Friday, August 23, 2013

A Very Graphic Jerusalem Novel

This book

has reached Jerusalem.

From a Ha-Ha-Haaaretz interview in April

“It’s not a memoir, and of course it does not purport to be a work of history,” Jewish-American film director Boaz Yakin (“Fresh,” “Remember the Titans”) tells me at the outset of our conversation. He’s referring to his new graphic novel, “Jerusalem: A Family Portrait,” which tells the story of a family that lives in the Holy City from 1945 to 1948. “The book is influenced by the stories of my father, the mime and theater teacher Moni Yakin. He used to tell me and my younger brother stories about his childhood in Mahaneh Yehuda. But it’s a fictitious work − I used stories I heard from him and from other family members as a springboard for this story.” 

“This story” is a simultaneously intimate and panoramic work which is light-years away from the blockbusters for which Yakin, 46, is responsible as a Hollywood screenwriter, producer and director. Large-scale productions such as “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” for which Yakin wrote the screenplay (the film grossed more than $300 million in 2010), or “Safe” (2012), which he wrote and directed, are aimed at the widest possible audience. 

For its part, “Jerusalem” investigates and deconstructs national myths and challenges its readers with a fragmentary, dense narrative featuring 12 protagonists. The result is a singular interpretation of historical events, most of them set in 1948, such as the siege of Jerusalem, the Deir Yassin massacre and the Battle of Latrun. The vivid artwork, by New York cartoonist Nick Bertozzi, turns the novel into an almost cinematic experience for the reader. 

Why has a successful director and screenwriter − one of whose first screenplays became Clint Eastwood’s film “The Rookie” (1990) − chosen to publish a graphic novel set in Mandate-period Jerusalem?
“This project went through numberless incarnations,” Yakin tells me in an Upper West Side cafe, not far from the apartment he shares with his wife, the Tel Aviv-born Alma Har’el (director of the acclaimed 2011 documentary “Bombay Beach”). “I was born and raised in New York, but my parents grew up in Israel,” he relates. 

“They both left the country − before they met − in the 1950s in order to study under pantomimist Marcel Marceau in Paris,” he continues. “They met in Paris, fell in love, and later moved to New York. But it was important for them to give me and my brother a Zionist education, and both of us attended a Zionist yeshiva.
“I knew that my mother’s whole family perished in the Holocaust, but every summer we went to Israel to visit the family on my father’s side. At the beginning of the 1990s, I started to conduct a comprehensive study of my father’s family. They came to Palestine from Syria at the end of the 19th century and settled in Jerusalem’s Yemin Moshe neighborhood, before moving to Mahaneh Yehuda [then predominantly a lower-class neighborhood, now known for its open-air market].

...the screenplay of ‘Jerusalem’ lay on the shelf,” he says. “It was an ambitious script of 200 pages, and I was certain it would never see the light of day. But then Jordan Mechner, who developed the ‘Prince of Persia’ computer game, put me in touch with Mark Siegel, from First Second Books [which publishes graphic novels]. They persuaded me to turn the script into a book.”

...“Jerusalem” moves away from the tradition of comic-book heroes and draws inspiration from graphic novels that tackle historical traumas, notably Art Spiegelman’s acclaimed “Maus,” which deals with the Holocaust.

“Jerusalem” is a portrait of a city fighting for its identity in the period just before Israel’s establishment. It focuses on the members of the fictional Halaby family...Ezra, Avraham, Motti and David − cannot abide British rule in the Land of Israel and become rebels, each in his own way. Avraham, for example, believes in Jewish-Arab coexistence and maintains close relations with the residents of the village of Deir Yassin, on the western edge of Jerusalem. Ezra, for his part, becomes an underground fighter who has no qualms about hurting innocent people in his desperate quest for revenge. He takes an active part in the conquest of Deir Yassin, in April 1948. 

Ezra is, of course, Ezra Yakin,  His own memoir, Elnakam, appears in English, too.  That way, you can get to know the reality and truth.

...Were there people in your family who took part in the conquest of Deir Yassin, like the character of Ezra in the novel?
“I met people like that and I also interviewed them. I have two relatives who participated in the conquest of Deir Yassin, and I spoke with them before writing, but the character of Ezra is not based on any of those people. He is a fusion of people I spoke to, and of testimonies I read.” 

The depiction of the massacre at Deir Yassin is one of the most violent scenes in the book. Ezra and his comrades enter the village in the dead of night and, using loudspeakers hooked up to trucks, call on the villagers to flee to Ein Karem, which was then a Palestinian village situated in the valley below. In Yakin’s version of events, the Jewish fighters encounter shooting and unexpected resistance by the village’s inhabitants. 

Their hysterical response makes use of all the weapons at their command.They open fire, throw grenades and employ explosives. At the height of the attack, Ezra and his friend Biram run into three people from the village. Suddenly, a woman armed with a pistol leaps out of a dark corner and shoots Biram, killing him. Ezra, who has a shrapnel wound in his eye, shoots the woman. [the real Ezra loses an eye on the attack on the walls of Jerusalem]

In the next scene, Ezra’s brother, David, who has joined the Haganah (the official prestate force and the forerunner of the Israel Defense Forces), arrives from the Arab village of Kastel, outside Jerusalem. A British soldier tells him, “Looks like your bloody terrorists had themselves a jolly old time ... I hear it was a pretty little massacre.” 

Against the background of a drawing of a refugee convoy, David and others from the Haganah collect the bodies of the Deir Yassin villagers in a heap, pour fuel on them and set them afire. 

“This is not a history book,” Yakin emphasizes again when asked whether he had no qualms about presenting his own illustrated version of one of the most controversial events in the War of Independence. “Nor is it an autobiography or a memoir. I was not at Deir Yassin, of course. I realized from the outset that there are numberless versions of that event, mainly because it was used as propaganda by both sides. I knew that no matter what I did, I would never be able to please everyone. But in general, my book is about the loss of innocence, both of human beings as individuals and of Israel as a nation. It is about understanding that you cannot survive without getting your hands dirty. The story of Jerusalem, and the story of the Halaby family, is a story of survival. Numberless people − Jews and Arabs − were killed in the years that led up to the state’s establishment. As a creative artist, I am not trying to single out suspects and determine who is to blame. I want to translate these historical numbers into human stories and characters that people can identify with.”

...Some people will probably say that your novel is another addition to the “shooting and crying” genre − works that seek to identify with the side of the conqueror.
“I think that is a very cynical way to read ‘Jerusalem,’ and I don’t agree with it. I find the very term ‘shooting and crying’ problematic and cynical. If you shoot and don’t cry, you are not a human being. Furthermore, art – and literature in particular – is capable of forging a space for emotional outlet and for observing reality critically. I think directors such as Ari Folman and Joseph Cedar are the moral conscience of Israeli society, because they make it possible for society to cope with its past in a manner that is both emotional and complex. Israelis don’t have the privilege of making John Wayne-type Westerns where there are ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys.’ Violence exacts a steep price, and all the sides pay it. In any event, if my novel will be mentioned in the same breath as ‘Waltz with Bashir,’ I will regard that as a compliment.”

...The novel is packed with characters, events and information. Do you think American readers, or people who lack extensive knowledge about Israel’s history, will realize that what you are offering is one interpretation among many?
“From my point of view it is first of all a story, so what’s most important is for it to be interesting. When we decided to publish it as a book, I considered the possibility of adding footnotes of historical information. But I quickly realized that this would distract people from the reading experience. I also like the idea that readers feel a bit bewildered and helpless, just like the characters. The years that preceded Israel’s establishment were a turbulent period, in which every day brought new events. I wanted to recreate the feeling in which the onrush of events sweeps you up and you don’t have time to stop and figure out who’s against whom.”
Indeed, the reader sometimes feels a need to go back and reread in order not to lose his way amid the abundance of events and characters. Bertozzi’s vivid illustrations, in shades of black, white and gray, are able to transport the reader from a relaxed comic scene in which Motti, the youngest son of Izak Halaby, is memorizing Shakespearean monologues while working as a carpenter and installing sets in a local theater, to a scene in which Ezra hides weapons in the courtyard of the family’s home. I asked Yakin whether the character of Motti, who at the end of the novel becomes a Shakespearean actor, is based on his father. “Yes and no,” he replies. “Motti is a creative, very energetic youth, like my father was as a boy, and he too acted in a production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ But, like the other characters, he is a fictitious fusion of a few real people.”

...Did you also identify with Ezra, who murders quite a few people in the novel?
“Yes. When I started to work on the screenplay of ‘Jerusalem,’ it was largely in response to the education I received in an ultra-Zionist yeshiva in New York. My teacher was Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who later moved to Israel and became one of the founders of the settlement of Efrat. In retrospect, I realize that I grew up in a highly effective propaganda machine. When I look back today on things I thought and said at age 17, it is obvious to me that I was completely influenced by pressures of my surroundings. It took me a long time to develop independent thinking. I think that the Jews live within a mythic narrative, which also dominates the education system. It takes a long time before you can look at events critically and develop a perspective.
“Thinking mythically hinders critical observation and makes reality – which consists of nuances – shallow,” he continues. “Another problem with the Jewish myth is that it perpetuates the idea that everything that happened to the Jews is the result of external forces that are stronger than they are. But, as I said, reality is more complex and everyone is responsible for what happens to him, even if there are particular external circumstances. Each person brings something to the table, and in the encounter between cultures there is a collision between those things. We need to acknowledge what each side brings with, in internal conflicts and not only in those that are external.”

...Yakin’s “schizophrenic childhood” helped him become a sensitive screenwriter and author. In “Jerusalem,” he creates a world in which all the characters lead double lives. It’s a world of secrets and lies: you need to lie constantly in order to protect the family, and that need takes the form of silences, tensions and quarrels in which no one is able to express his true feelings. Asked whether the Halaby family recalls his own family, Yakin offers another ambivalent reply: “My family was always a subject of fascination for me. We are a group of people, each of whom has a different take on things, especially when it comes to Israel and to politics. But despite the differences, it was always clear that we are one family. There is a love that binds us all, and the same is true for the Halaby family. At the same time, it was important for me to describe a historical situation in which no one talked about what happened in real time. Everyone had to live with his own secrets, and you couldn’t talk about anything.”


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