energy to be wide awake alert.

What can't i find? (1) a particular brand of granola - english - that i was eating every morning for a year - and suddenly is nowhere to be found. (2) the home dry cleaning kit that was all over the place 2 years ago. It was called SVIT. doesn't exist any more. nor is there a substitute.

I couldn't go to the reception for Jamaic Kinkaid tonight, even though I was absolutely crazy about her talk today, because I had promised Etamar Yaoz-Kest, whose anthology of Jewish writers just appeared in Hebrew, that I would give a talk at the celebration tonight. I had helped in the selection of authors, and was so thrilled they had included Amy Levy - her first translation into Hebrew - that there was no way i could refuse.

So here was the evening - Natan Yonatan, Giora Lechem, Itamar Yaoz-Kest, Esther Eisen and Hana Yaoz-Kest sat on the small stage in the small room of the Writers' House. The room holds about 70 people and it was crowded. And as the evening progressed I noticed that the average age was over fifty. And hungry for literature. The lightbulbs at the Writers' House are 40 watt, the only heat was a tiny space heater, unfortunately placed far away from me, and the microphone had to be very close to be effective. And yet, the evening was pretty amazing - the variety of poetry, the variety of our approaches - historical, literary, poetic, judaic, etc. - was fascinating even to me (who as you know cannot pay attention in lectures). Heine, Ginsberg, Rich, Manger, Tuvin, and people I've never heard of before and can't pronounce their names made an amazing and unique combination. and there were people who understood all the languages.

Moti gave me the latest issue of the Russian literary journal, which has a page of my poetry translated to Russian, and the first person I saw could read the poems and tell me what they were about!

Now I know that at the very moment we were reading poems about our "great pains" (Heine: out of great pain i make little verses) Israel was bombing the shit out of the Hizbullah. But I still haven't heard the result.

The story of the Israeli Ambassador Zvi Mazel keeps swimming in my head - Did Mazel have a right to destroy the exhibit because it seemed to give something of a rationalization to the terrorist who killed more than 21 people in Haifa? In some way the whole question isn't about 'rights' - but about emotional reasons - on all sides.

and life is life and art is only art. So let's get a grip on what's important here - Mazel might be a philistine but he didn't hurt anyone. i don't think there was as much moral dissection of the terrorist as there has been about him.

January 21, 2004

This centralization of marginal questions while central questions are being marginalized is quite maddening - the question of whether Yigal Amir, the murderer of Yitzchak Rabin, should be allowed to marry, for example. I don't think it is an issue for discussion. There are laws. He is a human being. The DISCUSSION of this issue, however, should be boycotted.

In fact the discussion of Amir's action and it moral implications has been strictly limited. And that's where we should be concentrating - because our whole society has been influenced - not only by the terrible consequences, but also by the precedent of violence.

By the same token we don't pay enough attention to the process by which a government decides on its own where to build a fence, in fact to determine policies that are not evaluated. But we pay attention to some of the results. once it's too late.

But it isn't only politics and morals, and not only Israel that has this problem. I am also constantly amazed by the universal attention given to the production of weddings and the lack of attention to preparation for marriage, couplehood, and parenthood.

But the main item of today is the suit against David Appel for bribing the Prime Minister. Come on. If he did bribe the prime minister, the person to get first - to accuse first - is the prime minister. our teflon prime minister to which nothing sticks. and perhaps this is the reason we have become diversionary thinkers, because we're always avoiding getting to the prime minister. remember little harry s. truman who had that sign on his desk, "the buck stops here?" that's the only place the buck doesn't stop.

Where have I been? How could I not have known that Maariv is in English? here. Distracted and busy, yes. But around here you've got to be on your toes.

January 22, 2004

Sorry if you came to the party for Thin Lips last night looking for me - i found about it too late to make time for it. And I was into the subject of real estate - helping a friend sell an apartment in Ramat Aviv. Now my friend is in a hurry to tell - and everyone knows that - because who would sell in a depressed market otherwise - so sweet little couples come in, look around, sniff, say it needs a lot of renovations (everyone goes for the wall of the kitchen first and everyone goes for renovations). The prices are 10 -15% down but everyone comes in and says it is worth less. less? In the end I left so I wouldn't beat up some client.

This is one of the major problems I have with Israeli bargaining. There is always the demeaning of the product, always the sniff, the disdain. I once wrote a poem about it - about the need to learn the Arab practice of mutual respect in enterprise. Here it is from the book Ignorant Armies:



When I was very small

Aunt Raisel who survived the holocaust

said to the peddlar, "You call this fabric?"

Look how it wrinkles, see how it tears,"

"Why the Queen of England wears

no better wool." "And bought it from you,

I suppose. I'll give you two groschen

for this rag, no more." "No less than four

could I take for such cloth. Your mother

who never married taught you nothing."

"Your father was a thief before you, I knew

him well in our town." Thus she would

jew him down, and I was red with shame.

Later, each spit on the curb where the other walked,

angry and sure he'd been had.


Margalit, from Spain, took me to the wholesalers

one day for a bathing suit. Her way

was to draw close to the man

and remind him of all she had bought

before, all the women she had steered

to his store. "We have a special friendship

she whispered, with an elbow and a wink.

I think, "It'll never work,"

but we walk out with our low priced parcel

and broad smiles. When I look back in the shop

I see him counting our cash again, grinning.

The bathing suit fades in the first sun.


Gentle Anne shops in the shuk for gifts

"That plate is lovely," she breathes,

"How much?" The swarthy shopkeeper quotes a price

I can only sniff at two hundred is outrageously high.

But she puts the plate on the counter

and continues admiring the engraving,

the way it catches the light.

"Yes, and that pitcher how heavy and solid it is.

My mother would just love that shade of blue."

He smiles, polishes the glass with his sleeve.

"You have such fine things here. It is an honor

to be in a shop owned by a man of good taste."

She wouldn't waste her words, dear Anne,

and never as far as I know lies.

The shopkeeper orders coffee for three:

I tug at her sleeve, "The price! The price!"

"It's all right," she smiles, and I think,

absurdly, of ancient women Rebecca, Yochevet, Shulamit.

Over coffee she tells of her husband, the babies, her writing

and asks the man about his shop, his wife, living in Yaffo.

All the while I watch the stack of plates,

trays, and statuettes she has put aside.

When we've finished our coffee, and the final candlestick

has been placed in the pile,

She says, "This is all worth so much

these gifts will please my family

but I only have three hundred

to spend today."

They go back and forth a while and agree

with all the sweetness and quiet

Anne is known for.

We walk past the shops

carrying her parcels

carrying her peace.

Now the only really true-live character here is Anne Blackwell, with whom I have lost contact. And I am aware that in these anti-semitic times an expression that has long ago become politically uncorrect should not be brought up again.

But the concept of the benefit of interpersonal relations based on respect remains basic to me. My kids call me naive - but I've made it through a lot of deals alive, and have never been skinned.

Now that I think about it there are actually a few times in my poetry when i declare, like in the poem i just quoted, that there are women who have the key to saving the world. These are people who have learned to navigate successfully in the universe by finding a way to keep everyone satisfied - the way mothers work out their children's squabbles by addressing each children's unique needs. One of the women I think should be running the world is my sister-in-law. Another is the writer who is visiting here now, Jamaica Kinkaid. There's a piece about her visit in today's ha'aretz.

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