Religion and Literature in Jerusalem

February 23, 2009 by

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This week I had the opportunity to hear six famous authors discuss their views on religion and literature in Jerusalem. As part of the 24th Jerusalem International Book Fair, a biannual festival that brings together authors, editors, and agents from around the world, Jerusalem-based literary agent Deborah Harris organized a literary encounter of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim writers at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute for Theological Studies. The event, which lasted for three hours on a Tuesday afternoon, was moderated by Dr. Michael Neumann, a professor of political science at Humboldt University in Berlin. Neumann began by introducing the six participating writers: Italian novelist Eri Deluca, Israeli novelist and TV show host Dov Elbaum, American novelist Mary Gordon, Israeli novelist Michal Govrin, Israeli-Arab novelist and newspaper columnist Sayed Kashua, and Afghan author Atiq Rahimi. Below are some of the comments they shared as part of a discussion about the role of religion in the creation of literature, and the influence of literary culture on religious conflict.

Dov Elboim: When I was in yeshiva, I used to write poems in Hebrew and put them in my Talmud. My teacher brought them to the head of the Yeshiva, who was appalled. It was too personal, too individual – they did not know what to make of it.

Eri de Luca: For me it was important to be able to argue with God. When you argue with God, he is at least for that moment on your level.

Atiq Rahimi: In Afghanistan, we read the Koran without translating it, which is where all the problems of my country come from.

Michal Govrin: Growing up in Israel, we have the cadences of ancient texts in our ears. Even the names of our wars come from the Bible. For me, the only way I can pray is through writing. This is the only way that I can say that I am here.

Mary Gordon: When I was growing up [in a Catholic household], we were not allowed to read the Bible, just to hear it. And so it is not the Bible but prayers that speak to me when I am writing. I think of the various names for Mary, and the repetition of a highly poetic incantatory language.

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Sayed Kashua: One of the figures that speaks to me is Iblis, the Muslim notion of the devil. He is there and everywhere, and we are talking with him all the time, because he is always trying to tempt you. The devil tries to convince you to do awful things, and people like me listen.

Mary Gordon: I think that so much Christian literature involves conversations with the devil because the presence of God incarnated makes despair that much more cutting. If the God who abandons you also experienced what you are experiencing, then the abandonment is that much more painful. If you give God a face, then evil also will have a face – and that is the devil.

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Mary Gordon: I think it is important that we realize that not all senses of the mystical are religious. You can be imaginative and attuned without being religious. George Eliot wasn’t religious – she was a visionary, and she had a great sense of the richness and mysteriousness of the world. It is honorable to say, “There is something I don’t understand but I won’t bend my knee to it.”

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Sayed Kashua: I have to say, I believe in God much more after the Israeli election, because only God can help us now. I’m not sure He’s there, but I am terrified of Him.

Dov Elboim: The recent Israeli elections disgust me. No one has any vision.

Michal Govrin: We have to realize that what we have here in Israel is not a political conflict but a religious one. Three religions hold God by the beard and say, “This is our God and not yours.” Maybe it is this singularity and exclusivity that is the problem. If in Israel we had understood what the Sabbath means, we might know what it means to stop advancing once in a while and to stop and take stock.

Sayed Kashua: I disagree with Michal. This conflict has turned from a religious one to a national one. It is about land, money, and people who don’t want to share power – not religion. You can find anything in the Koran – the question is what you are looking for. Give me enough money and I will convince people to translate the Bible and the Koran differently.

Michael Naumann: Isaiah Berlin had a great phrase: “Here there is too much history, and too little geography.”

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