Monday, May 31, 2010

Odeh Bisharat's reluctant hero

By Mitch Ginsburg

Israeli Arabs are the minority people of the eternal minority people. This is a strange, sometimes cruel and sometimes humorous place to find yourself. It is also, I think, some very fertile literary soil.

According to Odeh Bisharat, a first time novelist who was at Tmol Shilshom last Wednesday introducing his book, Bchutzot Zatounia, there are no more than ten novels published each year in Israel in Arabic. Those that are brought to print are self-published. But many writers that have sprouted from within that community, from Emil Habibi to Sayeed Kashua to Bisharat, share, what seems to me, a note of self deprecation and acerbity that sounds like the same note Yiddish writers used to hit.

Bisharat, an editorialist at al-Ittihad newspaper and former Secretary of the communist Hadash Party, spoke with Professor Moshe Ron, a former department head at the Hebrew University and current editor at Am Oved publishing house. The two sat on tall stools, before a disappointingly scant crowd. I counted eight people, including his wife. Which was too bad because he had a lot to say.

The soft-spoken and silver-haired Bisharat sent his novel in the mail to Ron, who looked at the obviously self printed copy and the Arabic text and wondered why this had arrived on his desk. No Arab-language novel written by an Israeli had been translated since the days of Emil Habibi a generation ago. (Kashua writes in Hebrew.)

Then he read the accompanying letter, in Hebrew, and was intrigued. The book is about Khaled el-Musli, a young, underachieving teacher who’s picked, by a devious and far more influential relative, to run for office in the Local Council of the fictional town of Zatounia. The plan is for him to lose, but he, and especially his ambitious wife, take the offer far too seriously, forcing the protagonist, over the course of the campaign, to deal with many of the not-so-fictional problems that riddle the town—entrenched nepotism, a feeling of victimhood, and a violent misogyny.

Obviously I write differently in Hebrew and in Arabic, Bisharat said. “In Hebrew, I write about your problems—prejudice, land theft, that type of thing—and in Arabic I write about ours.”

Ron gave the book to a young, Arabic-speaking friend, Daniel Bahar, who had written several articles on Arabic literature in Haaretz, and on his recommendation decided to bring this novel, which features not a single Jewish character, to the Israeli public.
But first he needed a translation. He gave the book to two different translators and found both of their work lacking. “So I called Odeh and I told him, you speak Hebrew well. Write this book for me in Hebrew as best you can and have faith in me that I’ll make it work.”

Judging by the parts Bisharat read aloud on Wednesday night, it does. The third person story has a fluid style and a satirical bite. Ron said many reviewers have compared Bisharat, style-wise, to the Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem.
I was not surprised.

Mitch Ginsburg is a graduate student in the Shaindy Rudoff Gratuate Creative Writing Program at Bar-Ilan University

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