Pho­to: Joan­na Eldredge Morrissey

Moriel Roth­man-Zecher’s debut nov­el, Sad­ness Is a White Bird, is about a young man prepar­ing to serve in the Israeli army while also try­ing to rec­on­cile his close rela­tion­ship to two Pales­tin­ian sib­lings with his deeply ingrained loy­al­ties to fam­i­ly and country.

Ranen Omer-Sher­man: You trans­port us from a mil­i­tary jail cell to a fair­ly shel­tered Jew­ish Amer­i­can child­hood, to the Pales­tin­ian expe­ri­ence of the Nak­ba, and the destruc­tion of the vibrant Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty of Saloni­ca in the days lead­ing up to the Holo­caust. In the hands of a less assured writer, such ambi­tious leaps would be insur­mount­able, yet you some­how pull it off bril­liant­ly. How long did it take all those mon­u­men­tal ele­ments to cohere in your imag­i­na­tion? Did you revise any major plot devel­op­ments along the way, or was it always clear to you where you were going?

Moriel Roth­man-Zech­er: Thank you for this won­der­ful ques­tion. It is such a priv­i­lege for me to get to dis­cuss this process with you, Ranen. Was it clear to me where I was going? Absolute­ly not. Grow­ing up, I read a lot of fic­tion, and cer­tain­ly har­bored some dreams about writ­ing a nov­el myself some day, but I assumed, as a young read­er, that I’d need to fig­ure my whole book out — the char­ac­ters, the plot, the order, the arc, the mean­ings — before start­ing to write. Thank God, that didn’t turn out to be the case. If I’d tried to map out this book before start­ing, I think I would have been par­a­lyzed, and am not sure I would have been able to start at all. In oth­er words, if I’d con­scious­ly set out to write a book that would cen­ter around both Israeli and Pales­tin­ian pro­tag­o­nists and grap­ple with the his­to­ries of both the Holo­caust and the Nak­ba, I think I might have been over­whelmed by the bur­den of pars­ing out the par­al­lels and the lack there­of, the sim­i­lar­i­ties and the imbal­ances, the impos­si­bil­i­ty of sum­ma­riz­ing the Holo­caust or syn­op­siz­ing the Nak­ba, and cer­tain­ly the impos­si­bil­i­ty of doing both in the same work. Instead, I start­ed writ­ing with very lit­tle clar­i­ty, and very few plans. I knew that I want­ed to write about Jonathan, an Amer­i­can-Israeli IDF sol­dier who speaks Ara­bic, and I knew that at some point in the nar­ra­tive, Jonathan would end up in mil­i­tary jail. That’s all. Every­thing else — the char­ac­ters, the plot, the details, the his­to­ries — unfold­ed as I wrote, and shift­ed and mor­phed as I revised. I can’t say with any cer­tain­ty why Saloni­ca and Kufr Qanut (a light­ly fic­tion­al­ized ver­sion of Kufr Qassem) became the loci of famil­ial his­to­ry and famil­ial trau­ma for Jonathan and for Laith and Nim­reen, respec­tive­ly. I was only cer­tain that I need­ed to delve more into the fam­i­ly back­grounds of the three main char­ac­ters, because as this book unfold­ed, I under­stood that the nov­el was going to be about his­to­ry and its claws and its echoes as much as it would be about the modern/“present” era in which the vast major­i­ty of the nar­ra­tive takes place.

ROS: The main pro­tag­o­nist, Jonathan, is a young man com­fort­able with his own sex­u­al flu­id­i­ty. His ease in cross­ing sex­u­al bound­aries seems to strong­ly relate to his abil­i­ty to cross oth­er bound­aries. Do you see his flu­id­i­ty as more of an asset, or dan­ger­ous irres­o­lu­tion on his part — anoth­er fac­tor lead­ing to his cri­sis in the novel’s climax?

MRZ: I think Jonathan’s rel­a­tive flu­id­i­ty — nation­al­ly, lin­guis­ti­cal­ly and sex­u­al­ly — is an impor­tant part of his indi­vid­u­al­i­ty and his love­li­ness (I do not see Jonathan a self-por­trait, but I do think that I would have been very good friends with him had we met at age 17, and I love him very much). And I also think it is a source of dan­ger and pro­vides him with a pow­er­ful oppor­tu­ni­ty for self-delu­sion; Jonathan’s nar­ra­tive, through­out much of the sto­ry, is that as long as he remains flu­id and open — friends with Israelis and Pales­tini­ans, speak­ing Ara­bic and Hebrew, in love with Arab women and Jew­ish men, and Jew­ish women and Arab men — then he can remain large­ly side­less, and can ignore the ways in which side­less­ness” does not exist in Israel-Pales­tine (or, prob­a­bly, any­where in the world). On page 89 – 90, Jonathan explains to Laith: “[M]aybe I tricked myself into believ­ing that if I kept the worlds sep­a­rate, then I’d nev­er have to choose between the two.” (I will add that I think his fail­ure to rec­og­nize the sig­nif­i­cance of his sid­ed­ness” was far more dan­ger­ous and delu­sion­al nation­al­ly than sex­u­al­ly, and in the lat­ter case, I do think I see his dis­re­gard for bina­ry sid­ed­ness as far less fraught).

ROS: I was impressed by the rich­ly immer­sive ways that Hebrew and Ara­bic dia­logue trans­port the read­er in your nov­el. How flu­ent is your Ara­bic? As you stud­ied the lan­guage at Mid­dle­bury Col­lege, did that immer­sion change your sense of Israe­li­ness in any par­tic­u­lar way? And did the lan­guage hold any sur­pris­es for you, then or later?

MRZ: My Ara­bic is very good, and I feel very for­tu­nate that that is the case. I stud­ied Mod­ern Stan­dard Ara­bic every semes­ter dur­ing my four years at Mid­dle­bury, includ­ing a stun­ning Mod­ern Ara­bic Poet­ry Senior Sem­i­nar taught by Pro­fes­sor Huda Fakhred­dine in which I first encoun­tered Darwish’s poems in Ara­bic (among them A Sol­dier Dreams of White Lilies,” from which the title of my nov­el was drawn, and which plays an impor­tant role in the sto­ry itself). Dur­ing two sep­a­rate sum­mer breaks from col­lege, I lived with a fam­i­ly in Al-Bi’neh, a Pales­tin­ian vil­lage inside Israel, and was ful­ly immersed for those few months in spo­ken Pales­tin­ian Ara­bic, and in the parts of Pales­tin­ian cul­ture and his­to­ry and iden­ti­ty that I think can only be encoun­tered in Ara­bic (sim­i­lar to the parts of Israeli cul­ture, his­to­ry and iden­ti­ty that I believe can only ful­ly be grasped in Hebrew). In the years after I moved back to Jerusalem in 2011, I used my spo­ken Ara­bic all the time, in vis­its to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, trans­lat­ing for var­i­ous groups and vis­i­tors, get­ting to know fam­i­lies and activists, con­nect­ing with friends. I am now very com­fort­able in spo­ken Pales­tin­ian Ara­bic, and my written/​formal Ara­bic has grown extreme­ly rusty. It was very impor­tant to me that this nov­el, which is writ­ten in Eng­lish, my only writ­ing lan­guage, include sig­nif­i­cant chunks of my two oth­er flu­ent­ly-spo­ken lan­guages. Even for a read­er who doesn’t speak a word of Ara­bic or Hebrew, I think the sounds of each lan­guage hold sig­nif­i­cance in and of them­selves, and I want­ed to make sure to weave a good amount of Ara­bic and Hebrew translit­er­a­tion, and not only trans­la­tion, into the book.

ROS: How did your time in Al-Bi’na, a pre­dom­i­nant­ly Mus­lim Arab town in north­ern Israel, impact you? Were your char­ac­ters direct­ly influ­enced by any­one you spent time with? And have you received any respons­es from Pales­tin­ian read­ers of the nov­el yet?

MRZ: I spent part of the sum­mers of 2008 and 2010 liv­ing with Rihan and Maryam Titi and their fam­i­ly in Al-Bi’na (and osten­si­bly teach­ing Eng­lish in the near­by Deir al-Assad, though I’m not sure how much Eng­lish I actu­al­ly suc­ceed­ed in teach­ing, or how much that was real­ly the point, for any of us involved). These two sum­mers had an enor­mous impact on my life — as I men­tioned before, this was when Ara­bic came alive for me, jump­ing from the pages on which I’d stud­ied it in class­rooms, into the fab­ric of the entire world sur­round­ing me for these few months. As my spo­ken Ara­bic improved, my under­stand­ings of the nuances of Pales­tin­ian cul­ture and dai­ly life and humor and his­to­ry all did as well; and more than that, I encoun­tered Pales­tini­ans, for the first time, on their own terms and in their own con­texts and in their own lan­guage, and through this, forged con­nec­tions that remain impor­tant to me to this day. 

In terms of the inter­sec­tions between the novel’s char­ac­ters and the actu­al peo­ple I met dur­ing those sum­mers: Laith and Nim­reen are not direct por­traits of spe­cif­ic indi­vid­u­als, but cer­tain­ly draw parts of their sens­es of iden­ti­ty and pol­i­tics and humor from a col­lage of many younger Pales­tin­ian cit­i­zens of Israel I met then, and lat­er, in var­i­ous dia­logue pro­grams. I have received a few respons­es from Pales­tin­ian read­ers which have been very mov­ing, includ­ing from Amani Rohana, a dear friend of mine who I met in one of the afore­men­tioned pro­grams in Col­orado, who was an ear­ly read­er of this book in its half-baked man­u­script form, and from a few oth­er Pales­tin­ian Amer­i­cans who have enjoyed and appre­ci­at­ed the book as well.

ROS: There is a well-known con­fes­sion­al mode of Israeli writ­ing, often crit­i­cal­ly derid­ed as yorim ve bochim, lit­er­al­ly shoot­ing and cry­ing,” in which the left­ist sol­dier elo­quent­ly laments their par­tic­i­pa­tion in the hor­rors of the Occu­pa­tion. Some argue this rhetoric clears their con­science and affirms the beau­ty of their sen­si­tive souls, while avoid­ing tak­ing direct respon­si­bil­i­ty for their actions or tak­ing prac­ti­cal steps to sig­nif­i­cant­ly chal­lenge the sta­tus quo. Do you see your nov­el respond­ing to that tra­di­tion in any way?

MRZ: This is a great ques­tion. The yorim ve bochim trope was very much present in my mind as I wend­ed my way through this sto­ry, in which the Israeli sol­dier-nar­ra­tor ulti­mate­ly both yoreh ve boche, both shoots and weeps. I am ret­i­cent to write too much about this par­tic­u­lar sub­ject, as I am con­scious of the spoil­ers” doing so would nec­es­sar­i­ly entail, and I think that the novel’s full force depends on a few par­tic­u­lar sur­pris­es and plot devel­op­ments, and the unknown­ness and opac­i­ty con­tained with­in the zigzag­ging nar­ra­tive arc. I will say that I think a lot of the sto­ry unfolds from deep with­in a yorim ve bochim par­a­digm, and then, toward the end, veers very sharply away from it. In my read­ing of the nov­el, no con­science is cleared, noth­ing is solved or resolved, and the bechi, the weep­ing, that fol­lows the yeri, the shoot­ing, is nei­ther cathar­tic nor cleans­ing. It is sim­ply a phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion of uncon­tain­able grief, ver­tig­i­nous con­fu­sion, and stag­ger­ing pain.

ROS: Though you are in your twen­ties and I recent­ly turned six­ty, it seems that fic­tion by writ­ers like Leon Uris pro­found­ly influ­enced both of our ear­ly dreams of mov­ing to Israel and serv­ing in the IDF. (I served in the Para­troop­ers but that was before two Intifadas, two Gaza wars and two Lebanon wars; fac­ing the painful enor­mi­ty of all that today I might very well have embraced your prin­ci­pled deci­sion not to serve.) Just think­ing about Uris’ Exo­dus today makes me cringe with embar­rass­ment at how dan­ger­ous­ly naïve I was in 1975. Hap­pi­ly we both seem to have moved on to oth­er influ­ences! Your heart­felt homages to two nation­al” poets, Yehu­da Amichai and espe­cial­ly Mah­moud Dar­wish, con­sti­tute some of the novel’s many haunt­ing moments. Are there any oth­er Israeli or Pales­tin­ian writ­ers that have had an impor­tant impact on your moral imag­i­na­tion, or that you sim­i­lar­ly cherish?

MRZ: It is real­ly won­der­ful to be in con­ver­sa­tion with you, Ranen. Just as you think that you might have decid­ed not to serve today, it is clear to me — as much as such an auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal coun­ter­fac­tu­al can be clear — that I would have served (and like­ly in the Para­troop­ers!) had I moved to Israel 30 years ear­li­er. On the sub­ject of Exo­dus, I reread that nov­el in the ear­ly peri­od of writ­ing this one, and while there were cer­tain­ly many cringe-induc­ing sec­tions, I was also sur­prised at how com­pelling parts of it remained, inso­far as I was able to sus­pend what I have come to know about his­to­ry and real­i­ty and allow myself to re-tum­ble into the fic­tion­al world, with its fan­tas­ti­cal inter­pre­ta­tions of facts and pol­i­tics, that Uris cre­at­ed. In terms of oth­er Israeli and Pales­tin­ian writ­ers who have impact­ed my moral imag­i­na­tion and whose writ­ing I cher­ish, there are two in par­tic­u­lar who imme­di­ate­ly come to mind: S. Yizhar and Ghas­san Kanafani. S. Yizhar’s 1949 nov­el Khir­bet Khizeh about an Israeli sol­dier ordered to expel the unarmed res­i­dents of a Pales­tin­ian vil­lage dur­ing the 1948 War of Independence/​Nakba had a pro­found impact on my polit­i­cal devel­op­ment and my under­stand­ing of his­to­ry; Ghas­san Kanafani’s 1969 novel­la, Return­ing to Haifa, did as well, though it was hard­er for me to read than Yizhar’s work, per­haps because the indict­ment con­tained in Khir­bet Khizeh felt more sin­gu­lar­ly his­tor­i­cal,” while Kanafani’s novel­la asks the read­er — and, I think, espe­cial­ly the Jew­ish Israeli read­er — to grap­ple with the ways in which his­to­ry nev­er ends, and the extent to which the past remains inter­wo­ven with the present. (I read both of these works in a bril­liant sem­i­nar on Zion­ism with Pro­fes­sor Robert Schine at Mid­dle­bury Col­lege, along with non­fic­tion writ­ings by Mar­tin Buber and Edward Said, which also had pro­found impacts on my think­ing, my writ­ing, and my beliefs). Two oth­er works of Israel-Pales­tine-based fic­tion that impact­ed me pro­found­ly and that I will men­tion briefly were David Gross­mans To The End of the Land and Sayed Kashua’s Let it Be Morn­ing. I also love the poet­ry of Sami Shalom Shitrit and Taha Muham­mad Ali…The list goes on.

ROS: I teach a course on both Israeli and Pales­tin­ian writ­ers in trans­la­tion, and one of the things that always inter­ests stu­dents is the way one side imag­ines or por­trays the oth­er.” Read­ing the stir­ring After­word to Sad­ness, I was impressed by the deep back­ground you acquired in Darwish’s poet­ry, and was espe­cial­ly struck by a moment where you quote his impres­sions of Yehu­da Amichai: We com­pete over who is more in love with this coun­try, who writes about it more beautifully…When I read him, I read myself.” I had nev­er seen that before, and oth­ers I’ve shared it with have also been sur­prised and very moved by that almost broth­er­ly expres­sion of grace and humil­i­ty. Can you add any­thing else about Darwish’s atten­tion to or affin­i­ty for Israeli lit­er­ary cul­ture, or how he stirred your own think­ing in oth­er ways?

MRZ: I was also immense­ly moved by Darwish’s descrip­tion of Amichai in that inter­view with Adam Schatz; sig­nif­i­cant­ly, that quote is from the same inter­view in which Dar­wish talks about his friend­ship with Yos­si, the sol­dier who dreamed of white lilies.” Darwish’s dis­cus­sion of Amichai’s work and his poem about Yos­si both struck me as pro­found­ly, star­tling­ly gen­er­ous. In gen­er­al, I think it is the gen­eros­i­ty of Darwish’s poet­ry that allowed it to have such a pro­found impact on my life. If Dar­wish had writ­ten beau­ti­ful­ly about Pales­tin­ian life and Pales­tin­ian suf­fer­ing, but had includ­ed only car­i­ca­tures of grotesque, brutish Israelis in his writ­ing, as is the case with some nation­al­ist writ­ers (and as is sig­nif­i­cant­ly not the case with the afore­men­tioned Kanafani, though he was a stri­dent nation­al­ist and spokesper­son for the Pop­u­lar Front for the Lib­er­a­tion of Pales­tine), I don’t think I would have believed his poet­ry in the vis­cer­al way in which I did, in which I do. Which isn’t to say I would have dis­be­lieved that Pales­tini­ans expe­ri­ence beau­ty and pain as deeply as Israelis, or doubt­ed that their suf­fer­ing is gen­uine and pro­found. But the image in Iden­ti­ty Card,” for exam­ple, in which Dar­wish writes If I become hun­gry, I will eat the flesh of my usurp­er” — that sort of fury would have been eas­i­er for me to write off as over­stat­ed or as whol­ly ille­git­i­mate had it not been writ­ten by the same poet who writes of an Israeli sol­dier: He dreamed of white lilies, an olive branch, her breasts in evening blos­som.” This cou­pling, I think, forced me to con­front cer­tain ques­tions on a deep­er lev­el — name­ly, what sort of humil­i­a­tion and oppres­sion and tor­ture must be inflict­ed in order to push some­one, even on a lit­er­ary lev­el, to the point of threat­en­ing to eat the flesh of his usurp­er who he views and rec­og­nizes as ful­ly and entire­ly human.

ROS: You were invit­ed by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Wald­man to help edit the acclaimed anthol­o­gy King­dom of Olives and Ash: Writ­ers Con­front the Occu­pa­tion, pub­lished just last year. Before that, you had already led the par­tic­i­pat­ing writ­ers on tours of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. In those intense days spent with for­eign writ­ers see­ing the con­flict through their eyes, did any­thing shift in your own per­cep­tion of the con­di­tions of the occupation?

MRZ: I don’t know that see­ing the sit­u­a­tion through the eyes of the par­tic­i­pat­ing writ­ers (and often along­side them as they saw what they saw) shift­ed my macro-per­cep­tion of the con­di­tions, as such, but it cer­tain­ly shift­ed some­thing in my heart. For exam­ple, I knew, intel­lec­tu­al­ly, about the hor­rif­ic lev­els of oppres­sion faced by res­i­dents of the Shuafat Refugee Camp in East Jerusalem — who are sur­round­ed by a con­crete wall that essen­tial­ly func­tions as a cage; who receive vir­tu­al­ly no ser­vices from the Israeli author­i­ties who con­trol their lives, except in the form of reg­u­lar, vio­lent raids to arrest and some­times wound and some­times kill peo­ple sus­pect­ed of crimes rang­ing from vio­lent attacks against Israelis, to throw­ing stones at the check­point sep­a­rat­ing the camp from the rest of Jerusalem. I knew all of that on an intel­lec­tu­al lev­el — I’d read the Haaretz arti­cles, and the Ir Amim reports, and had been in the camp a few times in the con­text of polit­i­cal tours and vis­its. But dur­ing the course of the King­dom of Olives and Ash project, I accom­pa­nied Rachel Kush­n­er into the camp to trans­late for her and to spend a good part of a week­end with one of the most decent, brave, aston­ish­ing peo­ple I’ve met in my whole life, Baha Nabab­ta, and his friends and fam­i­ly. Baha was mur­dered by an uniden­ti­fied assailant two weeks after Rachel and I met him; the Israeli police to this day have not arrest­ed the per­pe­tra­tor, and most like­ly will nev­er do so — his beau­ti­ful, vibrant life mat­tered so lit­tle to the state. Rachel’s essay, which was first pub­lished in The New York Times Mag­a­zine in Decem­ber 2016, is a beau­ti­ful trib­ute to Baha. I remain deeply shak­en and dev­as­tat­ed by his mur­der to this day. I think, in ret­ro­spect, the seeds that would ulti­mate­ly push me to want to leave Jerusalem and leave Israel-Pales­tine, at least for a long peri­od, were plant­ed the moment I got the phone call from a friend telling me Baha had been killed.

ROS: While you seem to be some­one very much at ease in a vari­ety of cul­tures, you recent­ly reset­tled in the small town of Yel­low Springs, Ohio, which for bet­ter or for worse sounds to me just about as remote as one might get from the Mid­dle East. Do you envi­sion ever return­ing to live per­ma­nent­ly in Israel or has life there become unten­able for you — and if so, why?

MRZ: I don’t know if I’ll return to live per­ma­nent­ly in Israel or not. Life is strange, and wind­ing, and there are so many fac­tors at play. If you’d asked me three years ago where I’d be liv­ing in 2018, there’s almost no chance I would have said Yel­low Springs, Ohio. My part­ner, Kay­la, and I are expect­ing our first child, a daugh­ter, this spring; I am both heart­bro­ken to think about her grow­ing up so far away from Jerusalem (I’d long imag­ined that we’d send all of our kids to the Bilin­gual School in Jerusalem, that they’d speak Hebrew and Ara­bic and Eng­lish flu­ent­ly from the time they were tiny. Maybe that will still hap­pen. Maybe not) and also immense­ly relieved to think about our child grow­ing up far away from Jerusalem. This split between Israel-Pales­tine and Amer­i­ca has been a con­stant, dialec­ti­cal back-and-forth, phys­i­cal­ly and spir­i­tu­al­ly, in my life. Giv­en my own back­ground (Israel-Pales­tine ages 0 – 5, Amer­i­ca ages 6 – 16; Israel-Pales­tine ages 16 – 17; Amer­i­ca ages 18 – 21; Israel-Pales­tine ages 22 – 28; Amer­i­ca once again), and Kayla’s (Amer­i­ca ages 0 – 14; Israel-Pales­tine ages 14 – 29; Amer­i­ca once again), I imag­ine there will be a good deal of back-and-forth in our family’s future as well, but as of this moment, we have no imme­di­ate plans to return, except to vis­it after our baby is born.

ROS: Long before I fin­ished Sad­ness, I found myself lift­ing the page after a wrench­ing rev­e­la­tion or grip­ping episode, and think­ing what a rev­e­la­tion Jew­ish Israelis and Pales­tini­ans might find it. Are there any prospects for a Hebrew or Ara­bic edi­tion? I know that few Israeli-authored works are ever trans­lat­ed to Ara­bic, but I couldn’t help wondering.

MRZ: There are no cur­rent plans for trans­la­tion into any oth­er lan­guage, but it is cer­tain­ly my hope that that will change soon. It is very impor­tant to me that this book is even­tu­al­ly trans­lat­ed into Hebrew, and I’d like to work close­ly with the trans­la­tor — but I wouldn’t want to trans­late it on my own. My writ­ten Hebrew is fine, but I don’t have access to the deep­est lev­els of poet­ic res­o­nance in the lan­guage, nor the lin­guis­tic con­fi­dence I have in Eng­lish; and lan­guage, to me, is such an impor­tant part of this book — more impor­tant even, I think, than its plot, or what it is about.” As for Ara­bic? I real­ly hope so, too. As you not­ed, very few Israeli Jew­ish authors are ever trans­lat­ed into Ara­bic (in the afore­men­tioned Dar­wish inter­view, Dar­wish not­ed that most Pales­tin­ian intel­lec­tu­als who had read Amichai read him in Eng­lish — I won­der, now that I think about it, whether Dar­wish him­self read Amichai in Hebrew or in Eng­lish?); but it does hap­pen, some­times, and it would mean a lot to me if it were to hap­pen for this book.

Ranen Omer-Sher­man is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Juda­ic Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville and edi­tor of the forth­com­ing book Amos Oz: The Lega­cy of a Writer in Israel and Beyond.