At Home in Exile: An Interview with Shimon Ballas

This interview appeared in slightly different form in Keys to the Garden: New Israeli Writing, edited and translated by Ammiel Alcalay (San Francisco: City Lights, 1996).

Ammiel Alcalay: Starting with education, practically and in a wider sense, how were you formed as a writer?

Shimon Ballas: One has to go very far back, to early childhood. I was always attracted to writing. I connected it to stories told at home and I used to try and write them down for myself. I was always a little reticent to show them to anyone; I was scared of criticism. I was also very drawn to reading. In comparison to my friends at school, though, I actually read less. They swallowed books; I did too, but I would think about them and contemplate things more, I would write notes. By the third or fourth grade we read a lot of translations from French. Adventure stories, Arsene Lupin, Alexander Dumas. And also things like Les Miserables. Most of the translations were done in Egypt, from the 1920s to the 1940s, and most were of Romantic literature, but not always the best. That was our fare. And versions of 1001 Nights or La Fontaine for kids. I went to the Alliance Francaise, so by the fourth grade I could read French. But I didn't like the books they gave us—children's stories, or eighteenth century stories about aristocratic families.

AA: The question of a colonial language didn't seem to be so crucial in Iraq. When I think, for instance of things Etel Adnan has written about French in Lebanon, or things that Edmond Jabes has written about Egypt, it seems to me that you had the freedom to say "this is a bore, I'll go back to Arabic"—something that wasn't possible in places where the colonial language was more dominant.

SB: For someone like Jabes, French was also the language spoken at home; it was the primary language—he didn't have an Arabic option. For me, reading Arabic was a pleasure, the material available was a lot more interesting, a lot more exciting. When I was a little older, I could read literature that I liked in French. I read world literature in French, I read English literature in French. For example, the book that drew me to the Communist Party in quite a romantic way when I was fifteen was Jack London's Iron Heel, which I read in French, with all the footnotes. Though my source for world literature was French, I loved Arabic and it was the language I wrote in so the situation was quite different than under more extreme forms of colonial rule.

AA: When did you start reading modern Arab writers?

SB: At that age, I read more in Arabic translation. When I was twelve or thirteen, I discovered Gibran. I learned whole sections by heart, I would imitate him. I read everything including the books written in English and translated into Arabic. I also read Taha Hussein. Those were the two major Arab writers for me then. I wasn't particularly drawn to Tewfiq al-Haqim, for instance. But at the same time I was very drawn to the newspapers even though they were in a pretty sorry state then in Iraq. In terms of journalism, Iraq was a province of Egypt, whose dailies and weeklies came to us with their literary supplements and higher standards. I subscribed through one of the newsdealers. We had a deal where I would go twice a day to take the newspapers and magazines—since I didn't have enough money to buy them all—and read them quickly before bringing them back so he could resell them at a discount. From that I went on to more serious literature. My French had gotten better, so I could read more complex works. But Arabic was the only language in which reading was a real pleasure. For those of my generation, the state of modern Arabic prose—in terms of the novel and short story forms—was still in gestation. I think only the generation younger than me grew up on authentic Arabic literature. We didn't have that experience, we grew up much more on translated literature, there was always this orientation toward the West, that's where the influences were supposed to come from. I didn't get interested in writers like Naguib Mahfouz until later.

AA: What about the theater, the movies?

SB: I used to see several movies a day, going from cinema to cinema. I saw anything that came; inevitably this meant American films from Hollywood. I went to Arabic movies more for the music. There was a time when I wanted to be an actor. There was an Egyptian actor that I worshipped, Yusuf Wahbi, very theatrical, very exaggerated in his roles, and I would try to imitate him. I even signed up with a group of theater enthusiasts that started in Baghdad then, I must have been fourteen. But nothing came of it so I went back to what I felt more secure in, sitting in front of a piece of paper and writing. In the Alliance I wrote short stories which I still didn't show anyone, but I had two friends who also loved writing and we would discuss things together. My first novel was a detective story set in Baghdad. Then we lived in the old city of Baghdad in a small house and in the evenings I used to go out to the cafés and sit in a corner and write. That's where I wrote the novel. I also kept a diary which I would conclude every year with a notebook of memories so that I could assess what I had gone through in the previous year, judging it from more of a distance.

AA: From where do you think this need to write comes?

SB: I think it's simply the need for expression, to see yourself, to see yourself in relation to your surroundings, to recall your experiences, to give them some kind of value simply by putting them down on paper, as if they had happened to someone else even if no one ever reads of them. I burned all of that stuff before I left Iraq and I am extremely sorry about that; it was such a long period, the period of coming to maturity, the period in which a person is formed. Now I have to try and recollect everything and I can't remember. It's all gone, cut off, just this barrier left between myself and that time.

AA: When you finished the Alliance, did you think of going further in your studies?

SB: I wanted to go on studying literature, history, languages, but I was already in the Party at the age of sixteen. I'm from a family that, from an economic standpoint, was quite poor, but our social standing was middle class. A middle class that was very marginalized, very far from political involvement and very far, as well, from the day-to-day life of the poor, the kinds of neighborhoods that many Jews lived in. I grew up in the Christian Quarter, where Jews of a higher staus lived. In effect, I was cut off from two things: there was no political life and there was little contact with the lives of plain people.

AA: What was the role of Judaism in all of this? What kind of a Judaism do you remember from this period?

SB: The question of Judaism was very much a part of things, but not particularly so. My father was often away from home. He was a merchant with a shop in the south of Iraq, so he only came home to visit once a month for a few days or a week, so we grew up under my mother's wing. And when my father came home he went to synagogue on Friday night and Saturday morning, and often took us with him. But he did this because he was used to it, he went to the synagogue because that's what was done, to see his friends, to talk. At the Alliance there was only an hour of Hebrew, which wasn't counted in our final grade, so we didn't really give it much thought. When I came to Israel I barely knew the alphabet because after grade school even this hour of Hebrew wasn't given. Of course on the holidays, like Passover, we read the Haggadah and did everything we were supposed to do. But the question of Judaism or religion did not play a great role. Maybe this was because we didn't live in a Jewish neighborhood where there was a full Jewish life, and we were distanced from that kind of experience. In an odd way, I was really lacking traditional Jewish roots. As I said, what brought me to Communism was much more what I got through books, the romantic dreams, the romantic hero who stands for freedom, who stands up for things. I wrote about poor people, a porter carrying a huge load who fell and left his children fatherless, things like that. This is in the mid 1940s. The war years were very tempestuous, very fertile in Baghdad. After the failed coup of Rashid Ali, there was more freedom to be active in public—various parties got permits and the Communist Party also came out into the open and I was quite involved. I even had a short stint as a movie critic for one of the new papers, but I was always in search of a group where I could express myself, where I would find people with whom I could share knowledge and ideas. And it turned out that the connection came through a friend of mine from the Alliance. One day he told me that his brother had weekly meetings with a group of people where they discussed Marxism and all kinds of things. Baghdad developed to the south and there were real villas built there, primarily by Jews. And that's where they met. I just said, hey man, I'm dying for this kind of thing, do me a favor, get me in somehow. A few weeks later, everything was arranged but the first meeting was a disappointment. I was expecting them to invite me to one of those villas. Instead I was told to come to a café in one of the poor Shiite neighborhoods, with a sign on it saying "For Muslims Only." I got there, it was winter, the place was filled with smoke, people sitting around playing dominos and shesh-besh, and here I am carrying my books and a copy of al-Mukhtar, which still comes out, it's a selection of articles from Reader's Digest translated into Arabic! With my copy of al-Mukhtar—and I'm supposed to be some kind of an "intellectual"—we sat around the table, four or five people, all dressed very modestly, one was a shoemaker. They asked me some questions about my studies, about my reading. The secretary of the cell asked me to explain the difference between idealism and materialism. Materialism, I said, that's pretty simple—a materialistic person loves money and possessions while an idealist is someone who loves great ideals, very romantic. He listened and smiled a little saying, I see, you're explaining it from a poetic point of view. Who else can explain it? The shoemaker started in, explaining the difference replete with references to Marx and Hegel and here I was, the most highly "educated." I just felt like disappearing.

AA: As a child of what you have described as the somewhat marginalized but aspiring middle class, you discovered a different city made of different people through your political involvement in Baghdad. When you came to Israel and got involved with the Communist Party, what stood out for you?

SB: I remember meeting Meir Wilner, one of the leaders of the Party in the very first weeks after emigrating and he started asking me all kinds of questions about Syria, about the people, general information, because there had just been a coup d'etat there. This was a shock for me. I didn't understand what was going on. Here was a leader of the Party, for the first time in my life I was talking to a Party leader, a member of parliament, and he was asking me, a new immigrant from Iraq, the most trivial questions. It took me a long time to figure out that, essentially, I represented a different world altogether and this somehow always obligated me to explain something. No matter where I was when something happened in the Arab world, people would ask: What do you say about that, what's your opinion? This obligation pressured me into becoming informed so that I would be prepared to answer when people asked me, and that is how I found myself writing my first article in Hebrew about the religious leader Afghani and later on becoming the editor of Arab affairs for the communist newspaper Kol Ha'am. Again, it was reality that pushed me into fulfilling some sort of a function here, of serving as a connection to this world that was not only seen as being in a state of war and perpetual hostility but was totally and absolutely alien. And this includes everyone, not just the Zionist parties or the right but the Communist Party as well. I wrote a lot on Arabic literature and culture. I also did the anthology of Palestinian stories that came out in 1969. You begin to think that if you don't do these things then no one else will, so it becomes a role that you have to fulfill, a duty that you have to take upon yourself. And the fact is that I began writing about Palestinian literature. No one had heard of Ghassan Kanafani before my translations of his short stories. Emile Habiby was also unknown as a writer when I began writing about him. Although I left the Communist Party in 1961, my political positions remained unchanged and I continued to write on social and cultural issues.

AA: In the early 1970s you were in Paris; can you say something about that?

SB: Finally, here was the great dream coming true. It brought back memories of those days in Baghdad, just before I emigrated to Israel, when I was working as an aide to the Jewish senator Ezra Menahem Daniel. Just after making the arrangements to go to Israel, I was informed that I had been chosen for a scholarship that he had set up to study at the Sorbonne, but it was already too late. Instead of the Sorbonne, I ended up in a transit camp. This time, twenty years later, it was through a grant my wife had gotten. I was working as a correspondent for a number of Israeli papers and writing; doing anything at the Sorbonne was the farthest thing from my mind. Through a series of circumstances related to an article I was preparing, I did end up at the Sorbonne, where I presented my doctoral thesis; this became my book Arabic Literature Under the Shadow of War, which I wrote in French and later translated into Hebrew and Arabic. That was the start of my academic career. We go to Paris often and most of my books have been written there.

AA: Earlier you spoke about taking on certain roles, providing people with access into unknown areas. If we look at your books, in many ways each of them takes readers, particularly mainstream Israeli readers, into unknown and perhaps even unimaginable realms. At the same time, your work is curiously disconnected from the bulk of modern Hebrew literature.

SB: I think it was Ehud Ben Ezer who wrote that Last Winter did not depict Paris as an Israeli but as if a Parisian had written about exiles in Paris. This is also true for The Other One. A number of people commented that this book could have been written in Arabic by an Iraqi. The fact that it was in Hebrew was not particularly significant. Even though I am a Hebrew writer and I write in Hebrew, I am not affiliated with Hebrew literature.

AA: I almost see the different experiences you represent in your books as filling various pockets of empty space that exist in the Israeli imagination, or as if you were building a counternarrative alongside those pockets of empty space, as an alternative. The question of language and ideology has only come to the forefront in Israeli literature relatively recently through the work of Anton Shammas, the idea that Hebrew is simply a language that can be used by anyone who happens to be using it. But I think this has been implicit in all your work, the use of language as a tool that is simply a tool, without mystification.

SB: And without the Judeocentrism that has characterized Hebrew literature. I also feel this but it is very difficult to pin down. I think that for me the transition to another language is crucial, the use of language as a means. Yet language is not only a tool, language is also part of the personality. That's what makes this transition so difficult: you have to literally reconstruct yourself, you recreate yourself through a borrowed language.

AA: But your Hebrew, in its semantic structure and content, doesn't carry all the baggage of people raised within the context of Zionist ideology. This is one of the reasons why your work isn't very well understood. People immersed in this context have no real way of assessing what you do since what you are doing isn't really within their consciousness as a possibility nor would it be considered particularly desirable as something to strive for or even think about.

SB: Now we've really put our finger on it, this takes us into the realm of ideology, ideology as a world view, of Judaism, of Israel, of Hebrew, and the total identity between Hebrew and the Jews. I'm a Jew by chance, it doesn't play that much of a role with me. Zionist ideology is essentially an Ashkenazi ideology that developed in a different culture, in different surroundings, in a different world and which came to claim its stake here in the Middle East through alienation and hostility toward the surroundings, with a rejection of the surroundings, with no acceptance of the environment. I don't accept any of this, this is all very different from what I am. I am not in conflict with the environment, I came from the Arab environment and I remain in constant colloquy with the Arab environment. I also didn't change my environment. I just moved from one place to another within it. The whole project of a nationalist conception, of Zionist ideology, of the Jewish point of view, the bonds between Jews in the diaspora and Israel, all of this is quite marginal for me and doesn't play a major role, it's not part of my cultural world. I am not in dialogue with the nationalistic or Zionist point of view, nor am I in dialogue with Hebrew literature. I am not conducting a dialogue with them. If anything, I am in dialogue with language itself. On the one hand, I am trying to fend off, avoid or neutralize ideological connections or associations within the language. On the other hand, I think that I am probably trying to bring my Hebrew closer and closer to Arabic. This isn't done through syntax, but maybe through some sense of structure or way of approaching things. It is very abstract and I don't do it in a way that is completely conscious either. That's the problem, and it is extremely difficult to describe or quantify.

AA: If you take your books and put them next to the work of Yusuf Idris or Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, for example, they make a lot more sense than if you put them next to Amos Oz or A.B. Yehoshua. Maybe this is natural, something that derives from your education, from your background, which is what we started with.

SB: My education and also the process of transition into Hebrew. I didn't search for influences, they simply didn't interest me, because I already had all the tools for writing itself. I just wanted to understand the language. So I went to the sources, the bible and The Mishnah , all I needed were the means, that is, the language.

AA: Maybe the literary establishment is simply doing to you what you've been doing to it, rejecting it. They're as uninterested in you as you are in them.

SB: The question is more complex. If the literary establishment rejects me, this simply serves as evidence that such a structure is unable to comprehend or accept a writer that does not meet its assumptions. That's the literary establishment's problem and not mine. A writer, as far as I am concerned, must remain faithful to himself and to his work and not make compromises in order to be accepted as part of the prevailing consensus.

AA: Do you think that what you are doing has implications for younger people, for other writers who also feel that something is not quite so "kosher" here?

SB: That's hard to say, certainly there are younger writers who find themselves in conflict with this establishment, but there is a difference and that is the difference in age and personal experience. They grew up here and studied Bialik and so on and so forth and all of this has already been completely internalized. This is not the case with me. I came from a different world and I never denied that world. I still see myself as part of that world while at the same time being deeply involved with life in Israel. I just moved from Arabic to Hebrew; that makes me define my connection to Hebrew literature as a connection between place and language.

AA: You are an Israeli Hebrew writer who, on the one hand, feels very connected to the place, to the language, to the necessity of conveying things to readers; you have also made a great commitment to providing an alternative in Hebrew and Israeli culture—through your writing, translations, and academic work. Yet, on the other hand, you are completely ignored as an integral part of all of this and are constantly referred to as some kind of Iraqi or Baghdadi, as a representative of something not defined in your own terms. How do you feel about this, does it bother you?

SB: To say that it doesn't bother me would be an outright lie. Of course it bothers me, but again I would explain this through the literary establishment's lack of preparedness and lack of ability to open itself up to works that do not meet their expectations. It is much more convenient for this mainstream establishment to refer to my work as the work of an "Oriental Jew." In other words, work that belongs on the margins, beyond the mainstream. This, however, absolves them of having to contend with my work on its own terms. I think that by operating in this way, a great disservice is done not only to the state of literary criticism itself—even as practiced by mainstream critics—but to the state of Hebrew literature. As for myself, I haven't compromised myself, nor do I intend to in order to make it easier for this literary establishment to accept me. It is not for them that I write.