A few years ago, about a year after the beginning of the second intifada, I was invited to take part in a meeting of Arab and Jewish poets and scholars in Nazareth. For most Israelis the initial shock came with the wave of disturbances and violence that erupted within Israeli Arabs, Palestinians living in the pre-1967 areas of the country. The police reacted violently, using snipers, shooting live ammunition and killing 13 Arab Israeli citizens. So a year after this traumatic episode, I found myself driving through Nazareth, which looked subdued and depressed. Nazareth itself was suffering its share of internal strife, which could develop into a full-scale conflict between Muslims and Christians. The Islamic Movement was trying to build a mosque in the center of the city, right in the middle of the esplanade leading to the Church of the Annunciation, one of Christianity's holiest sites. The project was stopped, but the people on the streets were tense, somber and sad.
Anyway, I drove across town, up to the higher part, to a Christian retreat where the meeting was being held. Christians, Muslims and Jews were meeting. Though I can't say that this kind of cultural exchange is a mainstream activity in Israel, such meetings have been taking place for the last 50 years. Poetry is translated from Arabic into Hebrew and vice-versa, poems are published in the press in both languages and contacts are constant on many levels.
When I was invited to speak, I started by telling about coming to Nazareth that day. It was a Friday, Islam's holy day, and the contested site of the mosque was wrapped in green canvas and green flags, green being Islam's traditional color. I described the expressions I saw on people's faces, the empty café where I stopped for half an hour just to feel the city, Israel's largest Arab town. I told the audience about the graffiti I saw just across the church and the aborted mosque. It said: “Occupation is the real violence”. My listeners became very still. “But that's not the point I wish to make”, I said. “What hit me was the degree of pessimism Nazareth reflects. Things must be extremely bad and people must be in utter despair, for the graffiti is in Arabic, not in Hebrew, the language of the occupier, meaning that whoever painted it feels nobody among the Jews is listening.”
Later on during the meeting, an Arab poet approached me. I will call him Z.
“We need to be heard”, he said. “That's why I write poetry in Hebrew.” Bilingual poets exist among Israeli Arabs. Hebrew is compulsory in Arab schools in Israel and since the country's system functions in Hebrew, from government offices to the mass media. Z lives in Haifa and writes poetry in Arabic, following classical forms, and free-verse poems in Hebrew. Yet, the point he was pushing was not just that Arab poets need to be heard, but that it is precisely the bilingual artists, the poets writing in Hebrew too, have to be recognized and made part of the bridge between Jews and Arabs in Israel.
A few months later, I got a call from one of the older Arab poets, a principal of a high-school in the Galilee. He had been invited to Spain and wanted some of his poems in Spanish. He asked me to translate them for him. “I will pay you well”, he said. “That's fine, but it's not the point. I have to see if I can do the job and if I can convey your work in Spanish”, I explained. Eventually, the poems arrived. Modern in form and very accessible. As I worked my way through the translation, I had a strange feeling. A presence was eerily making itself noted. I read my Spanish and decided to carry out a little experiment. I translated it into Hebrew, roughly, just so I would be able to read it. I knew at once what the presence I sensed was. It was Bialik, our national poet who died in the mid 1930s and wrote about yearning for a country and about the difficulties of a minority living in a hostile land. I had heard Bialik was enjoying new-found relevance among an audience he surely never imagined: the Israeli Arabs. Bialik is taught as part of the Hebrew program for Arab high schools, but it's clear that he is being read as a present-day relevant poet. Indeed a classic.
Yet fate still had in store for me the most surprising meeting. Three years later, on the morning of the Jewish New Year, I was in Haifa. A new nephew had been born that night. As I came out of the hospital – the same one where I was born – a taxi stopped by. I heard a voice calling my name. I looked around. It was the taxi driver. And who should it be but Z, the bilingual poet. “Hi! Remember me?” he called out as I leaned over the open window. I sat in the front seat. After I told him the reason I was there, he congratulated me heartily for the new nephew. “I've written new material in Hebrew. I keep hoping. We are old men”, he said, following the Arab concept that a 40-year old man seeing a younger generation being born is old, “but we must give hope to the young ones. We must be heard!” He unfolded the visor in front of him and handed me a visiting-card. It said: “Z and Poet: All parts of ISRAEL and Airport” along with his cellphone. On the back there was a poem in Hebrew as well as its translation into English. It ended with the words “And this they call justice?”